Some wonderful things to report today. The first is that I had a restful and relaxing vacation. I saw lots of friends, gardened, cooked and got back to working sheep with Willie (more on that soon). I took an entire three weeks off, which felt terribly indulgent, but also desperately necessary. The last two years have included many wonderful things, but they’ve also included some major challenges, including Jim’s snapped bicep, surgery and recovery, my badly smashed knee, a summer raising a puppy who was (and is) better off another home, the death of Jim’s sister, moving his mother to Madison three weeks later, the out-of-the blue death a month later of Jim’s brother, Willie’s shoulder injury, surgery and year-long recovery, and a raft of my own health problems that I’ve been fighting in 2012. Among some other issues, I’ve been lame with an “about to snap” achilles tendon since January, and have worn the infamous “boot” for far too long. Living in hilly Southwestern Wisconsin in an old farmhouse with steep, narrow stairs is not ideal for healing an achilles tendon, just in case you were wondering. So it was truly glorious to take the time off, focus on my own rehab and be able to start working Willie again. Now I’m back in the office, excited about the new website we’re working on, getting back to writing a memoir and working on a series of fund raiser speeches for shelters this fall.
But enough about me. Willie is the one who deserve the attention here. Last weekend we entered our first sheepdog trial since his injury a year and a half ago, outside of Pigeon Falls, Wisconsin. In a way it was his first trial, since the only other one we went to was a “Fun Trial” in fall of 2010. So it’s our second attempt at working in a competitive environment, although both events were low key and very relaxed (and yeah for that). Willie did very well in the first fun trial, but he lost a tremendous amount of confidence after his injury and long period of restraint. Like many sheepdogs who have big, beautiful outruns and are easy to handle, Willie hates confrontations. His injury and endless period of inactivity just exacerbated it. Even at the fun trial in 2010 he refused to take the flanking whistles I gave him on the fetch, clearly preferring to follow the sheep along and not put himself in a position where the sheep would put a lot of pressure on him. This spring my flock leader, Barbie, chased Willie a good twenty feet when we first started working again. Gradually, over the last 2 months, I’ve been trying to build up his confidence, but even recently there have been times when he wouldn’t “cover” the sheep (meaning he wouldn’t move to where he could stop them from going in one direction or another.) But he loves to work, lives for it really, and I love working with him. I will never forget Willie’s physical therapist saying to a vet student after his surgery: “We’re working on increasing Willie’s shoulder stability so that maybe someday he can work sheep again.” I blurted out “Oh no. That’s not what we’re working on. Willie WILL work sheep again, it’s just a question of what we have to do to make that happen.”
Life doesn’t always work out that way, but it did this time. He here is, working sheep again. As I’ve said before, I have accepted that he’ll never be truly sound, but I can manage him so that he can work sheep with little or no pain. Yes, our sessions are short, and yes, I wince when he slams to a stop on a downhill, and yes, he’ll need exercises for the rest of his life. But so what? I’m not in such great shape either, so we’re in it together.
Jim video taped Willie’s run, here it is for you to watch. For those of you don’t know sheepdog trials, a ProNovice course is as follows: The sheep are set out and held by a person and dog from about 200 to 600 yards away, depending on the class. (About 250 yards in this case, we ran in what’s called ProNovice.) Once the sheep are settled (as best as possible anyway), you send your dog to the left or right, your choice. Ideally your dog runs in a big, wide semi-circle that keeps him away from the sheep until he gets on the back side. Then he does the “Lift,” which is the point in which the dog makes “contact” (not physical!) with the sheep and takes control over them. Next is the “Fetch,” in which the dog brings the sheep straight to the handler, through 2 gate panels called the Fetch Panels. The sheep are then to be wrapped around the handler as close as possible and then driven away through the first Drive Panels, about 100 yards away. After going through those panels (theoretically anyway), your dog begins the “Cross Drive,” moving across the field to the second set of Drive Panels. You attempt to get the sheep through them, then straight back to you and into a free standing pen. Most trials are won or lost at the lift and fetch: Your dog needs to put just the right amount of pressure on the sheep to take control of them, but not panic them. Lots of trials are lost by dogs who go too fast and create wild, out of control sheep.
Willie couldn’t have done much better at managing some pretty difficult sheep. They tried their hardest to push to the left and get back to the barn, but this time Willie covered them perfectly. You’ll see we were working Suffolks, famous for not flocking and confronting and fighting the dogs, so I was extra happy about his work here. He made one major mistake in the outrun: he stopped about twenty yards out and looked backwards and then at me. I think, just guessing, that he was looking at sheep behind him, asking “Don’t you want me to get those sheep?” He’s a very strong-eyed dog and its hard for him to leave sheep close to him. But that’s just part of trialing and part of being an experienced dog. I said “Come By” again, and off he went. If you’re trial experienced, you’ll see that Willie did a lot right, and made very few mistakes. On the other hand, I can name several mistakes that I made, but I’m not beating myself up about it. It’s only my second attempt too after all. And I learned a lot, had a wonderful time, and left feeling so much love for Willie that it’s practically embarrassing.
It was a small trial, but there were some good competitors, and I’m truly pleased with how we did and what we learned. We even would have gotten first if (ah, those “ifs!”) I’d gotten the pen gate closed one second earlier, or they hadn’t changed the allotted time from 7 to 6 minutes partway through the runs. Being able to say you won is fun, but what mattered far more was me and Willie having a great time. And my good friend Donna and her lovely little dog Shae won the Novice class, so we all drove home happy and glad we had gone.