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Elli was the delight of my Saturday, two weeks ago. It’s hard for me to convey the experience concisely and I’m only going to tell a splinter of our adventure so far so I hope this sort of makes sense…
Elli is a late-bloomer, of sorts. The working instinct comes out in dogs at widely varying ages, but usually before 2 yrs. old. Mesa ‘turned on’ when she was 8 months old. Joe was ‘on’ when he first saw sheep at 9 wks old. Elli has had lots of interest in stock (sheep & ducks) since she was a little puppy. As little as 3 months old, she used to do little helpful things with the ducks while I was doing chores, like round them up and hold them if they bolted out of the pens while I was changing buckets or gather them up and ‘put them away’ if they were grazing in the yard. Really amazing stuff that Mesa still can’t do without my firm guidance because she isn’t at all patient with ducks. Elli has always been very gentle, respectful, & firm, but would only do these things while I ‘wasn’t looking’. If I entered the picture, she would stop and leave. The hard part has been that at a year old, the ‘traditional’ age to begin training, she still couldn’t handle any training pressure. Even a month ago she couldn’t reliably work. Sometimes…gorgeous for a few minutes, next minute – exploring the fence line. Sometimes there would be something going on (not at her) that would put her off completely (like the time I had to pretty much beat the sheep off the gate where we were, just to get in the round pen, yah that didn’t work well). Off & on, off and on. I live with her, so I know just how amazing she can be. But the herding trainer’s I work with have only seen the ‘delicate’, pressure-sensitive, not working, apparent lack of instinct, ‘need to build interest’ dog. All I could do is tamp down my fears (over and over and..) and wait for her to begin to mature mentally. Mentally, from puppyhood to now, she has been a very goofy young dog.

She’s just now beginning to mentally harden up at almost a year and a half. Honestly, if she was a real farm dog, I think she could do most routine farm chores without any special help from me. Really, she has done some really neat things with the ducks, but not training. Over the past month I have begun to see her abilities come out with enough drive that I can ask for it. She has push (something I also worried about needlessly), but will stay off her stock easily, very comfortably working wide. She usually flanks squarely by choice and has an awesome sense of balance & group.

As a puppy, she could easily keep 16 ducks together. The one time she didn’t was completely my fault, it was the first time she did that voluntary gather to put them ‘back where they belong’ and I started to verbally intervene (expecting her to stomp on them like Mesa, Joe, or even Tess might do) and screwed her up for a moment before I realized my mistake, left her alone, and…she backed off, turned, and deliberately added the split ducks back in and drove them all on into the duck pen.

A couple weekends ago, she was pushing the sheep past me while fetching around so we worked into a “pinwheel” with me very lightly, gently pushing out as the sheep passed then changing direction for her to re-gather. She let me push and gave while persistently working. With minimal effort, the sheep were no longer passing and we were walking around. No muss, no fuss. When I went to take her back into the field after a break, I had a ridiculous urge to take her out in the bigger field with the small flock of 16 sheep Tess had been working. She behaved just as before adjusting to the big group and new, bigger space without a hiccup. She didn’t get excited. She didn’t get worried. She just went to work. No muss, no fuss. It was beautiful. It was smooth. I don’t know what it looked it from the gate, but it was FUN. Mary Lou stood there staring, mouth open actually, and said “I think we’ve been underestimating her.” Now, even when I express doubt about what is in her…ML says…no, I think there’s a lot of depth we aren’t really seeing yet. Thank you ML!

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