Saturday, September 28, 2013

Market Research

About 8 years ago, I started an experiment at my Farmer's Market booth. When I settled on my current popular salad green/herb display--"mix 'n' match, $10/lb., as little or as much as you want, take what you like and leave the rest"--I soon realized that often folks just wanted a few herbs, which didn't even register on the scale. So I started the "$1.00 for a small bag, whatever herbs you want to put in it."

It's been very popular, and enlightening as well. People love not having to buy more than they will use, and being able to get just the fresh herbs they need for the recipe du jour. They love not being forced to waste food. Often they are happier with one fragrant sprig than they would be with a larger package, because they don't want to waste.

There are also always a few who make their pesto (because this usually happens during basil season) in the small bag, cramming in the tender herbs until the juices run. I don't weigh the bags, but I'm sure I've seen $3 worth (by weight) of herbs in a $1 bag.

And then there are the "regulars" who put twice their usual amount of herbs in the bag, and give me $2, even though they are still only getting a few snippets of this and that. Even though I still smile and say, "That'll be $1." They know what it's worth to them. It's twice their usual.

From time to time, someone new to my booth comments on my little experiment. "Don't people take advantage of that?" No, not really. For every pesto-maker, there are many sprig-takers. It all averages out...and overall, I make more money on the herbs this way that if I sold them by weight or by pre-measured bunches.

It's a good deal for everyone...people get what they want, they essentially choose their price, they take only what they can use, and I don't have to pre-weigh/pre-bag/label/etc.

Green onions are another long-time experiment. It used to be, there just wasn't much demand for them. I bunched them in rubber bands like the store, and then took them home and took off the rubber bands to throw them in the compost (before Just Food). Eventually I got frustrated with the wasted effort and just laid them on the table in loose bunches. Figuring out how big to make bunches of anything can be a pain in the neck when the items vary in size both within the day's offering and from week to week. Every bunch required at least some small mental activity to decide what was in that particular bunch.

One day I didn't separate them into bunches. "You get to pick your own bunch," I told the customers. "How big is a bunch?"they asked. "You know how big a bunch of green onions in the store," I replied. "No, I don't." "Yes, you do" I would laugh and smile. And timidly, they would start picking up onions, looking at me for cues after the first few. "How many is in a bunch?" they would ask, hoping I would relent and spare them the responsibility. "It depends on what size they are. You might want all big ones, all small ones or some of each." I would smile and repeat myself. "You know how big a bunch of green onions is." And by golly, they would almost always pick out exactly a bunch of green onions.

This was, in part, about getting customers involved in the process of vegetables, the post-harvest handling that for conventional grocery-store veggies is often done by migrant workers living and working in grueling conditions. It was also about building self-confidence, about showing people they know something that they didn't think they knew.

Sometimes people needed a little more guidance. "It's enough that you feel like you're getting a good deal, and not so much that you feel like you're cheating me," I would tell the still-skeptical.

There are, of course, outliers in the range of green-onion-purchasers. These fall into a couple categories. One is people who don't normally shop who have been sent to Farmer's Market with lists. It's pretty easy to tell from the deer-in-the-headlights look that they truly do not know how big a bunch of green onions is. They aren't even quite sure if they know what green onions are. I demonstrate, teaching them gently for next time. Another is people from other cultures where informal direct sales venues like our Farmer's Market are common, and haggling over prices is the norm. They are inclined to make somewhat larger bunches, and then keep adding to them. I don't argue. It's just a few onions.

As with the $1 herb bags, there are also those who won't use a whole bunch. So I sell half bunches for half price. But sometimes, people don't even want half a bunch. They hold up one or two onions. "Whatever it's worth to you," I say. Often they give me the half-bunch price. It's worth it to them to not have to waste the rest of the half-bunch. And it's worth it to have the one green onion.

This year, for the first time, I planted a row of okra. For some yet-undiagnosed reason, the plants are suddenly dying, one by one. Harvest is slim, but more than I need for home use. So I take a small bag to market each week.

Today, a customer picked out the choicest small ones that she wanted. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" I asked. "How about a dollar?" "That's fine." She paid and went away happy. Not long after, another customer looked at the remaining okra, about the same amount but coarser pods. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" "How about a dollar?" "OK" The  customer handed me a dollar...and then handed me another one. "No, two dollars!" And walked away happy.

A little later, a customer and I discussed a small purchase while I was packing up. "A dollar or whatever," I said. She handed me a $5 bill. I went to make change. "No, keep it," she said.

A few weeks ago, a FaceBook (and long-time face-to-face) friend posted an angry comment about the high price of fresh food. She took stores to task for overcharging consumers...but also held Farmer's Market vendors accountable for charging high prices. When I responded with comments about small farmers' costs of production, and how artificially low our US food prices really are, she got angry with me. It was sad, because I'd long thought of this person as a friend and ally, and someone who (as a high-end food service professional) truly values food.

I challenged myself to reflect on whether there might be some truth to her accusation. I survey prices from other vendors, from the stores, and consider my production costs and quality differences when I price my produce. Are my prices were ridiculously high? Am I helping fuel inflation?

My market research says that for many people, my prices are just fine. And left to their own devices, my customers often would pay more than my set price.

In my friend's defense, we're both old enough to remember when gas was $.25/gallon and tomatoes were $.25/lb. (If you stop and think about it, the price of high-quality tomatoes in the store is often right about the same as a gallon of gas. Go figure. I'll take the tomato any day!) So yes, there has been a lot of inflation as the decades add up. But in the case of Farmer's Market prices, it seems to be a mutually agreeable situation.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Herding Progress

Herding training has been on the back burner with my efforts to keep up with harvesting and planting. Lambing interfered, as well, because the ewes were fierce and I didn't want Sookie to be badly scared or, worse, injured by a protective mama. Also, I haven't had the sheep out on the pasture much this year, for various reasons.

But nevertheless, we've been in the pens and lanes with the sheep from time to time, and Sookie definitely wants to work them. But how? They have learned, over the past few years, to basically ignore dogs, or to stomp them. The bottom line has been, neither the sheep nor the dog knew what was expected of them, and I couldn't figure out how to get past that. It seemed like if one or the other would do their part of the dance that is working sheep with a dog, the other would follow the lead and I could coach.

But what we had going on was pretty much just pandemonium.

On the few occasions when we needed to get the sheep to do something, it basically amounted to me stomping and waving and yelling at sheep, while Sookie ran around, breaking through the middle of the flock, circling endlessly, ignoring my "lie down" commands, etc. I would try to direct her while also yelling at the sheep, and we would all end up frustrated and confused. Yet if I left her out of the pen and tried to move the sheep myself (which Toss taught me to do quite efficiently), she would run around like crazy and yelp and carry on, creating a distraction.

Eventually, I've figured out the following:

--Sookie is very "loose-eyed" for a Border Collie--whether by nature or by nurture (not seeing sheep until she was 3) I don't know. She works standing up, close in to the flock, and without a lot of direct eye contact. Although she is learning to keep her eyes on the sheep more, she still looks back at me a lot. I need to accept this as her natural working style, and stop expecting her to act like Toss.

--Sookie is incredibly gutsy, and will squeeze between the sheep and a fence or shed in very tight places without showing fear. She also doesn't take it personally when a ewe charges her...she'll get scared and run for a little way, but then she wants to go right back in as soon as she realizes the ewe has refocused.

--Sookie is a master of the "fake grip". She likes to get in close and pretend to bite the sheep in the face or rump. Over time, she is gaining more response from the flock because she is hounding them like a giant horsefly buzzing in their face. This seems to be a sense of annoyance on the part of the sheep, more than fear.

--I need to figure out ways to clearly distinguish between the commands I'm giving to the sheep (our familiar "Come, sheep" call that the sheep have learned to associate with fresh pasture) and the commands I'm giving the dog ("Sookie, Come").

The other day we easily sent most of the flock out to pasture, but a few remained in the green calf shed. This shed has 3 small stalls with narrow openings onto the lane. There was one yearling in each of the outer stalls, and a young ewe with lamb in the middle stall.

The single yearlings both fell for Sookie's "suction" method of getting sheep out of the stalls. She runs past the doors repeatedly, glancing in. After a few passes, the sheep inside get so nervous that they want to run out into the open. Eventually, she runs past and as soon as she passes, the sheep pops out of the shed right behind her and follows her for a few moments. Apparently for a sheep, it feels safer to have her moving away from them than towards them. She doesn't try to "get" them in any way once they are out, unless I direct her to.

The ewe and lamb were a different story. When mild "suction" across the front of the shed didn't work, Sookie intensified her effort by running in and out, back and forth between the now-empty stalls on each side of the central stall. Even that didn't work. So she went into their stall after them, running in circles between them and the walls in the tiny (6' x 4') stall. I think if she had stopped at the back of the shed, they would have moved away from her and out the door, but she kept orbiting. On the other hand, stopping might have allowed the ewe to target her. She forced her way around, moving so quickly the ewe couldn't really target her. Then she got right in and fake-gripped the ewe's nose repeatedly. The ewe was rattled but not budging out of that shed.

I finally went into the stall, being careful to avoid putting myself in danger if the ewe decided to bolt out. The ewe finally left with her lamb, but wanted back into the stall after I emerged so I had to guard it.

I encouraged Sookie to drive them down the lane to meet the other sheep. I kept stopping her to allow them to move at a leisurely pace during the heat of the day.

During the driving, the little ewe lamb stopped to pee. Sookie was right beside it, and they were about the same size. Sookie stood while it peed, with her open mouth very close to the lamb's face in a freeze-frame "fake grip". Both animals were relaxed with no sign of fear on the lamb's part. As soon as the lamb finished peeing, and moved on, Sookie completed her stop-action fake grip. The lamb merely tossed its head away from the dog, as if avoiding a fly, and ambled on.

I can see that we are making progress. It just doesn't look like what I expect a herding BC to look like.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sookie's Triumph: Staying Home

One reason Sookie needed a new home (and thus came to live with me) was her wanderlust. She would get bored, escape from fenced yards, and roam the 'hood solo.

At first, she was always on a leash here, learning to stay near me. Gradually I got tired of being tethered to the dog, and she got more used to staying around me, and the leash fell into disuse. Once in awhile, she would force her way through a gate and wander off, or I would forget and leave a gate open, but not too often, and she would come when I gave her special call. Not sure how I figured it out; it's sort of like a very loud bird-call version of her name, something that a peacock might utter. I'm sure the neighbors dislike it, but it gets her attention from a long distance even when there are trains, cars, helicopters, wind, etc. making noise.

Then Matt--who was great buddies with her--left the farm in early May. Since then she has been very bad about slipping away from the farm. I think she is looking for him...or maybe even hearing/smelling him somewhere in the neighborhood, since he has friends who live nearby.

If I notice she is missing from the farm (and I try to call her to me every little bit, to keep her on her toes and focused on me), I start calling and walking towards the driveway. Sometimes Maggie, the dog across the street, alerts me with her "tattle-tale" bark.

It can take a few minutes to get there from the farm. Sometimes she is already there by the time I get there, panting hard from her romp. More often, she comes bolting down 5th Street towards me, or is in a neighbor's yard. I worry about her getting hit by a car, so as soon as she is within earshot of regular commands and in a safe place, I order "lie down", and she does. She'll stay until  I get there, though she knows what's coming: The Transport of Shame. I pick her up and carry her home.

No "bad dog", no scolding, just a stern silence and I pick her up and carry her. No evening stroll with Mom as a reward for bad behavior! She doesn't struggle, but neither one of us enjoys it very much. (I'm glad she does not weigh more than 35 lbs.).

Yesterday, she slipped away, and as I walked through the woodlot to the house, I heard her barking (unusual--she is a very quiet dog) up along the street. When I got to the driveway, she came right to me, and I saw a woman with a big dog on a leash walking down 5th Street away from the house. I realized that Sookie must have interrupted their walk by going up to them and barking at the dog.

I decided to chase them down and apologize for my dog being at large, and her bad behavior. So I told her to "lie down" and "stay there" in the driveway, and jogged about half a block to overtake the woman and her dog.

The woman was very nice about it. She said that Sookie had met them near the farm driveway, and run along our side of the street while the woman and dog were on the other side. As soon as Sookie got to our house, THEN she started barking--she knew exactly which space was hers to "defend"! We stood and talked for awhile. I kept glancing back at Sookie. She stayed right where I'd left her for quite awhile. When she stood up, I "downed" her again, and she stayed right there. The woman was amazed at her obedience.

I feel like it was a real triumph for Sookie's training in several ways. First, that she clearly demonstrated that she knew her proper space, and didn't try to claim the neighborhood as hers! Second, that she hadn't actually gone up to the dog on the leash, but had stayed on her side of the street. She can be a real b---- with strange dogs at first, and it would be bad if she did that without me around, with a dog on a leash. Third, that she stayed put for so long in her own yard while I talked to and petted a strange dog a half block away!

Now if we can transfer that "down-stay" to when we are working sheep!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Paperwork Season

Winter is supposed to be a season of rest for the farmer, right? Just sitting by the fire spinning, or reading, or what-not?

Actually, this winter has really brought home to me the real winter occupation of this farmer, at least: Paperwork.

A farmer wears many hats: amateur veterinarian, geneticist, entomologist, marketing specialist, carpenter, electrician, plumber, mechanic, etc. And also: bookkeeper, lawyer, regulatory policy analyst, real estate developer, community planner, etc.

An awful lot of these involve paperwork. A lot of this paperwork happens in the winter, for three reasons: first, that's when we need to do crop-related planning for the coming vegetable production season; second, it's the only time I'm likely to have time to fill out paperwork; and third, everyone in farm-related businesses realizes this is the best time to get farmers to actually fill out paperwork.

And attend meetings. Trainings. Workshops. Seminars. Conferences. Etc. Each of which supplies the farmer with yet more paper, more paperwork, and copious notes.

This winter's calendar included: Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference (in St. Joseph, MO; we went 2 of 3 days); Wholesale Marketing Workshop (KCKS); Kaw Drainage District meetings; Grow Lawrence Annual Meeting; Food Policy Council meetings; Kaw Valley Seed Fair; Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market Annual Meeting; WIC Vendor Program Meeting. And more to come. This is only the ones we actually attended; there have been all kinds of farm shows, seminars, webinars, and workshops that we were just too busy to attend.

A few events still loom ahead--including one of the funnest, the annual scale certification party at Pendleton's Country Market where the farmers get to stand around and visit and eat donuts while waiting for our scales to be inspected and--glory hallelujah!--someone ELSE fills out the paperwork, in return for us writing checks!

Forms to fill out, fees to send in (farmers markets, WIC, etc.). Renewals (meat wholesaler, live plant dealer). Memberships (Grow Lawrence). Checking to be sure we aren't planning anything new for the year that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee. Checking to be sure no regulations have changed that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee.

Then there's the paperwork we make up for others to fill out, like surveys and sign-up forms for our CSAs. We'll be doing two CSAs at day care centers this year, as well as one that will bring people to the farm to pick up their weekly bags of produce.

Garden planning. Seed orders. Bed maps. Rotations. Succession plantings.

That's the routine stuff, some of it stuff we've been doing every year for more than 15 years.

Then there's the big stuff. This year the big stuff has been mostly related to the new Douglas County Agritourism regulations, approved at last (after 3 years' work) on January 2, 2013. Many of our dreams for the farm have been hogtied for years--more than a decade in some cases--because County regulations just didn't accommodate the notion that people could, would, and should want to do things on farms like hike, picnic, buy farm-related products, etc. Picture those dreams as a string of racehorses fidgeting in the starting gate for 10 years, and now the gates have finally opened. They're off and running....

But wait! No! First there must be paperwork! And everyone has been so busy trying to get the regulation passed that no one has had time to design the forms to implement the regulation! County staff bent over backwards to get the forms done so we could submit our application in time for them to have a meeting to review our application and then another meeting with me to give us their approval...leaving maybe like 4 waking hours to prepare all of our promotional materials to hand out at the Seed Fair the next day. I was literally proofreading the County's draft forms a page at a time as the administrative assistant was printing them out!

Thus we became the first Agritourism site registered with the County--a status which allows you, whoever you are reading this, to walk on our farm without intent to do agriculture, and allows us to sell you items that we've made that aren't agricultural products (for example, drop spindles that we might make if we weren't so busy with paperwork), and allows us to invite other farmers to come sell things at our farm. We can offer workshops that aren't specifically about agricultural skills (for example, how to fill out agricultural paperwork).

But only if there are 100 of you or less at a time. Under the new regulations, if 101 people might show up for our Sheep Shearing Open Farm Day (March 16, 10 a.m.), we need to go through another layer of County registration which includes filling out another, more specific, application form; gaining the approval of the Board of County Commissioners; etc. Counting backwards from the scheduled sheep shearing day to the day the County would need to have our application left the County with about 3 days to create the form and get the form approved, giving us to put together a lengthy packet (including site plans) overnight.

If anyone wonders why I am not a university professor of something, it's because I hate working on deadline projects with acres of typewritten narratives, like grant applications...or Agritourism registrations. But, we got through it. Co-Farmer Matt saved the day with stellar mapping skills gained from his former Cubicleville engineering job. I, of course, gained a lot of application narrative writing experience at the environmental consulting firm where I worked for 7 years. Odd backgrounds for farming, but surprisingly handy.

We're making progress. The County Commission will decide on our ">100" application on March 13, 3 days before the event. With those applications behind us, we've moved on to getting the CSAs properly paperworked. Today was our second "info booth" event for more to go.

Somewhere in there, we knocked out the application for the permit (and $250 fee) for our new well, and met with the Health Dept. to get approval for the well site. That will be a phased project, but at some point we'll need to fill out forms for the "Ag Use Exemption from Building Permit" for the well house to keep the pump from freezing. Last time we went through this exemption process, it took a lot longer to get the exemption from the permit than it would have taken to get a permit. Things have changed for the better at the County, and so I trust this process has been improved as well.

So, it's time to pull out the next big project...a new washhouse. In addition to actually deciding where to put it and how to build it, we have to get an Ag Use Exemption for it, too. Yay, more paperwork!

The new on-farm farmers' market doesn't need much paperwork other than the Agritourism Registration, but has been the subject of many long conversations with the County to work out details of parking, paving, sanitation, etc.

Weaving through all of these projects and plans is a constant thread of sanitation. People poop, and we need to plan for that and make sure they wash their hands. Animals poop, and we need to plan to keep it off our veggies and stuff. Pretty much sums it up. The Federal Food Safety Modernization Act dictates how these things need to be done--and, of course, documented. In between the doing and the documenting lie signage and standard  operating procedures--written, of course. The self-assessment survey form that will guide us in knowing what paperwork we need to write and what we need to write it about is more than 30--THIRTY!--pages long.

I'm looking forward to spring, when we can rest from the hard work of winter paperwork by working in the garden!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

First Try at Herding!

Coby went home last night, and things are a bit quiet around here. Sookie initially reverted to some old behaviors, like constantly pawing me while I'm working at the computer. So, I reverted to the old response: stand up and walk away. It didn't take very many times for her to get the message.

She unwittingly gave herself a good lesson on manners with guests this morning. A friend with a darling, sweet old chihuahua, Chalupa, visited us this morning. Sookie decided the visiting dog could not come in the living room, and Chalupa decided to play her "age card"..."I'm an old lady and I can go in the living room if I want to". Sookie flew into a tizzy at Chalupa, using some pretty nasty dog language...but in doing so, she accidentally knocked into a big empty popcorn tin that was sitting nearby with the lid partly on. The lid flew off with a clatter, the can made a huge crash, the sky fell, Sookie decided that her crate was plenty 'nuff territory to defend, and beat a hasty retreat before the rest of Armageddon happened. We humans just sat back and watched karma step in and handle the situation better than we could ever have done. Natural consequences are the best training device! After that, she was polite to the little dog.

This afternoon, Sookie had her first actual off-leash try at the sheep! We'd ventured into the sheep pen earlier, on-leash, but Sookie's whole attention was on sheep poop. So I decided that a better environment would be to let the sheep out on pasture where the sheep poop would be further apart and the sheep would be moving a lot. Instead of going in through the pen, we walked from the pasture to the pen, then let the sheep out. The sheep were overjoyed!

I mostly just watched, assessing her behavior with the sheep while being ready to intervene if a sheep decided to stand her down. At this stage, an attack by a big sheep could sour her to herding for a long time.

One of the runts was lagging behind, and I was pleased to see that Sookie was reluctant to pass it in order to keep up with the rest of the flock as they joyfully ran out to the pasture. Some dogs aren't careful to stay out of the middle of a group, and then things go really wonky as sheep move away from the dog in all directions. Sookie's reluctance to pass by the laggard kept the whole flock moving as a unit.

Once we were all out in the wide open space of the pasture, I waved at Sookie to go out around the flock, and she did...a very nice outrun at an adequate distance away from the greedily grazing sheep to keep the sheep calm, but still keeping a light contact with them, watching them all the time. She wasn't sure what to do when she got out there, though, and since the sheep aren't dog broke (trained to come to the handler when they see a dog), they didn't help us out. So at that point she shifted her attention back to me: "Mom......????? Now what?????"

I went to her and encouraged the sheep to move away from her, but by then she'd glued her attention back to me. So we went back around the sheep a bit to my starting point, and I waved her off around them in the other direction. Out she went again on a nice outrun, good as gold...just still not sure what to do when she got out there.

I don't want to call her to walk up on them until I know they won't stomp at her when I can't protect her. I don't want them to bully her and make her afraid to work. I'll be trying to find someone nearby with a good herding dog to come "dog break" the sheep, before we can make too much progress. But it was a good start.

She did sort of accidentally get the sheep moving again, by her presence; they decided to all run back to the sheep pen. Again, she was reluctant to pass the slow lamb, and looked like a pro "wearing" back and forth behind it, trying to get it to go faster. It didn't (spoiled bottle baby). So the flock got to the pen and "bounced" at the gate (even though it was open) and came back at us while we were approaching a wide intermediary gate. It was pretty comical because they all stopped right along the line of the open gate, as if there was an invisible wall, when they saw me and Sookie coming at them!

Then they headed for the pen again, and this time Sookie and I made them all go in. Sookie's "wearing" was actually very helpful in effecting this, and she got lots of praise!

She is pretty much a dream least if I can gradually wean her away from looking at me and get her to keep her attention on the sheep. She works on her feet, and doesn't "stick" in one spot, laying down eyeing the sheep. She is a natural at "wearing"--small dodging moves to the left and right that keep her on the sheep's radar and "steer" the sheep. She doesn't bark at them and go nuts, she doesn't run in too close and scatter them, she doesn't attack them, they seem calm around her. I'm very optimistic about training her to be a great working dog!

Afterwards, we went to the Romping Grounds for a reward. We're playing with three balls now, and she'll get them one at a time and put them in the bucket, sometimes even on the first try!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

More Balls, More Fun

It has been good having Coby, the big Golden Retriever/Poodle mix, staying with us for a couple weeks. After the initial fuss over social status and territory in the house, he and Sookie have become good companions. They get along well at home, and have a great time romping together on the farm.

It's especially valuable to Sookie's training. Nothing like a big lumbering random distraction to hone her attention to me... and he keeps me from accidentally falling into routines I'm not aware of.

Sookie is very sensitive to routines. At first, we always went straight out to the "romping grounds" when we went to the farm morning and evening. Recently, we've had a few issues with her trying to INSIST that we go there first, before doing chores...and refusing to walk out to the pasture until after the romping grounds. Well, I need to be the one who gives orders, and sometimes we have to put work before play on the farm!

I'm letting both dogs off the leash as soon as the farm gate is closed behind us now. Then I stop Sookie with a "Lie Down" or a "Wait" at each gate or intersection. Trying to keep her  guessing...where will I go next? Sometimes I try to fake her out, or start one way then change my mind. She is learning to pay attention to me, learning that I'm unpredictable but something fun usually happens if she sticks with me.

At the romping grounds, we have two tennis balls now. And Coby. It's getting really exciting!

We've been working a lot on finding lost balls. When I can see them, and she's searching, I use the sheep-finding commands: "Look Back" (if it's behind her) and "Here Here" (if it's between me and her). Slowly she is learning to turn and search farther away on command. This is a challenge for her, because she wants to work close to me, watching me. Turning away from me is hard for her, but very necessary when working sheep. When in doubt, she starts going into orbit around me, looking at my feet. Not productive!

Continual random drilling on "Lie Down" has had good results, and she'll drop just about anywhere most of the time, regardless of what Coby is doing. Sometimes he is tripping over her, but she ignores him if I'm giving a command. This is vital before we start sheep long as she doesn't ignore the sheep in the same manner!

As a variation from our usual throw/fetch with the tennis ball, I've been working with two balls at once. This is extra challenging because once in awhile Coby will leave his stick and come grab a ball. We let him, and instantly re-direct to the other ball.

I'm especially impressed with the impulse control we've gotten on "Lie Down" "Stay" with a new game. I put her down near me, then throw one ball one direction, the other ball the other direction. She will actually stay in place when two balls are being thrown AND Coby is leaping after them right next to her! This is a pretty incredible feat of self-restraint and obedience!

Then what joy the command of "That one!" brings as I direct her which one to go get first! Off she tears, grabs it, brings it back, drops it in my hand, waits to see whether I will throw it again or tell her to go find the other one. Sometimes that depends on whether Coby is going after the other one.

Today, I introduced a new concept: "Drop it in the bucket", instead of "Drop it in my hands". She is trying so hard to understand! She is very intent, but puzzled. I hold the bucket in front of me, cup a hand inside it for her to drop the ball into. It just about blows her mind! Now and then she gives a sharp little bark of frustration at not understanding, and we switch to some other game for a little while to let her unwind. But even when she is frustrated, I can tell she loves the challenge of learning new things. She WANTS to understand and do what I ask of her.

By the end of this evening's romp, she was beginning to actually get the ball into the bucket now and then, without me having to dodge the bucket around to try to catch the ball.

Next we'll take out a couple more balls, and have her gather more balls at each throw...more balls to put in the bucket before I start throwing again. The bucket is important because I won't always be wearing a coat with large enough pockets for multiple balls. And the bigger task of fetching more balls, one by one, gives me more time to think: "NOW what can I teach the Border Collie?"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Double Trouble--But Worth It

Not one but TWO escapes from the farm today by the quicksilver canine.

First, she slipped through a sheep pen gate as I struggled to maneuver a load of logs through it, and found a hole in the "fence" between the woodlot and the neighbor's in the blink of an eye. We were right on her tail and retrieved her from the mobile home park down the block within minutes. She had been confined to the vacant sheep pen where we were working, so we had taken her leash off so she wouldn't tangle on the brush we were moving.

Renewing our caution, I kept her on the leash when we were working in the garden, but didn't tie her. She obeys much better when she's dragging the leash, and I can step on it to get her attention if she's ignoring me. She's been respecting the electronet fence across the back yard, even without it being energized, stopping until I lift it and say "come under". But apparently she slipped under it, and we had left both the woodlot and driveway gates unlatched. Before we realized she was gone, a stranger rounded the corner of the barn, calling out to us, "Hey, is this your dog? She was at __ & ___ [5 blocks away]." She seemed totally unabashed...she had made a new friend. "Nice dog," he says.

Rolling my eyes. Restraining my temper. Recalling the most memorable lesson from the AKC Puppy Kindergarten class: If you leave the puppy in the living room, and it chews up the couch, roll up a news paper and hit your self over the head with it, saying sternly, "Don't leave the puppy with the couch! Don't leave the puppy with the couch!" Right. And don't take your eye off the Border Collie for an instant. Ever.

But there were many high points, too. This morning, we reviewed yesterday's progress and added one more command: "Leave it." With her in a "Down" "Stay", I would place the tennis ball a couple feet away from her and say "Leave it." She was pretty good at waiting until I said "Pick it up" and "Drop it in my hand." Later in the wood lot, when I was moving chunks of firewood, I asked her to pick up the small ones and put them on the woodpile. She actually seemed to understand...and even left them on the woodpile.


Later, we decided to merge the two groups of sheep and see what would happen. It's that time at the end of breeding when we try to reintegrate all the little breeding groups into one or two larger groups, to minimize chores. With 3 official breeding rams this season, as well as a couple intact male market lambs, it can be tricky. Rams will often try to kill each other.

Tuesday, we put the two younger breeding rams (White Crow, 9 months, and Patchface, a year and 9 months) together with the market lambs (i.e., two smaller ram lambs plus some ewe lambs). There was some pushing and ramming between Crow and Patchface, but they seemed to settle down pretty quickly. We ran all the mature ewes into the pen with Braithe, our senior ram.

My goal is to start Sookie working with the market lambs, since they're smaller and much less assertive than the big ewes and rams. I thought maybe we could work them with Patchface and Crow in the group, but Patchface seemed pretty assertive towards the dog. So...could we actually get Braithe, Patchface, and Crow--500+ lbs. of testosterone-infused muscle--to peacefully coexist in the same pen?

I took Sookie into the Green Barn Pen on the long leash, and drove the young rams and market lambs into the barn with her in tow. She seemed confused, and distracted by all that tempting manure, but she showed some interest in the sheep as well. At one point, one of the rams broke away from the flock and ted back behind me. I called out "Look!" and she actually did! We went after him (and the other one that followed him) and got them back without the rest of the group turning back, too. Then, to the cry of "Put 'em in the barn!" Sookie and I were able to walk the group into the barn. A good beginning.

Then we went to drive Braithe and the ewes over from the pen on the other side of the back yard. First we rounded up a few ewes that hadn't come to meet us at the gate. Sookie paid attention well, and  seemed to be more interested than with the lambs. When we got them gathered at the gate, M. opened the gate and they poured out into the broad grassy lane. Of course they were more interested in eating grass than in going to the barn...but as Sookie and I moved behind them, they quickly changed their minds. Except for a couple older ones, who looped back behind us. I said "Look back!" and turned after them, and--Sookie looked and went the right direction to run them back to the rest of the flock! Then everyone ran to the barn pen.

The barn pen has a particularly nice bale of hay in it at the moment, and Braithe didn't even blink an eye at all the rams in the barn. So, I let the young rams and market lambs out with the rest of the group. There was some sniffing and chasing, but no significant ramming. Braithe spent most of his first couple for penned with other rams, and he and Patchface were penned together ever since his return to the farm last spring; I hoped he would have fond memories of this. We were working nearby, so we kept an eye on them in case violence erupted, but eating seemed to be everyone's top priority. In a few days we'll sort out the lambs, and have a breeding group and a working group.


The end of the working day should have been another session with the tennis ball, but alas, we could not find it. The second one had disappeared a few days earlier. Are the coyotes playing with them and carrying them off? It's a mystery. Sookie looked and looked, and so did I. Disappointing. We went home to dinner and a quiet evening.

As I knitted with Sookie curled in my lap, I pondered the dilemma of the missing ball. We'll have a friend's dog as a house guest starting tomorrow morning, so getting in a good romp before meeting the very bouncy Coby seemed important, not to mention continuing to build on our recent training work. But every time I thought about going to a store 10 days before Christmas, I winced. Eventually, I thought of Luna (Toss's daughter) and her person B. Maybe they had spares?

A phone call and a few minutes later, we were on Luna's doorstep. Luna was her grumpy self about there being another dog, but Sookie displayed excellent manners and turned away with quiet dignity whenever Luna showed her teeth. Sookie entirely ignored the cats, but managed to slip through the cat door to the cat food not once but twice! I didn't want to get her too wound up chasing balls to show off her moves, so I took the risk of testing her on her newest sequence of commands in "public". Like clockwork, on command, she laid down, I placed the ball on the floor nearby, she "leaved it", and on command she picked it up and dropped it in my cupped hands!

Now I'm wondering, can I teach her to fetch tools for me when I'm working? Will she be able to tell the  difference between phillips and flathead screwdrivers?