Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pearl Goes to Work

When Andy spotted Pearl as a puppy, he imagined the day when he would take Pearl to a working dog trial and watch her work with a refined quickness and ease. He named Pearl after the pirate ship, the “Black Pearl” from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. The “Black Pearl” was a mythic figure in the movie known for being the best and the fastest ship on the high seas. He hopes one day, through disciplined training, he and Pearl will demonstrate a similar competency in a working cattle dog trial, one in which the partnership exhibits both finesse and a deep unspoken trust.

Now six months old, Andy has begun training Pearl for that event. Her instinct to work or herd is so strong, her early experiences around stock must be controlled in order to prevent Pearl from being kicked or otherwise hurt. So, recently Susan, fellow working dog owner and sheep rancher, brought three lambs for Andy to begin working Pearl on in the round pen. The space is secure and small so Andy can manage Pearl from a short distance.

In a working dog trial, the owner and dog are asked to move a small group of cattle or sheep across an open area and through various obstacles including gates, passage-ways, and even pushing them onto a trailer. Andy begins by teaching Pearl “down,” “come by,” and “away.” “Down” is the most important command in the beginning and throughout Pearl’s training. At the moment Andy says, “down” Pearl must obey for the partnership to be effective. Without the discipline of “down,” Pearl may push too hard, run out of control, or make the wrong decision about her position in relationship to Andy. “Come by” asks Pearl to move in a clock-wise direction around the herd and “away” asks Pearl to move counter-clock-wise.

Early in her training, Andy will teach Pearl to position herself opposite him or in what is called, the “balance point.” From this position it is easier to teach her the basic voice commands. As Andy and Pearl work the lambs, they will work toward maintaining the balance point while at the same time keeping control of the herd and its movement.

After six working sessions Pearl shows the strong instincts of a working dog. She naturally herds and is quickly learning to obey Andy’s “down,” “come by,” and “away” commands. Andy is also pleased to see Pearl’s intense eye develop as she herds the lambs. Prized among dog handlers and trainers, a dog with an intense “eye” is capable of intimidating cattle or sheep simply by their gaze on the herd. In addition to their movement and position, the eye becomes another powerful tool with which to move stock.

Watching Pearl work in the round pen is a study in the effects of select breeding for behavior and temperament. Her instinct in combination with her willingness to work for Andy provides a rich foundation on which she will master her very useful and historic purpose in life. As I’ve observed the two of them working together in the round pen, I know I am not only watching a work in progress but a work of art.

No comments: