IT’S ALL BACK ON THE FARM THIS WEEK: Well, not exactly, because some of the photos are from Minnesota and the Star of the North Sheepdog Trial. But first, from an evening very much at home, Jim, Skip, Maggie and I recently spent the night in our staycation farm-meets-safari tent.
We’ve learned to keep all the bedding in a metal container when we’re not using the tent, since the mice think our bed should be shared with all woodland creatures. I’m quite fond of mice, but mice aren’t particularly good roommates, so they will just have to find other lodging.
We made it up the hill to the tent
well before dark so that we could eat dinner outside. Jim grilled brats made from local, organic pork raised by a friend. My job was to drink a gin and tonic while he played with fire.
Apologies to Nellie and Polly, who were locked in the garage while we enjoyed being away from our endless To Do lists. We learned in spring that, if loose, Nellie insisted on coming into the tent, which meant Skip would be transfixed by her the entire night. I’m so proud of how he’s done with the cats–he’s graduated from rigid, hypnotized, breathless staring to either ignoring, or a brief moment of Border Collie Eye before being called away. But trapped in a small tent all night is just too much to ask, so the kitties were locked in the garage, with their food, water, four different sleeping platforms and a heated kitty house. Poor things.
We spent this weekend in Minnesota, at Pearce Ward’s Star of the North Sheepdog Trial. It’s run on a glorious field–a big bowl of undulating hills surrounded by woods just starting to color up, like a tasty appetizer for the sumptuous meal to come.
It was a wonderful weekend, although Maggie’s nemesis, The Sheep From Hell, got the better of her again. Honestly, the field is so huge and challenging (your dog is out of your sight at least 3 times) that I’m still blown away that my little dog went out and a did a perfect outrun and lift, and brought the sheep to me in a straight line, up and down the swales. She remembered the course from last year and never hesitated, and scored well in the first parts of the course.
But then, ah then, the drive. Worth 30 points, with none awarded until you finish all three legs, the drive is a challenge with trial-wise sheep who know exactly where the “exhaust pen” is, and can read a dog’s skill and commitment like a Rhodes Scholar reading Dr. Seuss. Insult to injury, Maggie ran both days in mid-afternoon, when sheep have no interest in moving from A to B, and are determined to lay in the shade and chew their cud. Or read up on How to Beat Dogs on the Trial Course and Enjoy Doing it. She also got sheep who were some of the tougher ones, but that’s not an excuse.; there were plenty of tough sheep all around. The second time we ran, the sheep actually took a detour and walked themselves into the pen when we were beginning the drive, knowing that 1) the “pen” is usually at the end of the run when they then get to rest, and 2) it would be very hard for Maggie to get them out (and at that point of the run, the handler can’t leave the post). It was so ridiculous that we all burst out laughing, the judge included.
But that’s trialing, and lots of dogs were able to push the sheep around the triangularly-shaped drive course. Some with little elegance, some so beautifully you almost held your breath watching. (I’m talking to you Peg.) The fact is that Maggie and I are simply not skilled enough to be able to handle these kind of sheep under those circumstances. As I’ve written before, I’ve known for years that Maggie has limitations, ones that no doubt could have been ameliorated more by a more experienced trainer. But she never gave up, and got the sheep halfway through the cross drive before we ran out of time in the second run, and I was proud of her for that. It was messy as messy can be, with the sheep continually dashing past Maggie to run to the exhaust, and Maggie bringing then back on line. She’s entered in one more trial, same sheep. Cross your paws for an early morning run.
On the other hand, Skip, Skip Skip, Mr. Skipper, Skipper-Dee-Doo-Dah, did beautifully in our first trial together. I had actually scratched him a week ago, because he wasn’t responding well at over 100 yards, but friends encouraged me to give it a try. The “intermediate” course (Pro Novice) in this trial has a nice set up to draw the sheep down to the handler, and the drive part of the course is relatively close in. The sheep are set “only” 250 yards away, a big difference from 400 in the Open class in which Maggie ran.
Here’s Skip watching the other dog’s runs, as calm and composed as any dog I’ve seen while doing so. We decided that he was judging the runs.
Our first run, the last of the day and just before dark, was credible. We got around the course, but as Jim said afterward, “It looked like you were on the edge of chaos.” Felt like it too. Skip kept over flanking, or running around to say, 9 o’clock, when he needed to stop at 6:30 or 7. But it was credible, as I said, and we got around the course.
The next day we ran mid morning on a cool day. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do, given an atypical two Cosmos the night before. I’ll just say I was quite happy that evening and leave it at that. But the next morning I was primed to get him stopped from over flanking, and encouraged that we had at least made a credible run the day before. And lo and behold, we laid down a beautiful run. Great outrun, perfect lift, nice fetch and a drive that looked to me to be pretty damn close to on line. We got a lower drive score than I expected, but the judge (the nicest man imaginable, Bob Allen) was brutal scoring the drive for everyone, and you can never fault a judge who is consistent.
All that was left was the pen. Which we had. Until we didn’t. Three of the four sheep went in, the fourth was 2/3 of the way in but then stood and faced Skip. Do I ask him to move a half step to his right? Walk him up? Move back myself? Or forward? Or do nothing at all but wait? I don’t remember what choice I made, but the ewe bolted out and raced around the pen. We made one more attempt and then ran out of time.
If we’d made the pen, we’d have placed second and missed first by one point. But everyone has an “If only” story at a trial, and mostly I am happy that Skip and I are starting to become a team. We ended up with 60 points (20/20 outrun, 10/10 lift, 16/20 fetch, 14/30 drive, 0/10 pen), tying for sixth place. We have a long way to go, and I fully expect some not so pretty moments, but for a first time together, it went well. Best of all, Skip had no trouble handling the sheep, although it should be noted he always ran when sheep are easy to move–late evening or morning.
The only negative about his run is that he was so over heated afterwards. Not to the point of any danger, but still, hotter than any dog I’ve ever had would be. And this on a cool day. Excessive panting and tiring easily are signs of progressive mitral valve disease, and we know that Skip has a leaky mitral valve. The cardiologists differ on whether his heart condition at present explains his apparent over heating, but we’ve known since we got him that his future is uncertain. All the more reason to love and appreciate him now. I’ll be seeing another DVM, Dr. Jodi Bearman, to see if she can help with a variety of holistic treatments. I’ll just keep working on it, grateful at every moment that we have such a talented and benevolent dog in our lives. (FYI, it’s not Border Collie Collapse. Virtually no symptoms of that, which seems to be a neurological issue that causes staggering, bizarre limb movements.)
All that matters now is that Jim and I are beyond lucky to share our lives with Maggie and Skip, and I’ll move heaven and earth to take care of them as best I can.
Here’s my dear little Maggie girl, as pretty as the leaves around her.
Life is challenging now for all of us, and we know that savoring life’s joys, no matter how small, is what keeps us going. Here’s to the feel of your fingertips on the velvet behind your dog’s ears, the warmth of their body as they lie beside you, and the depth in their eyes as they look through your own, into your heart.
CLAIRE SANDBOTHE says
Skip did great! I was watching that second run and at the pen i believe you did nothing! I think if you had stepped back a tad, the sheep might have gone in. But that was a run to be proud of! What great weather we had.
So good of you Claire! I think you are probably right about the pen. I stepped back once, but should’ve again another step. Ah, the finesse! But thanks for the cheering, so exciting to run a new dog.
I love Skip’s ears.
Final paragraph touched me Trisha. Thank you.
Jane G says
Love the picture of Maggie in the woods and your closing words. So true that we must all remember to savour the joys no matter how small. Thanks for sharing the ups and downs.
Wanda Jacobsen says
How does one locate where & when sheepdog trials are being held? My family and I attended the one in Hudson, WI a year ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I would attend more if I knew where they were being held!!!
Alice R. says
and these essays are one of the best ways to do that – one of those joys!
I love your photos, and am enthralled by the stories of Maggie and Skip’s efforts. Go you! I also love your sleeping tent. So much fun! I keep trying to figure out how we can sleep on our small suburban screened porch, but haven’t been able to since it’s full of furniture we use every day.
Jodi Grzeczka says
That was beautiful! Nothing brings tears to my eyes faster than watching a creature do what they are put on earth to do. I have a new Corgi, and am planning on getting her working as soon as she is old enough. Thank you, Trisha, for sharing this!
Jean K Carr says
Can you talk about how you train a new dog for sheep?
Rebecca Rice says
Some questions about actually using dogs with sheep (as opposed to trialing with them):
How many dogs do you use? Is there some sort of formula, like one dog can handle X sheep? Is it better to have multiple dogs with various strengths and weaknesses (like one is good at driving, while the other is good at the lift, or one is good with the light sheep and the other with the heavy one) or fewer and just keep trying to improve the weak points?
And just because I think your dog-loving audience will appreciate it, may I recommend going to YouTube and taking a listen to Julia Ecklar’s “Native Son”? She does some herding, and has written a beautiful song about the joy of watching her dog work. With lines like “He’s the hand of God on Nature, working through the hand of Man. All Creation dances; come away to me.”
Love all the posts about working sheep and trials. Please keep ’em coming!
Rebecca, thank you so very much for the recommendation of Native Son. The line you quoted is exquisite. Can’t wait to listen to more. And regarding the number of dogs–it gets harder to move 75/100 + sheep with one dog, although one person and one dog can move that big a group if they are used to it. But larger than that, at some of the places where they have 250-500 sheep in a single flock, they will use 2 or 3 dogs. And yes, it’s great it have dogs with different skill sets. Maggie is brilliant on flighty sheep; she adores working them and is really, really good at it. Those kind of sheep panic other dogs, and they can get too pushy and reactive and cause trouble. But she’s not good, as I’ve said, on “heavy” sheep. She can get anything moved here at the farm, although it took her a few years to get the confidence to work, for example, inside tight quarters in the barn. Skip, on the other hand, will have much less trouble with sheep that don’t want to be moved, and more trouble on flighty sheep. People with large numbers of sheep will use one dog for help with lambing, and another to gather the hillsides. Lots of specialists in the sheepdog world. Trialers do well to have both kinds of dogs, or even better, that wonderful dog who can work all kinds of sheep.
Chris Wells says
I am not a sheep dog person, but I really appreciate border collies. And I cannot tell you how much I enjoy reading about your sheep dog trials! I wish I could watch them in person.
Wanda, go to usbcha.org (United States Border Collie Handlers Association), click on sheep and then trials and you’ll get a list of all the ‘sanctioned’ trials in the US listed by date. Regrettably, however, because of Covid, spectators are not allowed at most trials. There were, however, some at Star of the North because of other activities nearby, so it depends on the trials. You can check with the name and contact info listed for the trial if you want.
Jean K: I’ve started to answer this twice so far, and each time all I have written has been magically erased by the Bad Witch of Computers. One more try: Best is to get a book or video, try Julie Hill’s book, The Natural Way. Quickest version is to let dog in with sheep who are used to dogs but not aggressive, preferably in a round pen with no corners, and let the dog begin to react to the sheep’s movement. You don’t teach ANY cue, including lie down, until the dog has learned that his movement affects the sheep, that he must not charge in and bite (using your voice and body blocks), and help him find a ‘balance’ point, in which he stops when the sheep’s head turn toward you (on the other side of the sheep) and learns to stop the sheep’s forward motion and walk them up to you. It’s ALL about learning to control the sheep without hurting or scaring them before you even think about putting on any cues.
Anne Johnson says
Having two herding dogs I’ve always wondered how they would do around sheep. I have two horses and they are constantly reacting to their movements. Annoying as it can be at times, I do love to watch their reactions with one another – but always through the fence. I should check into some of the reservation herders as soon as this covid is over. I bet someone would let me give Shadow a try. He’s more Queensland than Aussie and has a brilliant mind. Tank is a love bug, but not as responsive (although he’s Karen’s favorite out of my two). Can you picture a dog moving sheep out on the desert? It would be awesome!
My job was to drink a gin and tonic while he played with fire.”
That sounds like a good job!
Pati Jean Diridoni says
This was a great read. The ending especially bittersweet seeing your Maggie standing among the beautiful Fall colors. Being from Paradise California we too had beautiful Fall colors where my dogs could run and enjoy the delicious mountain smells. All of this is gone now due to the horrendous fire season these past two years. It’s a pleasure to see your article! Gave me hope!
My heart bleeds for you Pati Jean. I know Paradise CA (my ex-husband Doug McConnell is from there). Hugs, wish I could deliver in person.
Someone’s got to do it Anne.
Rebecca Rice says
I’m still curious about what happens with the sheep if you run out of time before finishing the course. Do other, experienced handlers and dogs come and take over? Do you get to help? I figure they aren’t just left there as an interesting distraction/obstacle for the next team. Although that could make for an interesting variation of the trial format…..
Rebecca, you’re right that the field has to be clear before the next run starts. Each handler stays at the exhaust pen to be sure that the next group’s sheep get cleared off the field. In Maggie’s case, as in most, all I had to do was swing Maggie around, release the pressure and the sheep ran pell mell toward the exhaust gate.
Barb Stanek says
Oh, Maggie, you good girl! I’m sorry the I laughed out loud at hearing about the sheep penning themselves! I’m laughing with you, babe!
Skip, brilliant boy, you will continue! How lucky we all are to hear of your exploits and brilliance!
Thanks for sharing, Trish. I love standing in the field next to you, watching the dogs work with you.