I have had a lot of people ask me where I got the idea for the Mykel & Me stories. I would love to take credit for them, but it was actually my mother, Glenda Smith, that had the original Mykey & Me chronicles. My Mykel is named after my mother's first fully trained Border Collie, Mykey, and their adventures in learning were just as entertaining. In honor of a great stockwoman and her dog, I am republishing her original articles that she written for Brock McElroy's magazine, Farm & Country. Enjoy
Starting January 18th, 1993, and for the next 5 consecutive Monday evenings, Mykey and I traveled 45 miles via the Blackwater Road, to attend Basic Obedience and Stock Dog Training classes for farm dogs at the Robinson's Indoor Arena in Prince George, BC. At out first class, the Obedience Instructor, Pearl Maxfield, had us review the basic commands of Come, Sit, Stay, Down, and Stand. My nine month old Border Collie, Mykey, had previously learned all of his basics except "Stand" on command.
Mrs. Maxfield had warned me that this particular command is awkward for a dog. It's fairly easy to teach a dog to "Sit" or "Lie Down", but somehow they have a problem putting their cabooses in reverse.
And so it was for Mykey. From his viewpoint, the "Stand" command was a perverse contraindication of everything he had been taught.
"Down," I would say and he would happily flop onto the living room floor. I'd get down on my knees beside him and slide my hands under his chest. "Stand," I'd say as I lifted up on his body. Mykey would sit up on his haunches.
One time I slid my hands too far back on his belly and tried to lift him by his flanks. He got huffy at that. He was also disgusted with me when I put my hand under his rump and tried to boost him up that way. When I cupped my hands under his hips, he allowed me to lift him up, but he wouldn't look at me while I did it.
By now he had discovered the merits of passive resistance; his back legs would dangle down, crumpling under him when I set them on the floor. If I growled at him, both ends would crumple to the ground.
It didn't take long before I thought about boosting his caboose with the toe of my shoe. However, patience prevailed and as the week wore on, he begrudgingly learned the "Stand" command. When I asked Mykey to "Stand," I always stood on his right side and he would slowly stand up if I cued him by lightly touching his rump. On the 5th day, I stepped around to his left side and asked him to "Stand".
He had no clue what I was talking about.
That was interesting. I knew horses had a left brain and a right brain. That's why each lesson must be taught from each side. I had never realized that dogs must be trained the same way. So I taught Mykey the "Stand" command again, but from the left side which he learned quicker than he had on the right.
This experience started me thinking, which is sometimes dangerous. I had adapted my "horse sense" into this part of my dog training, so perhaps it would also help me in other areas of my dog training as well.
For example, I had noticed that stock dogs usually run smoother on one direction when circling their livestock, but their stride was very choppy when circling the opposite direction. In Mykey's case, with last week's lesson he would only run in a clockwise circle when working the sheep.
Several years ago, we had a problem with my daughter's 4-H horse, Lady. When a horse has a problem loping one direction on a circle, it's known as a failure to pick up it's correct "lead." The foreleg on the inside of the circle must "lead" or swing forward on each stride just before the outside foreleg. A horse that is not on it's correct lead has a very rough gait and their nose tends to tilt towards the outside of the circle.
An experienced rider can force a horse to pick up its correct lead by shifting their weight in the saddle at the correct moment. Back then, my daughter Crystal, wasn't experienced enough to do this, so we used another method to make her horse supple enough to take leads correctly.
It's called the Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method or TT.E.A.M.
The TT.E.A.M. method helps an animal become more supple by massaging certain muscles, manipulating limbs to increase their range of motion, and doing a variety of ground exercises. I figured, why not try it on Mykey?
For 3 days, I did exercises like raising his feet 2" off the ground in a natural vertical position and doing 10 small circles both directions. The "Stand" command came in very handy for this. I also did a variety of massages to help loosen up his muscles and make him more aware of his right/left sides. I was eager to see if Mykey's ability to circle to the left had improved for the upcoming lesson.
On January 25th, the weather had warmed to -10'C for our second stock dog lesson, but I still wore my snow-pants and toque. Last week, it had felt colder inside the arena than it had outside and I was taking no chances.
Again, the evening started an hour of obedience training with Pearl Maxfield. She had the entire class of 14 dogs and handlers line up along one wall of the arena. The dogs were told to "Sit" and "Stay" by their handlers as Mrs. Maxfield led her Kelpie up and down the line, trying to tempt our dogs away from their handlers.
Mykey waged his tail and wiggled as they passed, just managing to remain at the Sit position (mostly because I held my hand in front of his face).
The next exercise involved everyone lining up along the center of the arena, spaced about 6 feet apart, then we all took turns weaving our dogs through these living "pylons". The stationary handles tried to keep their dogs sitting calmly beside them while the mobile handler struggled to keep their dog quietly at the "heel" position. As we wove our dogs down the line, our dog's noses strained towards each other like magnets. Up and down the line tense commands echoed.
Twice we weaved our way down the firing line and tempted fate, but everyone came through unscathed.
Finally, Mrs. Maxfield had us line up against the wall again for our final inspection. As she passed down the line, we reviewed the commands we had been practicing all week. .
Our turn came. I touched Myeky on the rump.
"Stand," I said.
He glared at me.
"Stand," I growled.
Slowly, as if he was lifting the world with his shoulders, Mykey came to his feet.
"Now," Mrs. Maxfield said. "Ask him to Stay while he's standing."
We hadn't practiced that.
I stepped in front of Mykey. "Stay."
He sat down.
"Stand," I said, forgetting to to reach back and touch his rump.
Mykey dropped to the ground and refused to look at me. If I wouldn't play by the rules, he wouldn't play at all.
Fortunately, Mrs. Maxfield didn't point out Mykey and I's shortcomings. She knew I had my hands full with this character.
After the obedience portion of the class, Sandi Peterson conducted the Stock Dog class. We were asked to keep our dogs outside of the arena until it was our turn to work with the sheep.
Last week, dogs and handlers had lined up at one end of the arena while waiting our turn to work livestock. It hadn't worked out so well. When the stock dogs pushed the sheep too hard, the wooly monsters would make a dash for the corners. It created quite the explosions if the other dogs happened to be close by. Like shrapnel, there would be handlers and dogs and sheep and leashes and bits of wool flying in all directions.
Last week, Mykey and I had been casualties of one of theses skirmishes. We were more than happy with this new rule.
We drew numbers from a hat to decide the run order. I drew #4 of the ten, so I tied Mykey in the aisleway of the barn and retired to the enclosed observation room. The waiting room had a long window that looked out over the arena, and as I sipped my hot cup of coffee, I could watch my fellow classmates work the sheep.
The third dog to have a go was a large German Shepard owned by Mrs. Maxfield. Her husband was along the arena edge recording the lesson with a camcorder. This dog was almost as large as the Cheviot ewes he was herding. A German Shepard's gait is a long, extended trot with their hind feet reaching far underneath them. He could almost keep up with the sheep at the trot, but sometimes he had to break into a awkward lope. By the time his allotted 10 minutes was done, he was successfully learning to circle the sheep though.
I retrieved Mykey while Sandi gave Mrs. Maxfield some pointers. Sandi's red Border Collie, Buck, herded the sheep out of the arena and Sandi's husband, Jack, brought in 3 fresh sheep. Buck drove them to the center of the arena, bunched them up, and then retired to the sidelines to wait for his next cue.
The stage was set for Mykey and me.
I glanced towards the observation room window. Everyone was staring into their coffee cups or chatting with their neighbor. It was good time to slip out onto center stage.
I kept Mykey on a tight leash until we were within 30 feet of the sheep. When the ewes started bobbing their heads, stamping their feet, and acting restless, I knew I had brought my dog close enough.
"Down," I said. "Stay."
I held my hand up as I slowly backed away, stopping about 5 feet from the sheep.
"Hsssssss! Go Bye, Mykey." I didn't have to repeat the hissing sound. Mykey jumped to his feet and started racing clockwise around the sheep. I let him complete a couple more circles. "Down!"
Mykey flopped to the ground, panting happily.
By now, Mykey was only about 15 feet from the sheep as he had tightened his circle considerably. So I moved him back out again, but faced him the other direction before telling him "Down and then repeated the commands "Down" and "Stay" as I slowly backed away towards the sheep.
Mykey couldn't restrain himself.
My eyes had only left this for a moment. I had looked behind me to get my bearings on the sheep, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of silken black streak by the sheep and out of sight.
Go, Mykey, go!
Had the TT.E.A.M method worked?
Was he on his correct lead?
I sidled around the sheep so I could watch him as he completed his first counter-clockwise circle and push him out if he got too close.
He came in too close.
And too soon.
The sheep bolted.
Just as I sidestepped, one ewe dashed for the open slot between my legs.
The next thing I knew, I was bobbing across the arena on the back of a sheep. I only made it to the fifth jump or so before I somersaulted off and landed in the sawdust. It was a hard ride, but a soft landing.
I skidded to a stop, rolled over, spit out some dirt, and looked around for Mykey.
The little darling raced by on my right, still travelling counter-clockwise, his white forelegs a fuzzy blur. HIs gait was smooth, his nose curled towards the inside of the circle. Guess the TT.E.A.M. worked.
Go, Mykey, go!
By now he had reached the far side of the sheep, turned them and was stampeding them back to me.
I had forgotten I was still laying on the ground.
As I scrambled to my feet, I kept my knees together. The sheep swept past me, travelling fast. Mykey was too close. He dashed around to the head of the group and drove them back to me.
"Down!" I yelled as he reached his 12 o'clock position.
The sheep bobbed past me with Mykey, tongue lolling, close behind. His blood was hot and he had gone deaf.
"Down!" I growled, stepping between him and the sheep. Reluctantly, he gave up the chase.
I snapped on the leash and praised him. It could have been worse. As we retreated to the observation room, I glanced toward the window. A multitude of grinning faces were staring at us through the glass.
Mrs. Maxfield greeted us at the door. "Are you okay?"
I nodded. Obviously she had noticed my short, plump snowsuit clad figure bouncing across the arena on the back of an ewe.
"What exactly were you doing out there?" she asked, grinning.
"Mutton bustin'," I said. "But I didn't make it the eight second whistle."
"Don't worry," she said, holding up her husband's camcorder. "It was still a great ride and I've got it all on tape."