Derek Has Songs, I Have Outbursts

“I have urgency to my whistles, you have annoyance.” Derek John Fisher

Yesterday I went to the cold windy desert with Derek to work dogs.  This is a standard thing for us lately. We call it Taco Tuesday because usually the day ends thusly.  I’m really a fan of a well-made taco.  Like my whistling, this last bit of information has no real point.

My whistles have long been a snag in my training and trialing experience.  I’ve gone from sucking like a shop vac to blowing like a 10 dollar whore. (Neither, by the way, are considered an asset in sheepdog work).
Especially when I’m stressed, the sounds that come out of my efforts are …like trying to decipher outer space radio static into a ‘Hello, Earthlings! We’re looking forward to Intergalactic Friendship…and maybe some of those Jimmy Dean Pork Pancakes on a Stick…’

A few years ago Lavon suggested that I whistle in the car on my commute to and from work; really refine the noise that I was making into something that a dog could understand.  I worked at it and I got somewhat better in articulating different tones.  I communicated with the eloquence of a bear asking for donuts.

Unlike with bears, It’s not just about a basic demand – whistling is layered, nuanced – communicating several things at one time with tone, volume and tempo. The tones are just one part of a sophisticated (hopefully) whole; the way you express those tones can be crude or eloquent.  Of course this is obvious as information, but in practice. HOLY SHIT.

I do like donuts.

My whistles tend to be as effective as a tourette’s rant,


I knew this years ago, even after the rudimentary improvement, and I know this now, but it just feels too basic to be The Big Problem. I want to work on ADVANCED PROBLEMS….(says my ego, eating a donut).

“THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM! If I ask you to do something, and you are doing it not quite right – which would you respond to better – me clarifying my instructions or me yelling at you in a voice full of derision or disappointment?”

“Uh…”  I was trying to decide under which category waving a taco and nodding might fall.

“No one likes to be yelled at.  You don’t encourage good work by being a dick, especially with the dogs that we are breeding these days….”

He suggested that I try encouraging Jai when she’s right and really trying to stay away from correction,

“Lay her down if you have to, but keep things moving if you can, and keep things calm.”

At one point my whistle and I were clogged,  floundering on the floor of the desert.  Jai was hundreds of yards away and Derek started whistling her around.  She took every whistle smoothly and precisely.  She went from zig zagging and hesitantly trying a flank, to decisively moving and even moderating her speed.  It was night and day from moments before- his clarity – his instruction delivered clearly and in enough detail helped her to relax and do her job.  Her confidence was instantly drastically improved.

He also suggested that I concentrate on whistling from my diaphragm instead of my stomach, which initially confused and embarrassed me.

“You know, when I first started out, I took voice lessons,” Derek told me. “I knew it was that important to have range and depth.”

He was wearing a plaid wool jumpsuit, so I was not surprised.  I was relieved.

The Bizness of Ambition

“What we hope for and wish for equate to fantasy; but what we strive for and we work for is our ambition.” – Derek John Fisher

“It’s too cold to work dogs. Have some more spiced wine and let’s talk about what it’s going to take for Biz to win Nursery this year.” – Katy Madrid

I worked dogs with DJF yesterday in a big mint field next to my house. It was just like those double mint commercials with hot twins ….only Derek chewed my ass instead of gum and I chewed Biz’s. The focus was virtually never on our perpetual gleaming smiles. Still, other than that – we did double our fun and Derek and I are built similarly these days.

I have not been working Biz, except here and there; worrying that I wasn’t helping her…because, other than opening gates, I wasn’t. Again, with training dogs, I tend to default to how I raised my children – lots and lots of slack, some suggestions….and the occasional outburst of temper over something trivial.

Biz has a nice natural outrun, but can be too wide or, if the sheep take off before she gets to her comfort zone, or fail to move reasonably – she’ll rush into them and then orbit wide after scattering their nappy asses assunder. I then chase after her, shouting obscenities until I fall into a hole and cry or she downs herself back on balance. We usually disagree on the Lie Down place and time.

Derek: “Don’t ever make her lie down unless she’s at balance. Balance is the fuel that feeds the engine. If you insist that she lie down off balance, she will stop trusting you.”

Now, this is something that I *know*, that I have LONG known…but that I seem to forget with Biz. One of us being on the ground seems to be the point of both of us being out there.

Derek: “With Biz it’s really important that you make sure she knows you are boss – because, really, you and she trade places being Lead Bitch. And I suspect you only take the role on while she’s sleeping…”
(I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly).

It’s true. Biz treats me like a peer, at best. A beloved wench. I think she assumes that I was hired into my position and, from what she’s seen, she is glad that she has me and  not some of the other Kibble Distributors and Gate Openers she’s met. She’s happy to bring me sheep because I seem to want to share the experience with her, but I should take up a stringed instrument, maybe, or throw a ball for the less talented beasts while she does her thing.  I’m just not that necessary.

Derek: “You need to make your point with her, make her respect you, but give back quickly because Biz’s big asset is her Attitude.”

Biz loves to work. She likes to get started without me. She waits for as long as she feels is fair and then starts creeping in a sheepward direction.

Derek: “Tell her to lie down!”
Derek: “She isn’t lying down. Make her Lie Down and show her you mean it.”

When Biz feels corrected, her big ears go lateral to her head. It’s a really funny look, but easy to read. It took me putting her back to where she started a couple of times, strongly, but she got the point.

Really, once I enforced her Lie Down and Stay There Until I Say Different, it all became so nice so quickly. Her outrun became less hesitant and more in contact and she stopped when I told her, most times. Because I remembered to be right, most times.

Biz is probably the only dog on the planet whom I could hope to train without a complete intervention. She is very smart and she loves to be right. I love her Attitude.  She also loves to work. I love to work too, but sometimes I’m more comfortable with fantasy.

Night Moves

I work Jai at night.  It wasn’t a plan at first, but it’s just worked out that way and I like it.  Before bed; before the neighbor’s start shooting toward the incessant barking that is my young great pyrenees, Inez, I have to move the sheep from the field to the night pen.  The night pen has a water tank that doesn’t freeze – just like Inez’s larynx and her incessant lust for sheep tag.

Working Jai at night isn’t radically different from working her in the day, technically.  The difference, in fact, is mostly in my head. It’s not a routine yet so I enjoy it more.  Because it’s later at night, I’m quiet, which Jai likes.  Also the dark means I have to use more than just my sense of sight and WTF… I have to be more aware in general.  Even just adding that I have to LISTEN for the sheep and their pace seems to make me process more carefully and fully. I’m not doing big outruns at night; it’s close enough that I can make a correction and run up the small field, if necessary.

As stated before, I’ve struggled to stay engaged in working my dogs lately.
This night work suits me in many ways right now, though I haven’t tried it with Biz yet.  I will soon with Biz, I think she will like it and it will suit her.

Duke…does not need the cover of darkness.  He IS the cover of darkness.
I worked Duke on Sunday and he dragged me 10 yards through sheep shit.  It would have been further, but his long line finally caught on something larger than me and my GODDAMN IT LIE DOWN.  He isn’t a fan of the Away.  He tends to take it part way and with his mouth open in anticipation.  His come by is usually nice.
Sometimes I think Duke believes, like most men in my geographic area, that with my skills and timing, I belong in the kitchen, where recipes can be read and timers can be SET.  Where a bitch can stay WARM and use her THUMBS to their best advantage.  Or maybe that’s me thinking that, laying in a trail of green slush.

Regardless, Duke’s getting to be a big dog. If I don’t anticipate the moment when his training bond with me has fractured and it’s all about the sheep….bad things unfold. He wants to be good, but I’m worried I’m not helping him.  Happily he’s young and I, in so many ways, am flexible. dukenbizJPG

Back to the Future

Years ago, when I took up snow sports because all my friends were, of course, accomplished snow boarders and could ski backwards holding chainsaws, I was given two solid pieces of advice:

!) Take lessons – you will learn the right habits up front and not have to relearn over bad habits.

2) Don’t ever wear that weird looking snow suit my friend Cindy gave me one year for Xmas, the one she purchased in a thrift shop that looked like something aliens would wear to visit earth for the first time in the 50s.

I didn’t take lessons because I have always tended to believe that I. Know. Best.  Especially with physical stuff.  I can FEEL what’s right.  My technique in skiing and snow boarding is to hurl myself down hill and when I need to stop – throw myself at the softest place in view and roll like a motherfucker.  I am really good at falling from my earlier years learning to ride a horse, and later mountain biking.  Falling is a BIG part of my sports technique.  Or my technique in general.  I’m good at scoping ahead for a nice place to land. Generally.

And I wore that space suit everywhere for years.  It was not only the warmest thing ever, it’s hideousness cleared a path for falling.   People would part like a sea of OMG and stare in fascination as I careened past.  It didn’t take a snow genius to figure out Planet 9 hadn’t sent an Olympic hopeful.  Instinct told even the beginners, and pets on trail, that standing still and making yourself small was the only hope for not being involved in whatever ultimate tragedy inertia had in store for Suzy Spacesuit.

So for years a big part of my strategy in life has been ignoring the basics and counting on some point in the future to help me come to a soft conclusion.  I have never cared about the BEAUTY of how I got there, or that no one wanted to share a lift.

Thus, I haven’t been regular about working my dogs lately.  I’ve been uncharacteristically reticent to f*ck them up.  The beauty behind getting to the conclusion is key to everything in this sport and I understand that.  Biz and Duke are young and just learning the basics, especially Duke.  Jai and I needed time off.  I wish it were more about me hurling myself at the post and then eventually falling my way off the field, but it involves OTHERS, so that throws me off my game.  Or it has.

But I have these dogs to work and trial.  I bought this place so I could have sheep for them. I’ve moved to a land where the nearest decent cocktail is so far away, I might as well have gone back to Planet 9.

I don’t actually CARE, thank god, about winning a trial.  I only really care about what I have ever really cared about – the communication, the subtlety, the beauty in these dogs doing what they do.

SO: it won’t be pretty, but we’re going to do what we can do.  I’m reading and watching videos.  I will go to clinics,  get help when we can from friends, and have fun with my dogs on sheep.

I wish I could find the Suit, because it’s colder than an arctic fuck out there.

Months of This

It’s that time of the year when all Jai and I want to do is lay on the couch underneath heavy blankets, with a fire in the background, and wish she knew how to cook dinner.

When I say ‘cook’, I mean open packaging. I’m letting my stove biodegrade into mouse habitat, as nature intended.  Cooking is for people with families who have expectations beyond kibble.  My family is on all fours these days.  Their expectations are more When, not What. They will eat anything. Really. It’s disheartening to buy expensive treats only to watch the gusto with which Biz consumes coyote shit.

I WISH I had raised my children on a kibble, by the way.  I mean a high quality crunchy pellet – not Old Roy or anything.  They should make a kibble for kids. Kiddle. Taste of the Wild, maybe, featuring a feral looking toddler, crashing through the brush to get at a bowl of brown nougats that claim to include bison, carrots and …peanut butter? Or Duck, Sweet Potato and Ice Cream.
A complete meal. In a bag. As I like.

That’s the stuff I think about on the couch with Jai.

Biz and Duke want to be worked.  I need to run. It’s snowing,

I can hardly wait until June.

Duke and Biz

Yesterday I worked Duke and Biz at DDs. She has better sheep for us. She has advice. My sheep are better suited for baiting coyotes. Or practicing your publicly decreed “GODDAMNIT”s. My own advice tends toward, “Let’s save our Goddamnits for the spring…”

Biz out of the box came with a nice wide outrun. It took very little from me to make her outrun longer and prettier. She likes to stay wide, often too wide; or she flies in and busts through the sheep. I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security because of her beautiful big outruns and that she is a fast learner…but now that I’m starting to try and put a drive on her, it is obvious that like me, she has no flanks. That’s our challenge now – putting flanks on her and helping her learn that she can work at the proper distance and be comfortable. I should say that, in my office at work, I am exactly the same way. I send email. I approach a meeting like Biz approaches her sheep. I don’t like subtle adjustments. I wish Biz and I shared an office. I’d make her go to all the meetings…

Duke – you can’t hurt his feelings, which is nice, BUT he also DOES CARE about what you think of him. So, he takes corrections, but he doesn’t lose heart. I love this. I have never had this (in a sane dog). Every time I work him he is better. He is so young, I figure it’s only a matter of some confidence and additional time before he is harder for me to train. I started out deeply afraid of him. I like sensitive dogs because I don’t tend to have much of a bubble and would prefer not to spend my training time ramping up corrections, or crying, or both, usually. Duke, not being an especially sensitive dog, worried me. Initially, though Lavon was able to get him to flank both sides, because of his timing and bubble – he was naturally mostly just a sheep chasing machine. It required timing to even insert oneself into his very rapid sphere of influence. As I’ve said, timing for me is more geologic.

Duke is not sensitive, but he does like approval. There is a moment at the end of his training, when you have to break his eye contact with the sheep and say, “DUKE! That’ll do!” …he doesn’t want to let go, but he does. And he is a good boy. He knows it. I love that moment.


“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

I’m sure the punchline is in this dude’s last name.

I am not a farmer and my cultivation of perfection is limited to things I can do without getting John Deere involved.  The only reason I was posessed by rural seed-mongering demons to even consider owning 11 acres was the random delusional thought of, “That’s where I’ll put my sheep! How happy and productive we’ll be!” alternated with, “That’s 11 acres between my “GODDAMN IT, LIE THE FUCK DOWN” and the next neighbor…which isn’t precisely true, since I have a tiny neighbor dwelling across the canal.  He has 100 ferel cats and some chickens. He seems, so far, immune to my screaming. I have the cats to thank for that.  And Inez, my Great Pyr, who barks incessantly at them.

The reality is: I have 11 acres that promises itself to weeds and burrs tall enough to eat my 6 bitter sheep if I don’t find someone to farm it by next spring.  This is not as easy, this quest for Perfection and maybe a few ton of Alfalfa,  as ole M. Fukuoka makes it sound. No one wants to farm my shitty 11 acres.  11 acres is just enough to fit a tractor on, but not worth the trouble of doing so, apparently. 11 acres is more suited to the sort of cultivation of perfection that might include abandoned automobiles and goats.

Because I seek all my wisdom from The Google, I typed in “Eleven Acres” to see what wisdom would spring forth.  Results: U-Pick Fruits and Vegetable Farm (Spokane, WA).
Fukuoka, Google.  Aside from the limitations this puts on my ever using the field for anything other than encouraging PICKING by OTHERS at the EXPENSE OF MY AND MY DOG’S PERFECTION (except Scout, who might thrive under this scenario), the thought of all that actual FARMING makes my inner food groups turn on eachother and scream ONLY MEAT!!
I planted a garden this year and with the happy exception of a bounty of tomatoes, rising above the sea of weeds, the rest is a huge rotting FUKUOKA, PLANTSTRESS, YOU AND YOUR 20 pound Cucumber!

I take my perfection in 2-3 hour doses.  Then I like repose.  I’m an immediate gratification person.  If I have to wait for something, It will lose value until it’s only real redemption is compost or an illustrative example of something I’ll never try again.
I’ll probably have a garden again next year.  I’m looking into which weeds you can eat.
And which are suitable for U-Pick.

Start, Drive, Neutral, and WTF

This weekend I, with DDs help, started Duke.  He’s only nearly 8 months, but he seems ready.  He has been breaking out of the yard and joining me in my big pasture when I work the other dogs.  He isn’t insane about it, like a puppy; he usually goes around and, with some fierce reluctance, will call off.

I’ve been afraid of opening this door formally for Duke. Like approaching that suspicious unattended, yet attractive package at the airport. Sure, it could be full of cash or cool clothes in my size— or it could be motherfucking snakes. One thing I am NOT: A puppy trainer. Biz is easy, and she is training us both. Duke has more….velocity.

Long story short, he was very good. The second day even better.

DD thinks I should be working him regularly, so that is the plan.  He doesn’t really have a stand, or lie down – he prefers to sit, if anything – a nice compromise, sort of dashing even – but, style points aside,  he takes correction and he really really really wants to work.  He had been on sheep a few times in the last couple of months, and was always very interested, but fast and focused on the moving wool to the exclusion of much else. He required precision timing…instead of the sort that comes with a sun dial, which is what I have.  Now Duke seems to be actually working and letting someone help him figure it out.  On or off the field, I couldn’t like Duke more.  I’m sure within the next few months he will scare the living shit out of me and be the source of much crying and cussing, but so was my new industrial strength weed whacker, and that turned out okay. I’m also certain in the end Duke will be completely different from my other dogs in a really fun way.

I’m teaching (ha) Biz to drive by taking my current 6 crazed sheep across the lane into a big mint field. I’m hoping the combination of large unfamiliar ground, coupled with mint being a popular ingredient to serve with lamb, will keep their pace more moderate and unsure, this giving Biz a chance to feel them and appreciate driving the way she really values an outrun and endless fetch. So far, so good. If not, I’ll add garlic and some wine.  I may anyway.

Jai and I are building confidence.  We watch movies together and snuggle.  We run longer distances in prettier places.  We do happy work in the pasture where everything is Ok and corrections are for lenses, not dogs.   Jai takes on my emotions and the last year there have been too many for a sensitive border collie to absorb without gripping something.  I envy her that outlet, sarcasm and wine don’t cut it like a good pair of canines.  I also envy her ceaseless optimism and ability to eat an entire plate of cookies in the time it takes me to shut a cupboard not 15 feet away and still keep her girlish figure.

Scout continues to wish she had her dead mother stuffed in the attic.  Or that I’d let her work the chickens more.  We compromise by me never looking under the bed in her room.

Pup Dates

It’s hard to write about working my dogs when I’m….actually not.  I have a 10 acre pasture full of tumble weed, a dog who is seemingly so sensitive that if she had thumbs and a thesaurus she’d probably be the worst poet since the fifth Bronte sister no one ever talks about – Midge Bronte – a psychotic fleabag who loved unwisely and constantly,  and was so full of worms that she scooted across all the best carpets in London during The Season, always requesting the same waltz because it soothed her “stinky third eye”….  She rhymed easy syllables and was always really shittily sarcastic about including the word ‘Wuthering’ ..which she claimed to have coined in reference to her sister’s bad flatuence.
She didn’t really exist, except in my head.

Biz is coming along or dragging me along, more correctly.  Someday she will trial.  If she ever learns to drive. Right now we don’t see eye-to-eye on the importance.  It’s enough to outrun perfectly, lift nicely and fetch the shit out of those pellet dispensers.  Then it’s time for a swim.

Duke…ahhhhh…Duke.  He’s going to need someone bigger than me.  Or I haven’t ruled out a gorilla suit.  I don’t think there is even a USBCHA ‘guideline’ against it.

I don’t know when my next trial is. Probably when I have a dog who will compete and not merely run.  When I feel competent enough to help her/him.  Fortunately the women in my family tend to live long lives…