Sunday, November 10, 2013

July 2013 Part II, and Season Wrap-Up

Fetch Gate Farm – Novice Trial

After Dare’s nice score at the Fetch Gate trial over Independence Day, she’d accrued a total of 27 NEBCA points in Novice-Novice. She was qualified for the NEBCA Novice Finals in Nov-Nov, with four more trial days to go before the Novice Finals. At 30 points, she would have to move up to Pro-Novice. If she earned any points in Pro-Novice, she wouldn’t be able to run in the Novice Finals in Novice-Novice, so after days of thought, I decided to take what felt like a gamble, and moved her up to Pro-Novice for the Fetch Gate Novice and Leatherstocking trials, hopefully to earn her qualifying points at that level. She’s been able to do this level of work for YEARS, but we’ve been so inconsistent at trials that it had taken almost five trial seasons to get to the 19 points she had at the beginning of this year. Because we’ve had trouble being consistent, there seemed no point in moving her up and making things more difficult any sooner than I had to! With a few decent runs behind us this summer, and additional confidence in myself thanks to Dot, I made the leap and moved up Dare. And once done, it didn’t seem so bad.

Mary Thompson was our judge for the three days of the Fetch Gate Novice trial at the end of July. The Pro-Novice classes were large all weekend. On Friday, the first day, Dare was in the 19 spot and Dot was last of 40 dogs to the post. I sent Dare out for her first P/N run, and although it wasn’t a beautiful run, I was happy with her. For the most part, she did as I asked, and earned her first point in P/N. Outrun 18, Lift 9, Fetch 4, Drive 14, and Pen 8. Total: 53.

Dot went out big, but overall the shape of her outrun was good and she turned in on the sheep appropriately. We had a nice packet of sheep, I was seeing things happening and reacting with good timing. We were really together on this run, and I can barely believe it was ME at the post! Outrun 19, Lift 9, Fetch 19, Drive 17, Pen 10. Total 74 (80 possible). We won the class! I can still hardly believe it!

Saturday’s class was even bigger, with 46 dogs running. Dare was about halfway through the running order, and Dot a few dogs from the end. To my very happy surprise, Dare had quite a good run, finally running in a trial as if she knew what she was doing. We kept more of our fetch points this time, and improved our overall score by 11 points: O 18, L 7, F 16, D 15, P 10. Total: 66, which earned us 8th place in that big class! I was SO PROUD of her!

Dare turning the post in her 8th-placing run. It was only her second time running in Pro-Novice.
Photo by Diane Thompson.

 Dot’s run on Saturday was very good, but her outrun was not as good as the day before; she went very wide to the fence, then turned in and came in flat. All else went well, and again during the run I felt that good (but not-yet-familiar) feeling of being “in the zone” as a handler of reading the sheep and really well-partnered up with my dog at a trial. The scores were O 16, L 9, F 18, D 18, P 9. Total: 70. Our 70 earned us 2nd place, which once again put me in a small place of happy disbelief.

On Day 3 of the Fetch Gate Novice Trial, the weather was a bit more dicey. We were hit by a very heavy downpour on Saturday evening just about the time of the handlers’ dinner, but so far hadn’t had anything too bad during the trial itself. The number of dogs running in P/N on Sunday went back to down to 40 to the post. Dot ran about 1/3 of the way into the order, and as our turn got closer, the weather started to look like it meant business. As we walked out to the post, at the top of the hill behind the field I could see and hear a tremendous wall of rain as if a microburst was coming (fortunately without the tornadic winds!). At the bottom of the field at the post, it was just barely beginning to sprinkle when I sent Dot. And I could not help myself, seeing the deluge moving down the hill; I hurried to try to beat the rain. It was all about the timing of this downpour. If it had begun a run before me, it would have been pouring and I just would have trudged to the post in a downpour. If it had been further away and a few minutes later on arriving, I would have ignored it. But as it was, I couldn’t help myself in trying to get through the course before the rain arrived, and I ended up not being focused and rushing too much. I was very impressed with Dot; she did not get rattled or tense even though I was. She just carried on working her stock as best she could, given my bad timing and mistakes. Her outrun and lift weren’t very good and those belong to her (I may have also tried to get her to move along on the lift more quickly, but I don’t remember). The rest was mostly my fault. O 16, L 7, F 16, D 15, P 10, total 64. A 64 wasn’t good enough to place on Sunday; I think we ended up around maybe 12th or 13th.

When Dare ran later in the class, the weather was not an issue. We lost ground from our nice run the day before, but I was still glad we got around the course with no major “incidents.” O 16, L 7, F 11, D 15, P 10, total 59.

Dare and Dot with their ribbons from the Fetch Gate Novice Trial. I am SO proud of them! J

Leatherstocking Sheepdog Trial

It’s now November as I attempt to recap Leatherstocking, which was way back on August 16th. The judge was Denise Leonard. I don’t remember all the details, but it wasn’t a very good outing.

The field is large, and the course is set on the left half of the field. The left side of the field is on a somewhat steep hill, which drops away to the bottom right. The pressure is very heavy to the left as the holding pens at the top and the exhaust pens at the bottom are both on the left side. The sheep are from a flock that has been at the field before, so some or most of them are familiar with the location of the exhaust pen; at any rate, they were all very determined to get there! To the right, a swale crosses the field, and an area of long, rough grass runs along it. So, the handler needs to decide whether to send their dog left, into the pressure, possibly causing their dogs to run tight or stick, or to the right through the tall grass and hope they keep a good line. Depending on the path the dogs took, there was potential for them to lose sight of their sheep in either direction. It seemed to me that most handlers sent to the left at the Novice trial.

33 dogs went to the post in the Pro-Novice class. My first dog up was Dot, and after having done well at Fetch Gate, I was hoping we’d at least have a decent run here. I was torn between sending her left and risking her stick at the top holding the pressure of the set out pen, or sending right and risking her run out ridiculously wide to the opposite fence. A dog early in the running order did run out all the way to the right side fenceline, so I decided I’d better send Dot left and try to keep her moving if she got stuck. Her outrun was wide, but I don’t really remember the top. I’d guess probably deep enough, but turning in a bit short and coming on to them slowly. Fetch very off line and she didn’t seem to try to get around ahead of them to catch them. As I remember it, the line was basically diagonally off line till even with the post, then she pushed them straight towards me; in other words, rather than a banana fetch, it was more like two sides of a triangle. I think I recall some fiddling back and forth at the post getting the drive started (but may be confusing this part with Dare’s run). The first leg of the drive was very slow, and because the sheep were bouncing a bit back and forth and trying so hard to get around her and escape to the exhaust, I allowed them to stop and settle a bit at least twice on the drive leg. I’d forgotten that stopping was probably costing us points, although if I had thought about it, I probably would still have chosen to take the points than risk the sheep bolting back. Nevertheless, the slow progress got us in the end. I don’t recall whether we made the drive panels but based on the points, I have to think so. As I got them just to the mouth of the pen, time was called. This was such a genuine surprise to me that I thought perhaps the timer perhaps hadn’t been set properly somehow. I knew we’d lost time pushing them from the end of the fetch back up past the post, and on the first leg of the drive, but I truly felt we hadn’t used all our time. I didn’t have a watch on, and had to accept that time was called properly, and it probably had been. No doubt I was concentrating so much that I had no idea how much time had really passed! Outrun 17, Lift 9, Fetch 9, Drive 17, Time. Total: 52. Not good enough to even make 10th place. I do wish she’d done a better job of covering on the fetch line, but I was relatively pleased with how she worked for me otherwise.

Dare was the last dog to run in the class. I also sent Dare to the left. She ran out, not very wide, but somewhere between a third and half way out, quite surprisingly she seemed to lose sight of the sheep and apparently had forgotten where they were. She stopped on her outrun; unusual for her. I tried to wait her out, but it was very clear to me that she had no idea where the sheep were. I helped her out with a flank whistle, which she took, and fortunately she got herself to the top. Based on her score it was a fair lift (for her). The fetch was a big banana. We fiddled around trying to push them past the post to start the drive, and she dove in and split them up, so I retired. O 15, L 8, F 8, RT.

This was our last trial before the NEBCA Novice Finals, which would be in two weeks. Not quite the last tune-up I’d hoped for.

2013 NEBCA Novice Finals

The NEBCA Novice Finals were three trials over Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend, with Chris Bowen as the judge. The trial was held at the Tolland County Agricultural Center in Connecticut. I’d never been there before, but it is the same field used for the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Trial in April. The field was pretty flat and not as large as some. The course was set to the right side of the field, with the left side being longer, uncut hay or grass of some sort. The holding pen was at the back fence and somewhat to the left of the set out point. The exhaust was on the right fenceline near the bottom corner. The sheep were fast and knew the where the exhaust was and would run hard from the top. If they beat the dog to the exhaust, they’d cheerfully jump the fence out of the field into the exhaust. If the dog could get them around the course, they were difficult to pen, although this seemed to improve later as handlers learned how to gently yet insistently finesse them. It seemed to me that, at least for my dogs, we got one chance to get them penned. If they broke away from the pen, there was little chance of convincing them to go in after that.

The weekend was hot and extremely muggy, with a dewpoint of 73 degrees, and we considered ourselves lucky that it was overcast. Occasional breezes made things more bearable, but there wasn’t much air movement in the parking area, unfortunately.

I’m writing this over two months after the fact, so as with Leatherstocking, I don’t recall some of the details of my runs. In short, they weren’t very good. We struggled a lot with the running sheep. 27 dogs went to the post in Pro-Novice. Dot was my first dog to run, and her first run was the best run of both my dogs all weekend. I sent her left on the first outrun, and she went wide. Scores for the outwork were fairly good, and the drive was pretty zig-zaggy. We got around the course to the pen, and they were in the mouth of the pen looking in, but I needed a small away flank to cover them. She went come-bye, which pushed the sheep out of the mouth of the pen, and we never had a real chance of getting them in again. Outrun 20, Lift 10, Fetch 18, Drive 16, Time. Total: 64. The Novice Finals does not recognize or award placements in each individual trial; only overall placements are announced, based on the total of the dog’s best two scores. This 64 put Dot at about 8th place of the first trial.

Dare was near the end of the running order. I sent her to the left as well, and she went out nicely, with a 19 point outrun. The sheep immediately ran hard directly towards the exhaust. As they came down the field, Dare shifted gears and put on some extra speed, as she does when she goes into flat out chase mode. I said “thank you” and stepped away from the post, retiring from the run. I immediately realized I'd made a terrible mistake. Poor Dare was honestly attempting to speed up to cover them. I had just taken her off the sheep for being RIGHT. I felt sick over it, and admit I had a few tears with Dare as I took her back to the car. It wasn’t about the trial or my ego; I knew we weren’t going to be competitive and I was just happy to be running my little dog. But the sadness was because I’d essentially just “punished” my dog in the most meaningful way possible for a working Border Collie; by taking her away from working the sheep, when she was trying to do the right thing. My only consolation (and it was small enough) was that the Novice Trials Committee decided to run Pro-Novice twice that day. She would at least be able to work again the same day, a few hours later.

In the second trial of the day, Dare ran fifth in the running order, and Dot was near the end. I changed them both from sending left to sending right at Gene’s suggestion, but I can’t remember whether I sent right in the second trial or only in the third. Based on the scores, Dare’s outrun was quite a lot tighter in the second trial, and we struggled mightily on the drive, presumably missing the panels. We did make it to the pen, but of course did not get them in. O 16, L 7, F 11, D 5, Time. Total: 39. 

Dot and I had a very offline fetch and had more trouble on the drive, losing 10 points more than earlier in the day. Once again at the pen, I needed a small away flank, and she went come-bye, once again pushing the sheep away from the pen, and once again, never getting them to seriously reconsider going in the pen. It may not be “politically correct” to be annoyed by my dog, since she is, after all, only a dog, but I admit to my own weakness: this annoyed me heartily. She was cuing off my stock stick (which of course had to be where it was so I could cover the sheep on my side), and not listening to me. We’ve been working on this in training since the Novice Finals, and I suspect it’s something we will revisit frequently. O 20, L 7, F 13, D 14, Time. Total: 54.

But wait, there’s still more Humble Pie to be served! The third Pro-Nov trial was run on Sunday. Dare was the first dog up on Sunday. I sent right to give her at least some chance to cover the side that the sheep were running towards. She was a bit tight, and a bit short on her lift. The fetch was way off line to the right, of course. She had to regather them two or three times getting them around the post and while on the drive leg. I give her a world of credit for stopping when I told her to (so very hard for her to let the running sheep get away) and collecting them off the fence. The last time they broke to the exhaust, they simply jumped out of the field into the exhaust pen. O 18, L 9, F 13, DQ. 

I forgot my camera on Saturday, so unfortunately I only have photos of our last, short runs on Sunday. All photos from the NEBCA Novice Finals by Regina Ireland-Auer.
Dare heads off on her outrun.

Dare trying hard to cover, but missing the fetch panels well to the right.

Dare regathering and bringing them back to the drive line after their second or third escape.

The final escape. Yes, she is clearly in the wrong spot to cover. I struggled to get it right, between my own lack of sheep sense, and the near-impossibility of being precise with Dare.

Dot’s last run was a bit more than midway through the running order. A last chance to redeem ourselves! The dogs had had a considerable amount of crate time in the last two days, so several dogs before Dot’s run, I tried to warm her up a bit by gently throwing a toy for her to fetch. She enjoys toys, but is not mad for them, so I had no concern that she’d overdo it. Yet on this day of all days, she went hard and fast after the toy, and took a hard somersaulting tumble when she got to it! My heart was in my mouth. She got up moving with a few little hops, but seemed to loosen up as she moved, and appeared to be moving normally. When our turn came, I sent her on a right hand outrun, and she went absurdly deep, nearly to the back fence. She turned in and then crept up on them very slowly, creeping up the entire way from where she’d turned in. I decided I’d better throw away my concern about losing points here and just try to get her to come up on the sheep so I wouldn’t burn up all my time just during the outwork. If I could get them around the course, I’d certainly need as much time as possible at the pen. It was all for naught. We completed the fetch, but as we turned the post, they broke and ran toward the exhaust. I sent her to the away side to cover, and very unusually for her, she went quite slowly. I couldn’t be sure if her earlier tumble was the reason, but I suspect it had something to do with it. The sheep stopped at the fence, Dot was on the fence as wide as she could be, and she walked in on them very nicely. They jumped the fence and our run was over. 

Heading to the post for our last chance at redemption. It appears that perhaps one leg of the tripod was not fully extended for this series of photos. The field was pretty level.

 Waiting for the sheep to settle.

Dot had gone very deep to the back of the field, and crept up slowly...

Trying to cover, but not happening.  I don't remember whether we made the panels, but I don't think so as our fetch score was very low. Still, we had a lot of fiddling about at the bottom near the post, which surely cost a lot of points.

I admit I was a bit more disgusted about the sheep jumping out in this case. Dot had done everything right in her approach to them and it was no fault of hers that they jumped the fence. They were simply determined to escape, and the relatively low height of the fence wasn’t a deterrent, as evidenced by the numerous times they jumped out over the weekend. I do understand that she should have covered their escape to the exhaust in the first place; very true, but it’s frustrating that she had no chance to re-gather even when she was treating the sheep right. Well, that’s dog trialing. You pays your money and you takes your chances! J

Seamus in front, Dare and Bran second row, Dot in the rear. Goofing off at the end of summer.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

July 2013 Part I: A Trial, a Clinic, and a Lesson

Fetch Gate Farm Trial – Independence Day

The last weekend in June, I’d signed up for a Tom Wilson clinic at Windcroft Farm in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend this clinic, but I had two more opportunities to see Tommy in quick succession. He judged the Fetch Gate trial over Independence Day (a Thursday), and then gave a clinic at Fetch Gate the following Monday and Tuesday.

As I prepared to drive up to New York the day of the trial, I entertained the idea of not going. My heart really wasn’t in it. But I made myself go, knowing that once I was there, I’d probably feel much better, and reminding myself it was only a one-day trial and I could leave after running Dot.

I did feel better once I got to the trial field. Roger and Heather Millen of Fetch Gate Farm have a good sized field next to their house where we can safely let the dogs off leash so I arrived early to get my dogs out and let them stretch their legs before the Novice handlers’ meeting, which was at 6:15. There was a slight change to the course this year because they’d just had a tremendous amount of rain, and the bottom of the field still had some standing water. The pen was moved more into the field and closer to the drive panels to get it out of the standing water. They also rotated it so that the gate now swung open toward the back of the field, which meant the line from the outside edge of the drive panel to the pen would be down one side of the pen, and the sheep would have to be turned to their right to go into the pen. Because the line distance from the drive panels to the pen was fairly short, this made penning a little more tricky than usual; the line had to be just right. This added small challenge suited me just fine, because the sheep are normally not too difficult to pen at Fetch Gate. At the handlers’ meeting, Tom recommended stopping the sheep between the panels and the pen to ensure we had enough time to get to the pen and get it opened. Fetch panels were not set up for the Novice or Pro-Novice classes. The turn at the post was clockwise, and after the drive panels we turned left (out of the field) to go to the pen. Novice was to have four minutes and Pro-Novice five.

Dare was the second dog to run. I’d been sure I would send her left because that’s just generally her better side, plus the pressure on that field is to the right, and I thought it might make her tighter anyway. But at our lesson the day before, her outrun to the right was better than her first outrun to the left. I thought a bit about whether to send her right, but ended up sending her left anyway. She went out very tight, which was disappointing. However, the rest of the run was very nice, and I was really pleased with her! Outrun 17, Lift 8, Fetch 18, Drive 18, Pen 10. Total 71 (of 80 possible) and 2nd place! J

Seamus was second to last. I sent him left, and he went out well. As he started to come into the vicinity of the sheep, he lied himself down! I was happily surprised (okay--stunned might be the word)! He had stopped himself short, at about 10 or 11 o’clock, but a free lie down from him on his outrun or lift is worth ANY point deduction! I let him lie there to see if he would get himself up, partly because I was in NO hurry to get him back up immediately after a lie down, and partly because it would have cost an additional point deduction. He lied there and looked at me, and I waited perhaps 10 or 15 seconds, and he didn’t get up, so I gave him a come-bye whistle, and he took it. He came on to the sheep; not as nice as he knows how, but better than he would have if he hadn’t stopped at all…but that was about the last willing stop he gave me. The rest of the course was a too fast, stopping-too-late kind of thing. We got through the drive panels, and I flanked him away to turn the sheep out of the field. He flanked, the sheep turned to their left as I needed, and I looked towards the pen to see where I was going and because the footing wasn’t very good. I looked back up and Seamus had changed direction to a come-bye flank and was now already at about 8 o’clock around them!!! Somehow I managed to get him to stop and flank away and turn them back down the field, but one sheep popped back through the panels. They came on to the pen in a hurry, and I think we still might have managed a pen if he’d stopped when I asked him to as they got to the pen. But he didn’t stop, and the sheep reversed and went behind the pen, breaking the plane at the back corner of the gate, and stopping there. That’s always a dilemma in penning. It is usually better to bring them back up the side of the pen to the opening in the direction you wanted them to come from in the first place, because the handler can use the gate itself and their body for a chance at blocking them. Pushing them the other direction around the pen means the handler has to get out of the way, open the gate as wide as possible to make it inviting for the sheep to go in the mouth of the pen and ensure the dog gets around them quickly enough to keep them from continuing back up the other side past the mouth. As I tried to quickly evaluate my situation, I thought it might be easier to do it the “wrong” way. We’d already lost our points for going “around” the pen (breaking the plane), and flanking him away-to-me to try to catch them and turn them, then flip him back come-bye to push them into the pen seemed like it was going to jigger him up even more, and just having him do one big flank to the away seemed like it would be smoother. Since these sheep are usually pretty happy to go in the pen, I thought that this would work, and it did. With the exception of the free lie down that Seamus offered at the top of his outrun, it didn’t feel like a very smooth run, and it wasn’t. Nevertheless, his score was good enough for 4th place. Outrun 17, Lift 9, Fetch 15, Drive 8, Pen 5. Total 54.

Pro-Novice was a considerably larger class than Novice had been; after several no-shows and scratches, 34 dogs went to the post. We ran about 10 dogs down the order. The course was the same as for Novice, with the setout and drive panels moved back. I sent Dot to the left, and she started out well. I had some hope that she wasn’t going to go out to the fence line, but she did eventually get that wide. I was relieved that she didn’t stay on the fence the entire time and run the whole field. She started to come in, but each time she glanced in at the sheep, she kicked herself wider again, heading up directly up the field to the back fence all the way at the top. At that point, I knew I had to do something and not worry about points, as we were going to lose tons of points anyway for the outrun. So I stopped her and got her to come up on them, but although she was very deep, she really wasn’t far enough around to where she needed to be. I ended up flanking her a few times; she didn’t take the last one but I remembered that Scott had cautioned me to allow her to get to their heads, and since they were facing that direction, I left her alone. She lifted them nicely (as always!) and straight on line for a perfect lift. I didn’t have as good a fetch as I would have liked, but over all it was a very nice run; the outrun was where we took the biggest hit. Outrun 10, Lift 10, Fetch 17, Drive 17, Pen 10. Total: 64. Considering the large class and the scores I saw on the board when I looked about halfway through the class, I thought if we even placed at all we’d be down at the bottom of the class. I was surprised when our 64 held up for 5th place!

Good doggies: Seamus, Dot, and Dare.

 Tom Wilson clinic at Fetch Gate Farm

After the weekend, during which Fetch Gate ran the Open classes, we went back up to Virgil, New York. I had one spot at this clinic, and we worked twice each day. I worked Dot once, but since it’s Seamus I need the most help with, he got to work three times. Seems unfair that the dogs who behave best work least, while the dogs who are naughty get “rewarded” by working the sheep most often.

Seamus and I both improved through the three sessions we worked. Tommy had an interesting way of helping us understand very clearly whether our lines were straight or whether our dogs’ flanks were appropriately shaped. As he pointed out, when driving (or fetching) randomly through a field, it is not as obvious as when we set ourselves specific targets. He set out set traffic cones in two lines, forming a large rectangle, and had us aim to bring our sheep between certain cones. It made it very easy to see whether the lines were straight, or whether a dog was flanking with an appropriate shape. In our first session, I could barely control Seamus at all, never mind getting straight lines or good flanks. He pointed out that I need to step up my insistence at getting better pace, or a lie down, if I ask for it. He really preferred that I improve the pace and thoughtfulness rather than depending on the lie down (as do I!), but also if I asked for a lie down, to ensure I get it. It was hard to stop telling him to lie down, I admit! Tom talked about using a long line (even though he is not a fan of using one) to help enforce pace. He also showed me a way of having Seamus drive along a fence line so that I could be off to the side and control Seamus’s pace the same way controlled the sheep. It was hard for me to get the hang of that but I think I understood better at the end.

With Dot, his approach to her work on her wide outrun was to have her walk up on the sheep first, then ask her to flank, as a “lollipop” shaped outrun, in principle similar to something I’ve worked on with Gene (though mostly we have done it partway through her outrun, as described in my June blog). As usual, all else with Dot was lovely.

Michael Gallagher Lesson at Kerales Farm

Just a few days later we had a lesson with Michael Gallagher. He was available for private lessons one day, or a clinic over the weekend, which unfortunately I was unable to attend due to my work schedule. We had only an hour for him to see and get to know me and the dogs, but I think he got a very good grasp on my struggles with Seamus and what I wanted to improve with Dot. Michael was able to see that although Seamus lacked respect as I walked him to the field, and as I worked him, he really is not a hard dog and in fact is rather sensitive. This is something I’m aware of but find it tricky to get the responses I require without getting him panicked. Michael’s sensible advice was to keep things much closer and insist on the stops if I need them, and address the way Seamus behaves as we walk to the field—a recurring theme for us!

Seamus seems to go through stages where he’s polite, but then regressing back to nearly dragging me out to the sheep. In the years that I’ve been involved with dogs, I’ve learned that a lot of a dog’s respect has to do with the expectations of them at home. One of the things that’s made it so difficult to get the right attitude from Seamus is that he is very easy and very polite at home. If his attitude is already good at home, what more can I ask of him? A friend of mine mentioned that well-known sheepdog handler and breeder Viv Billingham says she does not allow most of her dogs to live in the house with her, especially not males, in order to keep their attitudes in the right place (my words). This wouldn’t be practical in my situation, but I have cut back quite a bit on petting and talking to him, and have totally stopped cuddling him, and I’m raising my expectations of his responses to my commands at home even further. I admit I hate to do it because he’s always been respectful at home, but something has to change, so I’m going to try this and hope that it makes our relationship that much more solid and trustworthy in the long run. Since I’ve started doing that, he has worked better at our lessons. I’ve also kept him in much closer so as to more easily get the response I need from him. I’d entered Seamus in the Fetch Gate Novice trial and in the Leatherstocking trial, but pulled him from those right away. I would much rather just concentrate on adjusting his attitude at home rather than really ingraining a habit of him getting totally worked up at trials. He’s still young and I’d rather have the long-term good dog with whom I can go further, rather than constantly scramble around a Novice-Novice course.

I worked Dot second and although by then we didn’t have a lot of time, Michael could see the potential for her to go too wide on her outruns. His advice was quite similar to what Tommy had suggested; walk her up a bit to engage her on the sheep, then send her. He also pointed out how bad my timing was. J As we did a little drive away, with his help I was able to see a big difference.

After my lesson, he brought out his ##Cap to use as he worked with another person, so I could see Cap work. Cap is every bit as nice a dog as I expected, though starting to show the wear and tear of age here and there. I really appreciated being able to see Cap work in person. Tierney Graham was also there, and she was very friendly, too. I’m glad to have met both Tierney and Michael.

Me and Cap. I'm hoping some of the luck of the Irish will rub off on me. J

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Good Lesson, and PA State Championship Stock Dog Trial 2013

In early June I had a lesson with Scott Glen. I worked Seamus and Dot. It had been a year since Scott had seen Seamus, and two years since he’d had him in for training. I admit I’m completely envious of how easily Scott gets hold of Seamus’s mind, and gets him working thoughtfully and—dare I say it?—as if he’s actually a rather nice working dog. The pieces are there. I just don’t know how to hold them together.

As Scott and I walked with Seamus out in the field to begin the lesson, Seamus was happily running a bit ahead of us, then returning to us, doing a small circle here and there; expressing his excitement to work by way of movement. Over the years, I’ve actually changed my opinion on this, going from demanding my dogs stay totally at my side, to realizing that this is not obedience and so allowing them to feel comfortable to trot or lope at a short distance from me, as long as their intentions are good; that is, as long as I know they are not actually going to take off for the sheep without my permission. Scott didn’t like this romping around at all, and put a stop to it immediately with a water bottle thrown towards (not AT) Seamus. It took Seamus quite by surprise, but he recovered and carried on with his happy frisking. A second bottle-bullet landing near him put a total stop to this; he came back to us and walked quietly with us. Scott told me not to allow Seamus to have “Happy Feet,” which is a totally apt description, and one I’ll remember!

Seamus working with the right attitude! Photo by Regina Ireland-Auer.

For the rest of the time we worked, Seamus worked beautifully and easily; no “fighting” with him at all. He offered the right behaviors, worked with the right intentions, and any mistakes he made were honest. My heart swells with happiness when he works like the dog he CAN be! I wished my sheepdogging friends had been able to witness his nice work, as it seems most people only get to see the cranked up, no-brain, 1000-miles-an-hour-no-brakes Seamus. L But that’s the point of the lesson; not to train the dog, but to teach me to handle the dog. We had two half-hour lessons, which I split between Seamus and Dot. When I brought Seamus out the second time, Scott worked him a bit more than he had in the first session, and helped settle him into slow, small flanks, which I can only occasionally get from him (since he is already doing everything too fast). It seemed to me that Seamus was working better than last year’s lesson with Scott (in which he worked beautifully as well), and better than the year before, when he had just come back from his months of training. Even though I need Scott’s help (or perhaps just his presence) to bring out the Thoughtful Seamus, I was really happy to see that he seemed to work better than he ever had. A point that was made to me is that I need to remember to allow him to get to the sheep’s heads at the top. I’ve no doubt that I’ve errantly been “practicing” trying to lie him down at the top too soon, since I’ve come to expect that he’s probably not going to lie down, or may lie down five strides later when it’s too late. I need to be more conscious of this (also something Kathy Knox has pointed out to me in the past; that he’ll lie down more easily if I’m being fair and asking him in the right spot!).

Proof he really can work nicely without being up the sheeps' butts and pushing them at a run. 
Photo by Regina Ireland-Auer.

Dot’s time was spent mainly inviting her to come in closer on her outrun. I’ve learned that whether she goes too wide seems to vary based on what field we’re in, as she was just right at the clinic down in Virginia, though she had the opportunity to go wide. Gene and I also tested whether it had anything to do with the sheep being held by someone, and this did not seem to be the case, so it must be the particular fields (and sheep) that cause her to go wide. In the lesson with Scott, we mainly sent her to the right, which is the side that she tends to run wider on. She headed for the fenceline. Scott’s guidance was to stop her, nicely invite her to walk up in on them, and as she comes in, flank her again. If she flanks out too wide, stop, call her in, flank her…lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually I should develop some sort of come-in command, but for now, the goal is to just get her more comfortable coming in. She was a good girl and tried to do all I asked. It’s always a pleasure to work her!

Dot on a nice drive. Photo by Regina Ireland-Auer.


The Pennsylvania State Championship Stock Dog Trial is traditionally held over Father’s Day weekend. The Open classes are typically on Saturday and Sunday. Open entries at this trial are tremendous, and with 92 dogs in Open, running started on Friday afternoon in order to get two Open trials completed. I usually like to drive out to see the running on Sunday, but this year I was assisting with the silent auction, a benefit for the 2013 National Sheepdog Finals, so I drove out on Friday afternoon to be there to set up on Saturday morning. A huge thanks to the folks who helped me set up, organize, and keep things under control throughout Saturday and Sunday: Lynn Johnston, Maggie Chambers, Rick (Emily Falk’s dad, I think?), Cathy McClure, and Heather Millen. I truly could not have managed it without you! If I have forgotten anyone who gave me time and assistance, I apologize for my forgetfulness. Please know that anyone who pitched in is appreciated!

A sampling of items under the auction tent.

The novice classes (Nursery, Ranch, Pro-Novice, and Novice-Novice) are usually held on Monday and Tuesday. Because my dogs were going to be mostly crated from the time I drove out on Friday and through Tuesday, I was very concerned about how they might behave on the trial field. For the last few years of the trial, I’ve stayed at the bed and breakfast Inn the Beginning in Nicholson, PA. Ron and Marcine Carpenetti are the most lovely hosts! Across the street is a nice large hayfield where we can walk the dogs, and I took them out in the mornings before heading over to the trial field at Sheepy Hollow, and also before bed. There’s a small field at Sheepy Hollow not being used for sheep, so my friend Cathy and I were also able to let the dogs romp around there a few evenings after the trial.

The novice days were run from highest to lowest classes, so the first dog I ran was Dot in Pro-Novice. 33 dogs ran on Monday. My mom came out to watch and cheer me on, but had a commitment later in the day, so this was the only dog she got to see. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the greatest outing. I apparently jinxed myself by asking a question at the handlers’ meeting about how to handle turning the post the wrong way. Someone had said that we were expected to “unwind” and go back around the correct way, but this has somewhat fallen out of favor, so I wanted to confirm what the judge wanted. I really had no concern about doing this myself. But asking the question apparently drew the eye of Sauron upon me, much like another trial in which I’d asked a question at the handlers’ meeting and then had the situation happen to me. No more questions at the handlers’ meeting for me!

The course was set up shifted more to the left (closer to the creek) than I’d seen in previous years, making me reconsider the directions I’d chosen for my dogs’ outruns, though in the end I sent everyone the way I’d originally planned. I sent Dot to the right, as the field is pretty narrow, and with the fence there, she couldn’t really go too wide. I thought if I sent her left, she might get a bit hung up as she turned in because the sheep had been wanting to break back to the set out at the top right of the field. So, I sent her right and the outwork was okay, but I ended up going around the post the wrong way! I didn’t forget which direction to go, but I couldn’t get her to flank far enough to the away side to cover. The pressure after the fetch gates is mainly to the exhaust at the right, so she was probably unwilling to release that side. I think if I’d asked her to lie down and THEN flanked her, we’d probably have gotten them covered. Her lie down is very good, but in the moment, I didn’t think of that. I also didn’t think about how much more mobile I could have been at the “post.” I just leaned out and tried to stop them from coming to the wrong side—it wasn’t a huge miss—but I didn’t think about stepping out a crook’s length away from it or moving more around it. They got around the wrong side and in consequence we had a heavy point deduction off the fetch and drive. We got around the course, not quite as well as I expected, but we get through the entire course. Outrun 18, Lift 8, Fetch 2, Drive 8, Pen 9, Total 45 (of 80 possible).

My next dog to run was Seamus in Novice-Novice, which had 17 dogs running. When I walked him before his run, I thought his attitude seemed pretty decent. He was obviously excited, but trying to keep it together. I had a little hope that he might behave reasonably. As we waited outside the field for our turn, I stood near the end of the blind. I hadn’t thought about the angle which allowed Seamus to see the sheep entering the exhaust, and when he saw a packet of sheep run up there, he got much more amped up and his attitude changed for the worse. I moved to a better spot along the fenceline where he couldn’t see anything, and tried not to add to his anxiety, but it was too late. Perhaps he just would have gotten more worked up while waiting for our turn, anyway. It’s hard to say. At any rate, when our turn came, I sent him out to the left, his outrun was good, his lift okay, and then it was non-stop from there on. I don’t recall him lying down or even slowing down anywhere at all. It was not pleasant. Somehow I still managed to steer him around the course, and I got myself to the pen. The sheep ran to the exhaust, he chased, I retired. And then he wouldn’t come off the sheep. Generally he has a good recall off sheep unless he’s literally in the midst of a full-speed chase, but not this time. Even though the sheep weren’t racing away from him, he would not come off. He ended up pushing them at a run down the fenceline along the bottom of the field, and the judge, Chris Bowen, came out to help. Seamus got in some cheap dives and tried for another when I finally got in the vicinity, and threw my stock stick between him and the sheep. Although the situation was serious in that he was harassing the sheep, his reaction to the stick was comical; his body folded up to avoid running himself into it, and his eyes cleared and he came to himself again in a sort of Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll transformation. Bad dog. The scores up to our retire were Outrun 20, Lift 7, Fetch 12. No drive score although I was at the pen; either the judge didn’t feel we completed the drive or stopped scoring when he saw things going even more downhill than it had been with us racing around the course. I decided that the next day I would have to retire and go up the field to enforce a stop if he was acting the same way.

The last run of the day was me and Dare. I sent Dare left, and as I expected, her outrun was tighter than Seamus’s had been. I think we managed to get them through the fetch panels, and she was going a bit faster than I like, but she was overall being a good girl. We got around the course and got the sheep penned, but the last one in turned and stood with its head and neck out of the pen. We can’t touch the sheep or use the pen gate to push them in, so I couldn’t close the gate. I should have put myself in front of the gate and encouraged her to turn around, but at the time I felt that my movement would have actually pushed her out, plus I have lost a couple points off the pen in past trials when the judge didn’t feel the dog did any work to get the sheep penned. So I flanked Dare away, but she didn’t stop when I told her to, and so she went too far and pushed them all out. Boo! They ran to the exhaust where she collected them and we penned again with no trouble, but of course it was a point loss. Outrun 20, Lift 10, (apparently our sheep left the set out so we got the default 20/10, though I didn't remember them leaving), Fetch 16, Drive 17, Pen 5, Total 68 (of 80 possible). The point loss at the pen cost us a win; the judge told me later he’d just told the scribe “no points off the pen” just before the sheep had popped out, resulting in the five point deduction. It was a little bit disappointing, but only a little bit. I was really very happy with our run. It was a good run for us, and this time I knew we’d earned our 2nd place, as compared to my mixed feelings about our win last month at Borders. We also earned the points needed to qualify for the NEBCA Novice Finals.

Just a photo taken with my phone of Dare with her bling. 
Her sire Andy is the dog pictured on the ribbon's button, which I think is pretty cool. J

Monday evening as I was walking in the hayfield with the dogs, I noticed that Seamus was moving oddly, kind of bunny-hopping. His hips have been evaluated OFA Good and PennHIP 90th percentile, so I thought maybe he’d pulled a muscle being such a goon at the trial, or perhaps was just stiff from so much crate time. He never really seemed to loosen up even after running and playing for a while, so I watched him again carefully on Tuesday morning. He seemed slightly better than the night before, but still not great. It wasn’t worth it to me to run him if he was lame, and combined with his crazy run yesterday, I decided it would be best to scratch him.

Classes ran in the same order on Tuesday, and I was about two-thirds of the way down the Pro-Nov running order with Dot. Unusually, I was only a little bit nervous. I knew I could count on Dot to not do anything too crazy, and Dare had been a good girl the day before. The sheep had transformed overnight and on Tuesday were as quiet and agreeable as I ever remember seeing them at this trial. With Seamus’s unpredictability out of the picture, I had the very rare and very pleasant experience of being almost relaxed before a run! It was wonderful!

29 dogs went to the post in Pro-Novice on Tuesday. I sent Dot to the right again, and everything went as well as I knew it could. We had a bobble after getting through the drive gates. The course was slightly changed from Monday, and we were instructed to turn left after the gates (out of the course). Dot seemed to get mentally “stuck” as I flanked her with an away, and after a couple whistles, she did a come-bye flank instead, pushing the sheep the wrong way, which also pointed them towards the setout pen. They started to run towards the setout but I managed to get her to flank away and catch them, and also to bring them around the proper side of the panels on our line to the pen. We had a good pen, and I was very happy with our run! Outrun 19, Lift 9, Fetch 17, Drive 11, Pen 10, Total 66. I thought it was good enough to place but I was pleasantly surprised to learn we had placed 4th. This qualified Dot for the NEBCA Novice Finals.

I don't have any photos of me and the dogs at the trial, 
so here's another of her working during our lesson with Scott. Photo by Regina Ireland-Auer.

Nov-Novice had 15 runs on Tuesday, and Dare and I were last again. Dare was less relaxed than the day before, but I wasn’t expecting a crazy run, since the sheep had been so nice all day. We walked to the post, and our set of sheep came out of the pen running around, not willing to settle. I lowered my expectation of the run, waited till they were still, and sent Dare. As expected, things were moving along at high speed on this run. I managed to jockey everyone around the course in an unlovely way, and got to the pen. The sheep bolted for the exhaust, and Dare began a chase. At the Novice Finals last September, that scenario had ended up with a sheep running into the fence. To my immense relief, Dare DID lie down when I told her to. I let the sheep run to the exhaust and stop, and then I sent her. She collected them reasonably okay, brought them to the pen, and I don’t remember what happened, only that they ran for the exhaust again and she chased again. Miraculously, I got her to lie down a second time. I don’t recall whether she gathered them decently a second time and then had trouble, or whether the trouble was when she went around them the second time, but at any rate, she kind of busted into them and split them. I don’t know if there was a grip or not, but I chose to retire at that point. Outrun 17, Lift 7, Fetch 14, Drive 6 (ew!).

It was quite a fun trial, with plenty of ups and downs. I was tired for a week afterwards!

Saturday sunrise over a foggy hayfield at Inn the Beginning.

The peaceful yard and garden at Inn the Beginning. 
The photo didn't quite capture the golden glow of the sunrise, but it's not bad.

The barn at Inn the Beginning, as seen from the hayfield.

Sunday sunset over the B&B's neighbors.

Hidden treasure? Plymouth resting in the shed at Ron and Marcine's.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Borders on Paradise 2013

Borders on Paradise in Turbotville, PA, traditionally holds the novice classes on Mother’s Day. They run Ranch combined with Nursery first, then Pro-Novice, then Novice-Novice. The Ranch handler’s meeting was at 6:30, so I did not need to be there extremely early, but I had heard that there was a couple hours fog delay on Friday. A friend of mine had run at Borders a few years ago when there was a fog delay, and the order of classes had been flipped around so Novice-Novice ran first. I got nervous about this happening so I made sure to arrive extra-early, though there was no fog, just a cold wind.

I scribed for judge Linda Tesdahl for a few dogs. I nearly always have outer wear for three seasons in the car with me, but for some reason, I did not bring my warmest coat. It was quite cold because of the wind, which was strong, and seemed to rarely let up. Linda finally put on her warm coat and loaned me her fleece jacket to add a third jacket to my layers. It sure helped!

While scribing for Linda, I had a best-seat-in-the-house view of the rough going in Ranch. The sheep here typically run hard for the exhaust—or any other of several gates on the field—and this year was no exception. The holding pen is far up a hill in the top right corner of the field, while the exhaust is to the bottom left. When the set out had been moved down the field to the Pro-Novice distance, the pressure at the top wasn’t quite as bad, but the sheep were still willing to try to beat the set out team to get back to the top. Once they were on the move down the field, it was often a race for them, trying to get to the exhaust. The turn at the post in P-N and N-N was counter clockwise to a right hand drive, and when through the drive panels, turn right (out of the field) back to the pen. There’s a gate on the right hand fenceline that the sheep are familiar with, so the turn out of the drive panels required a quick come-bye flank from the dog to turn them from that gate and fenceline, which had to be followed immediately by a fast, big away flank to cover the exhaust pressure and keep them coming to the pen. All this didn’t bode well for me and my Novice-Novice dogs, though I thought Dot would probably handle them reasonably well as long as I held up my end of things. My sheer jangling nerves had me making funny choices; I went to ask Scott how he thought I might try to handle the top of Seamus’s outrun. An odd thing for me to do, considering Scott hasn’t worked the dog in two years, and had only seen us at one lesson last year. Asking Gene’s input would have been a bit more logical. Either way, all advice probably went in one ear, and out the other at the post.

Dot and I ran about halfway through the class of two dozen dogs that went to the post in Pro-Novice. I sent her to the left, and she went out to the fenceline for a bit, but then came in very flat. I had thought she was deep enough but she probably wasn’t. The sheep had been getting harder to settle throughout the day, and they broke to the right before she was really anywhere close to them. I couldn’t get her around them; she just trailed along behind them as if mesmerized, not taking my many flanks. Finally they started coming towards me; that is, towards the exhaust, but me and the post happened to sort of be in between them and the exhaust. Now I needed to flip Dot around on an away to get them around the post, and the turn was horribly wide. I can't really recall the drive or the panels, but our drive points tell me it was pretty wiggly. The sheep got around the pen at least twice, and time was called. Gene said that my timing was off; that I was asking her to flank or stop too late and too early—probably true. On top of that, I did not feel that we were teamed up very well at all that day. She didn't eat much of her breakfast, which I think is the first time since I've had her that she hasn't finished a meal, so perhaps she didn't feel well, although she seemed perky and normal in every other way. I knew our score would be awful, so I did not even look until there were only about two dogs left to run. The breakdown was Outrun 15, Lift 7, Fetch 5, Drive 13, Pen (T): Total 40 (of 80). Half our points gone; a 40, and some top hands in the class. I knew we wouldn’t be in the ribbons, and when the awards were announced, my mouth was engaged and my brain was not. Then I heard someone say, "Megan, that's you!"—Dave had announced Megan and Dot in 10th place. A real surprise!

The Novice-Novice class was very small; only five dogs, and two of them were mine. I am very grateful that Dave continues to support the Novice-Novice dogs, when many trials are dropping the class. His sheep and field are pretty difficult for Novice dogs, nearly as tough as Finality, in my opinion: although his sheep are better acquainted with dogs than the Finality sheep, they also like to run, run, RUN!

Seamus was first in the class. I sent Seamus left, despite that being the side where the pressure was, which can cause dogs to be tighter. His right is not nearly as good as his left so I preferred to take my chances. His outrun wasn't great, but I was okay with it. As expected, the lift was a horserace: They were off and running! Here was my first mistake; for some reason, I didn't have my whistle in my mouth (or even out) when he got up to the top of the field. So he was up there, approaching, then lifting, the sheep like a runaway freight train. I had no whistle, and I found myself frozen and tongue-tied! It took me a few heartbeats to even think of at least calling up the field to him as I scrabbled to get my whistle out from under my jacket, but the yelling (and then whistling) didn't matter. There was absolutely NO attempt on his part to lie down or slow down or acknowledge my existence. My original plan was to ensure that he listen to me at the top, even if I had to retire, but I found in that moment that although he was WRONG in his approach to the sheep, once they started zig-zagging, I couldn’t make myself go demand that he lie down while I allowed his sheep to run away. Although he was causing them to zig-zag and run by being too close and pushing on them too fast, he was also trying to control them and prevent them from escaping. Somehow he did manage to straighten them out and they ended up more or less coming directly to me for probably about the second half of the fetch, although they were coming down the field in a hurry. They may have been a bit off line a little to my left, but in my memory, the line wasn’t terribly off. And finally, he lied down…and I made my second big mistake. I thought I'd hold him there a little bit to try to get both him and the sheep a few seconds to settle down, but the sheep had no intentions of stopping just because the dog had stopped; they ran like hell for the exhaust. So I sent him away to try to cover the exhaust, but of course it was already too late. What a stupid mistake, especially because at the core, it was very similar to a mistake I made with him at Finality last year (although I think at Finality I had at least gotten him down while he was behind the post and supposedly should've been able to cover the exhaust). The sheep got down in the corner, and he took them out, but they headed up the rear fenceline (to what was now my left as I faced backwards down the field). He wasn't being bad with them and he was making an effort to get them, but they split and I saw that one was starting to consider really challenging him. I think he has enough courage to deal with it, but for a Novice-Novice class, it was NOT worth it to keep trying, since he was behaving reasonably towards the sheep. I didn't want to risk things getting out of control (having lost them to the exhaust wasn’t in control, but at least he was trying to gather them without getting crazy). I retired him. His outrun was given an 18 and his lift a 7, before our RT.

The fourth team, right before Dare, was my friend Judy with her young dog Finn. They had a VERY nice run, but at the very end while at the pen, two went in and one slipped around the side. She closed the gate on the two, and DQ'd herself. From my point of view it almost looked like maybe she didn't see that the third one was not actually in the pen. She said later that she'd intended to leave it open just the width of one sheep, but that the wind had slammed it shut; it had been very windy all day. I felt so bad for her. It was a very good run, and she really would have deserved the win.

Dare and I were last. She ran out to the left pretty tight. Sheep off and running again, sort of down the field and kind of online, Dare not particularly taking my stops either. We got around the post, and the drive wasn't great. By this time I had made a plan for the turn from the drive panels back to the pen. Because we were turning the sheep right out of the panels, and there was a need to flank come-bye for the turn and then cover the right side of the field, then flank the dog back almost 180 degrees to cover the exhaust, I thought I'd push them through the panels and have her walk up on them just enough to try to turn them right, but not be so close to push them hard to the right. My thought was that if they weren’t moving too fast out of the panels they might not be thinking as much about the gate on the right side fence, and they might pull back to head towards the exhaust. If that worked, then Dare wouldn't be so far out of position as to have to flank far to the come-bye side, then race 180 degrees to the other side to cover the pressure of the exhaust. It was a plan (I so rarely have a plan, other than trying to not have my dogs “punch” the sheep on the lift and chase them down the fetch!), but it didn't work out. The sheep turned right out of the panels but didn't pull back left as I expected, so then I had to try to race Dare clockwise just to catch them, then back counter-clockwise to keep them from getting to the exhaust and headed to the pen.

I try to go to the pen as soon as I can, but I also try not to pick up the rope until I have to, so that I'm not committed to the pen in case there's some way I can help the dog by moving around a bit. But these sheep were running, and I should have run to the pen myself and flung the gate open. I should have taken into account that as soon as Gene could leave the post in his Pro-Novice class, HE ran to the pen. That may have been the first time I have ever seen him run! But I waited too long before realizing I should open the gate, and they went past me. Dare was able to cover the exhaust well enough to prevent an escape, but didn’t get around far enough to pull them back to the pen. They went way behind it, in a big hurry, towards the gate on the right side of the field. She turned on the afterburners and started to chase. Thank goodness she responded and checked herself when I yelled her name! She gathered them, we penned, and we were done. Whew… Outrun 15, Lift 8, Fetch 16, Drive 11, Pen 5. Total 55 (of 80). One other dog completed the course, and with a much lower score; I had retired Seamus, and the other two runs were DQs. So, Dare and I won with a 55, basically by default since my friend had the bad luck mistake. I am happy that Dare and I managed the best run of our class, but I sure hope we can turn in better quality runs this season. We can do nice work; we just seem to defeat ourselves at trials. 

Our next trial is at the PA State Championship in June. I hope that I will be able to get them enough exercise and time out of their crates, as we'll be there helping out several days before our classes, which will likely add to their excitement and stress.

Dot 10th in Pro-Novice, Dare 1st in Novice-Novice

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spring Cleaning

Our first trial, Borders on Paradise, is three weeks away. I’ve entered Dare and Seamus in Novice-Novice, and Dot in Pro-Novice. Time to tidy up stops and flanks as much as I can. Now that we’re back on Daylight Saving time, we are able to work twice a week. We recently attended a couple of clinics, which were well-timed to give me a bit of concentrated work on the dogs two weekends in a row, then a few weeks of our regular lessons to continue building on the clinic work. The first clinic was with Jack Knox, in Leesburg, Virginia. 

Jack discussing Dot with me. Photo (c)Michelle Dobbs.

I had one working spot for this clinic, but it was a three day clinic so I worked Seamus two days and Dot one day. There are plenty of things for me to work on with Seamus, but I think many of these things come down to pace and feeling the sheep. Overall, he did pretty well; he really likes to work for Jack, and Jack speaks softly and gently to him, unless of course, Seamus lets his excitement get to him, and even in that case, Jack doesn’t need to get too hard with him. I wish I could find that “sweet spot” with Seamus, where I’ve got the nice quiet control. Quiet is better for him (as for most dogs), but there are certainly times when he doesn’t take me seriously, and then it begins; the more I escalate things, the faster he goes and the more anxious he gets and tries to “escape” the pressure. Knowing this (a lesson learned almost two years ago when working with his breeder Tina), I try to stay quiet, but he’s got a fine line between respecting commands and building tension under the pressure of corrections required to rein in his enthusiasm. Even so, he really is making progress compared to a year and a half ago. It’s just coming much more slowly than I’d like. The maturity is helping both of us; he can think a bit more, which helps me to stay calmer, which helps him to stay calmer…etc.

Seamus at the Jack Knox clinic. Photo (c)Michelle Dobbs.

Dot has a tendency of running quite wide on her outruns in the big field at “home,” to the point of being absurdly off-contact from the sheep, so on our first turn at the clinic, I worked her in the largest field to try to demonstrate and get Jack’s input on this. She ran out beautifully; totally appropriately each time, and I was unable to get her to do what I was concerned about. We had a few other smaller things to work on, but no issues with her running too wide. On her next turn I worked her in a smaller field, since there was nothing to be gained by working in the big field. She was just lovely, and Jack seemed to like her quite a bit.

Dot in the big field at the Jack Knox clinic. 
Photo (c)Michelle Dobbs.

Our second clinic was with Kathy Knox in Chestertown, Maryland. I had two working spots here, so Seamus and Dot both got worked over the three days. Kathy remarked on the progress Seamus has made over the time I’ve been working him, and it’s nice to hear that it’s a noticeable improvement. He worked well and tried hard for me the first two days. The morning of the third day, he was a bit rougher; edgier, as Kathy said. The wheels came off a bit that afternoon, where he just couldn’t seem to listen and hear what I was asking, and he was being naughty. Not to the point of chasing the sheep (at least, not that I remember), but being hard and fast and pushy; not stopping when told, not taking flanks or impulsively taking wrong flanks (or so it seemed). I felt like I had the “old” Seamus back. Kathy and one of the attendees of the clinic, whose handling and input I really respect, thought that it could be the effect of more training pressure than usual in such a short period of time (two clinics on back-to-back weekends); it is something they’ve seen in their own dogs. They felt that that Seamus was anticipating training pressure was coming each time we went to the field. I think this could very possibly the case. Still, I am certain he would do much better if I was able to work him more frequently. If I had my own sheep, he could be worked more frequently, but doing real work without as much training pressure. However, having my own sheep is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, so I’ve just got to muddle along as best as I can.

Seamus at the Jack clinic. Photo (c)Michelle Dobbs.

Dot worked very, very nicely for me, and there’s very little to say about it. The main piece of advice was to ensure she’s getting far enough around to cover before her lift, and to steady up the top of her fetch a bit. She generally comes in and lifts nicely, but once they’ve lifted, they come down the fetch quickly, something I’ve not been concerned about because the line is usually good and they aren’t running away, just loping quickly. I also worked at driving and cross-driving, since I have some issues with steering. Dot does everything I ask and this makes my handling errors glaringly obvious. We set out some cones in a rectangle and I stood in the middle and drove her around in both directions. We were also near enough to the holding pens and the other sheep to create a strong draw, which helped make the driving more challenging for me when they were headed in that direction. Kathy liked Dot and thinks she’s a good match for me. I totally agree!

Dot at the Jack clinic. Photo (c)Michelle Dobbs.
There’s one more opportunity for us to tune up before the trial, as there is a nearby fun run trial on May 4. I was planning to enter Dot, Seamus, and Dare, but something has come up at work, and I now may have to work that weekend. I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t make the fun run, but not everything in my life revolves around the dogs. My niece and goddaughter’s First Communion is on May 5 and I may have to miss that, which would be much more disappointing than missing the fun run. Hopefully things will work out.

Sunday, March 31, 2013


Easter seems like as good an excuse as any for a more modest resurrection, that of this blog. It’ll probably be quite some time before anyone notices, because who keeps visiting a “dead” blog? I often feel like the little daily dramas aren’t worth mentioning, and I procrastinate on doing an update, and before I knew it a year and a half had gone by.

Our sheepdog training has continued to the degree which I can afford and for which I have time. For the most part, things are pretty much same old, same old. But naturally, some things have changed.

Now eight years old, Dare is easily my most trusted and most reliable dog—except at trials! We’ve certainly had our share of struggles along the way, even as recently as the NEBCA Novice Finals last September (2012). While I’ve resigned myself to the fact that she is usually quite nice in most situations other than a trial, at trials we seem to fall apart. We: yes, I take responsibility for some of the trial jitters, too. At the 2012 Novice Finals, things fell apart in a big way when Dare had a relapse of an old bad habit and chased a sheep, which ran into a fence. Fortunately the sheep was fine, but it was nauseating to have that happen. Bad enough for it to happen with a young dog, but positively sickening from a seven year old dog. She works so nicely at our “home” field, and generally quite well at other fields when we are at clinics or working with friends, so it’s not as much the challenge of different fields and different sheep at trials; it’s the entire atmosphere at a trial. 
My instructor teases me and asks when I’m going to move up; we’ve been languishing in Novice-Novice for five trial seasons. I figure if we are so inconsistent as to not have pointed out in all this time—and if she’s still chasing sheep—then I don’t see that we are ready to move up. (In NEBCA novice classes, points are earned based scores awarded at trials. Dogs must move up when they have earned 30 points in a particular class level. They can move up sooner if they are ready.) At “home” we can drive a Ranch course (well, on our good days); we work on shedding, and small turnbacks, but I can’t get her to settle enough at a trial for a decent lift and fetch at a 100 yards or so. Good thing our trial results don’t impact my livelihood! Maybe this will be our year? After all, she’s slowing down, finally…

Branwenn is now five years old. In late 2011, I agonized over her, as she never really partnered up with me when it came to working sheep. At clinics, it was clear to me that these experienced handlers had the timing and presence to get far more out of her than I was ever able to. I considered selling her to either a work or sport home, if I could find a home that I felt very comfortable with, but I had to admit to myself that she doesn’t have the talent that a more an experienced handler would require in a dog, and the amount of handling she requires is not something most novices have. She’s capable of Pro-Novice work, and I would have happily gone on with her just enjoying what we were capable of—after all, I’ve got plenty of limitations of my own!—if only I’d felt that we were a team. 
The decision to stop working her was extremely difficult, but ultimately, I think it was the right thing. I found myself too frustrated with her too much of the time on the field, which I’m sure contributed to her stress level. To be correct, she needs help from the handler, and she wasn’t willing to accept much help from me. As a result of her not taking my help, a moderately challenging situation could get really messy, and so she’d need to be corrected, which she’d generally blow off due to stress. What to do with the dog that needs help but won’t listen to the information being provided, and who earns a correction but can’t handle one? At any rate, I ultimately decided that even if we didn’t work sheep any more together, I truly love Bran too much to be able to let her go. Many dogs have happy and satisfying lives not working stock, and I know this is not the only activity that she enjoys. I have been giving thought to starting a new activity with her, but haven’t made any decisions on that yet. She remains my Sweetpea, and is far and away my most expressive dog.

Seamus is technically Bran’s “nephew;” his sire Newby is out of Bran’s dam. Seamus and Bran share some traits, but the sheepdogging journey with Seamus has been quite different to the journey with Bran. He turned three years old in December, and he’s starting to become more thoughtful. Finally, progress there, although there’s certainly a long way to go with him. I’m trusting him more not to lose his mind under stress, and he is trusting me more to ask things of him which may be hard but which I believe he can handle. I’m also becoming somewhat better at how I ask for things or correct him when needed. And of course, as he slowly matures, he’s also more willing to do things at somewhat less than a thousand miles an hour. He still does nearly everything too fast, but there is improvement, and I’m very encouraged by it. 
Although I sometimes feel just barely in control of him at trials, he’s far ahead of where Dare was at this stage in her trial career. By comparison, after one season (plus one trial in 2011), he’s already got more than half the points that Dare has earned in five trial seasons. That’s just one measure of progress, but again, it’s encouraging to me. I continue to try to improve as a handler, and although I still (often!) make stupid novice mistakes, I feel that I’m getting better. Slowly.

After I had struggled with the decision over what was right to do with Bran, I thought maybe the right thing for me as a handler would be to buy a trained dog. While the other three had been sent out to trainers for several months, they were still essentially just “started” dogs when they came home. Between my lack of mileage and my limited access to sheep, it’s been very difficult for me not only to maintain these young dogs at the level of training they had when they came home, but to actually move forward from there. I enjoy the journey and just working with the dogs, but it’s also true that feeling like I’m not making progress is very discouraging. For example, doing turnbacks with Dare at home is one thing, but running sheep into fences at trials shows me that she’s just not solid. So trying to become a better handler when I don’t feel like I can count on my dog 100% has also made it difficult for me to work on myself as a handler. I quietly mentioned to somebody that I’d be interested in a trained dog, if one fitting most of my criteria came along. A month or two later, I was sent a video of Dot. She was moving along at quite a rapid pace, and she was younger than what I had in mind as a “solid” dog that I could depend on to help me. She’s actually a month younger than Seamus, and I thought to myself, “I’ve already got a fast-moving two-year-old, what do I need another one for?” so I passed on her at that time. About half a year later, a new video of Dot was sent to me, and that got my attention. After probably driving her owner nuts with my many questions (I always have questions, and lots of them!) Dot arrived in New Jersey near the end of July last year. She has been absolutely lovely to work, and all I’d hoped for. She seemed to connect with and feel comfortable with me right away, although the working side of the relationship takes more time to develop. The first time I worked her, a few days after her arrival, my instructor suggested that if she worked just as nice a few days later, perhaps I’d want to enter her in a trial coming up that weekend. She was very good for me, and we were able to get in to the trial, so I ran her after having her just a week and having only worked her twice. It was also my first time ever to the post in Pro-Novice. On our first run on Saturday, we had a bit of a false start; she seemed to get startled by something happening up in the set-out pens just as she passed them, and she turned around and started back. I was able to get her turned around and engaged, but her lift was very slow. Ultimately, we timed out on the drive leg. The next day, we completed the course, and on top of that we even did well enough to place 9th out of 33 dogs. I was ecstatic that she was so willing to work with me so soon!
There’ve been a few challenges with Dot, as well. She’s less social than my other dogs, and I need to keep in mind that she is not comfortable with strangers. I hope that in time, she will feel more at ease. She also had odd movement that resulted in her not being worked for three or four months while we worked on her with cold laser therapy, underwater treadmill sessions to strengthen and condition her, and chiropractic visits. All xrays and exams have come up negative, and the chiropractor seems to be helping, so I am going to continue that with her on a monthly basis for now. She is cleared to work and hopefully the better weather and longer days will enable me to get her more fit, which should help a lot.


I’m really looking forward to doing more with the dogs—all four of them—now that we’re back on Daylight Saving time and the weather is finally getting better. We’ll be heading to several training clinics and trials this season. I can’t wait to visit with our sheepdogging buddies!