This week is all about the Nippersink or Swim Sheepdog Trial, outside of Lake Geneva, WI. It was our first competition of the year, and given that training hadn’t been going well, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations. But it turned out well, and most importantly, Maggie and Skip appeared to have a wonderful time. If anything, I’d describe Maggie as elated after her first run. Be still my heart. If you’re interested, I’ve included two videos, one each of Maggie and Skip’s runs.
I should set the stage first: Nippersink is a big maw of a field, split by a deep creek (Nippersink Creek, thus the name of the trial), with flighty sheep who will run back to the barn given a microsecond of opportunity, as if snapped by a bungie cord. Tiny mistakes or slow responses result in big trouble.
A partial view of the Open course field, taken from the perspective of two handlers who are off the course but standing such that their dogs can see the sheep when they are picked up by another team. Can you see the 3 sheep waiting for the dog? Trust me they are there, way way back on the horizon, to the left of the porta potty, at the base of the tree on the right in the center (not the big flock, just 3 sheep. See the challenge? (FYI, you can see the handler at the post who is running in the background on the right.)
Here’s a another photo of part of the course, taken behind handler Jennifer B who is at the side of the course in hopes her dog will see where the sheep are when they are moved by a dog who successfully picks them up and brings them down the field. (See the three sheep? They are at the base of the tree on the far right in the center of the photo.) The course is much harder than it looks in photos, the photo flattens it out. If your dog runs short, they can’t see the sheep above them because of the hill. And . . . imagine you are there, trying to see exactly what your dog is doing when they get between the three sheep and the flock in the pens behind. You’re basically looking for a tiny, black dot that is barely perceptible.) For the Open class, dogs have to figure out that they have to forge through the creek to get to the sheep; many of them see the creek (which is very deep, you can’t tell here) as a fence and never find their sheep.
Skip had two runs on Friday in what’s called “Pro Novice” out here (Ranch out East). Think of it as “Intermediate.” The dogs didn’t have to run as far or cross over the creek, so it’s a much easier course than the advanced one, but believe me, challenging enough. Bottom line for Skip? He was wonderful. The dog who’s recently been difficult in training, as if he had his paws over his ears and was singing “la la la la” instead of listening, was perfectly and brilliantly responsive. He did lovely outruns, took charge of the sheep without scaring them and did everything I asked. It wasn’t a big course, but a challenging one, because the sheep came barreling down the field toward the barn (behind the handler), and the dog had to cover them on the right side on the fetch, then swing around at warp speed to turn them around the post on the left side.
I made some handling errors, mostly just too slow to respond when I needed to, but I didn’t get too upset about it. (Especially since “thinking fast” is not one of my “signature strengths,” and it was the first trial of the season.) Skip got fifth on the first run, sixth the second and fourth on third time, out of about 30 teams. Best part? Skip got 26/30 points on one of the drives, my biggest challenge at every trial.
Here’s his second run. I’m including it because it’s the best video. It’s not easy to record these runs. Jim should get a ribbon . . .
A few notes if you’re interested; I’ve added the points awarded at each phase by the judge: You’ll see that Skip has a wide outrun and disappears over a hill on the left of the sheep. Wide outruns can use up time and energy, but in this case it was helpful, because a tight outrun would send the sheep barreling to the barn before the dog got behind them. (We got 18/20 points) You can see the sheep see Skip at around second 19 before he gets in place to begin the lift (the moment of “contact” between the dog and the sheep) (8/10 points) and the fetch. One of my favorite parts is the beautiful pace Skip has on the fetch, controlling the sheep without scaring them.
Next Skip had to turn the sheep clockwise around the orange cone–tricky because they wanted to run to the right to the barn. This turn is the end of the fetch phase, and I lost 15/20 points because all the sheep didn’t go all the way around, ouch. (And totally fair.)
But the drive! Whoo hoo, I got 26/30 points, I think my best ever, because driving has always been the hardest part for me. (The outrun, lift and fetch require good handling, but much of what happens is because of a dog’s skill. The drive, which starts on this run around second 145, requires a lot more finesse and experience from the handler–I’m working on it.) We made both the gate panels on the drive, and then ran out of time at the pen. Overall, Skip was wonderful, my handling got better from the first to the last run, and Skip seemed to love every minute of it.
And Maggie, competing in Open, the big, scary class full of super-experienced handlers and great dogs on a huge course? She blew me away on her first run. She got 4th out of about 40, and it was our highest score in Open so far. If I hadn’t gone brain dead and turned the sheep around the post the wrong way, she could have won. Maggie had to run first on a huge course, with no chance to see other dogs find the sheep. She literally had to run almost a half a mile, mostly not being able to see the sheep, leap over a deep creek to get to the back of them, run past a pen of other sheep and ignore them, and keep going up a steep hill when she couldn’t see her sheep for much of her run. All of this just remembering where the sheep were last year when we ran then.
She did a beautiful lift, and was supposed to turn the sheep to the left for a “dogleg” fetch. I whistled her to go clockwise, but didn’t see that she’d taken it, so I followed with a loud Come Bye! Turns out that confused her, caused her to stop (“I was going Come Bye, wasn’t I?), and she lost the sheep who stampeded over the creek, off line on the fetch. Then I lost my head completely and turned the sheep around the post the wrong direction, but she did a good drive (our nemesis) and we got the pen. We ran out of time on the shed. Afterwards I said “we won’t have a good score, but I don’t care, I’m so proud of her,” but the course was so hard that a measly 52/90 points was good enough for fourth place.
Here’s the video: It’s over nine minutes long, and you well might not want to watch the whole thing, but if you want to see any of it, watch the beginning to see what Maggie had to do just to get to the back of the sheep. Any dog who can run that far and bring you the sheep is a wonder dog to me.
Maggie’s score was 19/20 for the outrun, 10/10 for the lift (be still my heart), 1/20 on the fetch (all my fault), 12/30 on the drive and a 10/10 point pen. I’m happy with the drive though, even with the points awarded, because it’s been our nemesis and we both did well enough.
Most importantly? She seemed thrilled afterward; my best descriptor is “elated.” I wish somehow I could have recorded that, it made my heart sing. Lately she’s been looking sour in training, as if it was all just too hard and too boring. That’s got me thinking about”practice” versus “real work,” how/why dogs know the difference between practice and competitions. I’d love to have a discussion regarding our best guesses of what differences dogs perceive between practice/training, competition, or “real work,” like getting sheep in a pen for vaccinations.
Maggie’s second run resulted in a Retire. She got a rough group of sheep who fought and fought her on the lift and kept running over her to get back to the pen. She pulled them off the fence three times, but could never win, so I walked partway out and called her off. I didn’t fault her for a moment–she tried hard and wanted to keep trying. I am sure that there are dogs who could have gotten those sheep down the field, but I guarantee you that there are a lot of good dogs who couldn’t. Better to let it go and fight another day. What matters most to me is that she tried and tried and tried and wanted to keep trying. I’ve wondered lately if she really wants to keep trialing, and her answer was clear: “Yes, please.” At least on these kind of sheep–flighty and not sticky and hard to move.
Overall, it was a great weekend. It was wonderful to see so many good friends, and be in such a beautiful place. Thanks especially to Connie, Margaret, Catherine, John, and Hixie, who worked so hard to put it on. And special thanks to Jim for putting up with it all and recording the runs. The wind was so strong it felt like getting beaten by a baseball bat, so he spent a lot of time in the car. Can’t wait for the camper we’ve ordered to arrive!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: No time to take farm pictures today, and was pretty sick yesterday (too much sun, wind and not-so-healthy food?), so here are some more photos from the trip.
What a joy to discover Trout Lilies, a native wildflower, growing in profusion alongside dandelions and other scruffy weeds along a busy road beside a bar/restaurant in Lake Geneva.
Overhead was another wild denizen of the woods, the endangered Black Lace Pantie Plant. It was growing about 9 feet up in a tree over the Trout Lilies. Possibly parasitic.
Here’s from last week at Walking Iron Park; one of my favorites, the Pasque flower. A sure sign of spring here in Wisconsin
Close by was this sweetie, looks like a Common Garter snake to me, but I’m not an expert on reptiles. Chime in if you are.
Just in case you’re snake phobic I’ll leave you with another image–the sheep flock at Nippersink being moved from one set of pens to another. They are lovely sheep, Cheviots, who, when fully wooled, are about a cute as a sheep can be.
I hope you’re having a good week; don’t hesitate to ask questions about sheepdog competitions if you’d like, and jump in about our dog’s perceptions of “practice” versus “real life.” (See a post I wrote 2014, and some interesting comments, about this very topic.)