Soon after I returned from Montana, I got an invitation from Gwen. Her rented sheep pasture situation had become more restricted, so I couldn't go there to practice, and the herding facility where we sometimes met up had also become unusable, so I hadn't seen her for quite awhile. She had acquired a talented, biddable Aussie pup and was doing very well with him in California ASCA trials in his debut season, which I was very glad to hear about. It's always nice when your friends are successful, especially when they have worked long and hard to get there.
In search of opportunities to train on cattle, she had approached a nearby rancher who had a rodeo event center on his place. Turned out he was more than open to having a few stockdoggers work his cattle in the rodeo arena when there was nothing else going on.
Gwen was trying to gather a small group who might be interested in participating. Well, I sure was, so I brought Ty up there to see what might transpire. Ty and I were certainly the greenest pair there. There were novice dogs with experienced handlers, yes, but nobody who knew less about cattle than me. Still, Ty is a powerful guy, lives to please me, and was bred to be a cowdog, all of which gave me some confidence. My job was to figure out how to communicate to him what I wanted. And that was indeed a struggle.
This was the first time I had ever worked cattle with Ty without an experienced trainer at my elbow, and of course, I could still count the times Ty had worked cattle period, without running out of fingers and toes. The facility itself was irreproachable; a spacious, well-built, sanded arena and generous round pen, oiled gate latches, solid panels between the sorting pens and the arena, nothing sagging or patched-together anywhere, plus two elevated viewing platforms with shade canopies, a P.A.system . . . it was plush.
Ty and I were not so plush. To begin with, the cows were not at all used to being worked by a dog. They were extremely sensitive to human body movement, even at quite a distance, but dogs, not so much. I had an enormously difficult time not getting in my dog's way. And Ty got more and more confused, as I tried to make him 'steady' and stay behind when the cattle got nervous and began to go faster and faster. He wanted to head them, but he was coming in way too flat and then he was either only stopping one or two, or not really stopping them at all. A roping arena is a real big arena.
Although Betty Williams had emphasized the importance of getting the cattle off the fence as soon as may be, we could barely manage to calmly move the cattle ON the fence. With the help of more experienced people, we did manage to have some success. But I was still frustrated with my inability to figure out how to stop messing my dog up.
What I was happy with was the sense that we had the possibility of an actual little cattle-practice group, within a not-unreasonable driving distance of my house. There were folks from various trialing and working backgrounds with various breeds of dogs, who all shared a desire to help each other succeed, and had enough collective knowledge to contribute to each other. It was a remarkably amicable, supportive, accepting group of people serious about training, but apparently not so interested in the various hierarchies and divisions that such groups are prey to developing.
The facility was so nice that we immediately started fantasizing about trials and clinics, perhaps bringing down some sheep for a practice day, and so forth. I mean, when have I ever been to a trial with a P.A. system? Gwen and I even talked later about a stockdog group centered on this facility. Maybe we would call it the Stockdoggers Mutual Support Society (S.M.S.S., pronounced "smiss").
Ty and I came back the next weekend that was available. I decided to start with the ABC's this time. I went out into the 100' round pen without my dog, and spent some time figuring out where the flight zone was for these cows. I remembered Kaye Harris saying, "when the cows are looking at you, you are in the flight zone." These cows would change direction or stop with a half step from me, or even just a very direct stare, from about thirty feet away. I figured the farther away I could get from both my dog and the cows, the easier it would be for me to avoid moving the cows by mistake, and confusing my dog.
So, I fetched Ty. With help from yet another supportive experienced cowdogger, I started to be able to find the right place to be, to encourage my dog when he was doing well, and I began to see Ty understanding grow. I realized that trying to force him to walk or even stop when the cows were trotting away wasn't helping at all. First of all, I was fighting his natural instinct to stay in contact with his stock. Nor did it help steady up the cows, the way it could have if they had been, for example, sheep. Letting them run out of steam while Ty kept up with them without pushing, worked a whole lot better for everybody. Their flight zone for dogs was about two feet. He didn't need to give them space, only I did.
I stayed as far away as I could, unless I saw that Ty needed more clarity about where I wanted him to put pressure — then I moved towards him to support and direct him, while staying focused on the cows. That also seemed to help him understand what I wanted. I had learned on sheep that if you want your dog to stop looking at you instead of the stock — which Ty was doing a lot with the cows — just start watching the stock instead of watching your dog.
I saw how, if I got just a hair in front of the shoulder of the lead cow, she would stop and stare at me, which made my dog's work a lot harder.
Eventually, when Ty was comfortable driving along the fenceline, I was able to start setting up wide flanks to head, on the fence. I wanted to be sure Ty got into the habit from the start, of getting all the way in front of the cattle before he confronted them. I'd seen too many dogs running alongside cattle trying fruitlessly to stop them. Like most young dogs, Ty enjoys stopping cows, and it is easy to overdo this. It was sort of herky-jerky but he was beginning to get the hang as I improved my timing and got my pressure more precise. And at the end of the second (and last) practice session, we got them off the fence and Ty was calmly driving them in the open. Good boy! I went home well pleased with our progress, and with my good dog, and with the prospect of more possibilities of a practice community.