Sunday, July 3, 2011

2011 PA State Championship SDT, Hop Bottom, PA

This lovely trial celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and was expanded to a five-day trial. It is a well-run trial with lots of good companionship, a small but challenging field, and a trial at which one sees a lot of good-quality work, right on down into the Novice/Novice class.

The field is challenging due to its small size and shape—a fenceline on the right and a creek on the left cause the top of the field at the setout to be narrower than the bottom near the post—as well as the very heavy pressure on the right created by the holding pens at top right and the barn exhaust area at the bottom right. Another challenge too, is typical of trials in the northeast; a fairly small flock of sheep had already been running a few times a day for three and a half days, by the first Nov/Nov class on Monday afternoon, meaning that most of them were getting pretty sick of the process.

The judge for the Novice classes was Joyce Geier of New York. Joyce gave the Nov/Nov class a generous time limit, which I believe really helped the novice hands keep things quieter, as there was no rush to zip through the course in three minutes. Most people send to the left on this field as the fenceline gives the dogs less chance to bend out than the creek, and I’ve always sent left before, too. In the Nov/Nov class, the draw at the top is not as strong, as the sheep are further down the field, and the field is also a bit wider further down the field, so a Pro/Nov or Nov/Nov dog could still potentially have a nice outrun to the right. I had noticed last year that several dogs were sent to the right with good outruns, so I thought this year I would try sending Dare to the right, as that is her naturally-better side.

I don’t really remember many details of my runs, but here is what I do remember. As I sent my dog the first day, the sheep broke to the left, due to no fault of Dare. I felt I was re-living Borders on Paradise all over again, when the sheep broke hard to the right and got most of the way across the field, away from Dare (but not caused by her). Mark Billadeau was doing setout and caught them quickly enough that they didn’t escape, so it wasn’t a replay of Borders, after all. Dare brought them down to me offline to the left the whole way, and not really listening. I did a wear through the drive panels, and it wasn’t pretty. Dare wasn’t working well for me, which distracted me enough that I forgot to pay attention to my line, so we missed the drive panels. Back to the pen, with little or no trouble; the one thing that the sheep were willing to do was go in the pen—presumably to get away from the dogs. That ragged run earned a 52 of 80.

I don't have any photos of us at the trial, so here's another photo of her at Sheep Camp. 
Photo by Jenny Glen.

The next day, the judge changed the pen to a chute, and added a set of panels to create a short cross drive. The dogs in Ranch and Pro/Nov were having quite a bit of trouble getting sheep through the chute (must get at least one through to “complete” the chute), so she widened the mouth of the chute a bit for Nov/Nov to give us a chance. After considering that the setout dog had always been placed on the right, I changed my outrun plan back to sending left. I thought that if the sheep broke again and they happened to break away from my dog and towards the pressure, they’d be less likely to get through the setout dog. If they broke to the left towards Mark, he’d probably have a more difficult time holding them, but Dare would be coming from that direction, which would hopefully push them back toward the center and proper fetch line.

I was much less nervous on Tuesday, perhaps because I was so disappointed with us on Monday. At least we didn’t have much to live up to! I was also really looking forward to the challenge of the chute; I knew it would be difficult. I sent Dare to the left and immediately noticed she was much too tight. She doesn’t have the widest outrun, but with maturity, she’s widened out, and lately she’s been running out really nice. This was very tight even compared to our early trials. I thought of giving her a get out to widen her, but decided not to. I didn’t trust that she would take the redirect, and if she didn’t, I’d lose points both for being too tight, AND for the redirect. She went out so tight that she was to the inside of the innermost edge of the drive panels. I am not sure what happened at the top but the lift was very sloppy and I think I recall that even as tight as she was, she ended up bringing the sheep back down way to the left of the fetch panels (in other words, to the same side of the fetch line as she’d been on her too-tight outrun). Some coaching from Gene regarding the sheep helped me make a better plan for the rest of the run, and this time I did an assisted drive with Dare instead of wearing the sheep on the drive leg. The turn to the new crossdrive panels had been proving tricky all morning, with people missing both high and low; it was very difficult for me to predict which way the sheep were going to pull out of that turn through the drive panels, and they surprised me in many runs as they suddenly pulled high or low just after the turn, when the dog seemed to be in the right spot to start a good crossdrive line. I think we made the drive panels this time, but don’t recall the crossdrive panels. I would guess we missed two or all three head high.

On to the chute! One of the things that Gene had pointed out to me was that the sheep were not interested in coming to the handler, so I needed to give them more room at the chute than most people had been doing (they were standing right next to the chute, using their bodies to block one side of the mouth, as if they were a gate at the pen). I’d also noticed in many runs before me that the sheep seemed to get jiggered at the chute pretty easily, and it would probably be difficult to keep them settled if the dog was flipping around too much. So, I tried to use Dare as little as possible, mainly to hold the pressure in front of the exhaust, moved her only when I really needed to, and I tried to influence the sheep myself. They scooted by me and got away two or three times. I let them get to the fence each time before regathering, as they were really running and I didn’t want Dare to get too hot on their heels as it would only make them more fussy and more difficult to get through the chute. So, we lost lots of points for them getting away so much. They tried to squeeze by me one final time, and I managed to pressure one to go through the chute, so we had a small success where many had struggled. We only earned two points for that, but it was two more points than some folks ended up with for the chute. I was MUCH happier with how Dare worked with me. Our score was lower than the previous day, but I was happier with it  (excepting her outwork, of course). Our 43 actually got us a 10th place ribbon (perhaps because two dogs had scratched that day)!

Flanking around at Sheep Camp, to begin a drive maybe?
Photo by Jenny Glen.

I love this trial, though I was disappointed in how we worked this year. I couldn’t figure out what has been going wrong, with Dare and I working very well at lessons, and essentially choking at trials. Nervousness plays a part, but it doesn’t explain everything about what is happening, especially considering on Tuesday I wasn’t feeling very nervous. Gene feels we need to work more challenging sheep so that we are better prepared for a wider variety of possibilities. I feel really good about the work we did at our last two lessons on somewhat more challenging sheep, and I’m really excited about the upcoming road trip and broadening our horizons.

Next: Working with Mike Neary

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