We’re just back from the Nippersink Sink or Swim Sheepdog Trial, and I’m still glowing over Maggie’s work. Don’t get me wrong here–we neither won nor came close to it, but my goal has been to progress in the Open class such that I felt we belonged there, and it is starting to feel like we do. Last season, we ran 4 trials on an Open course, had a few great moments, but lots of, uh, learning experiences. But we both did indeed learn a lot, and Maggie and I got used to barely being able to see each other when working 350 or 500 yards apart.
A few weeks ago we had our first competition of the season, and we again had some ups and downs. I made several mistakes, Maggie got overwhelmed by testy sheep, and but she also did some really good work and I made some good decisions. (Full disclosure: Making split second decisions is not my wheelhouse. My brain would like a chance to review what I’ve done and edit it, thank you very much.)
This last trial is a big challenge for any dog and handler. The outrun is huge, it’s over a deep creek that many dogs perceive as a fence, and the sheep are both flighty and crazed to get back to their barn. If the dog takes the pressure off for a second it’s like a person hitting the bottom of a Bungee jump. BOING! The sheep hit the end of the bungee and are in a dead run back to the barn.
However, these are also Maggie’s favorite kind of sheep. She loves flighty sheep, and hates “heavy” ones that have to be moved around the course by a dog metaphorically pushing on them as if rolling a boulder up a hill. In spite of struggling with the creek (more on that later), Maggie finished her second run with what I can only describe as an elated expression on her face. And she did well, really well, and I am still over the moon proud of her.
Before I talk more about our runs, I thought I’d answer the several comments I’ve gotten over the years from people who would like to know more about sheepdog competitions, or “trials” as they are called. (No attorneys present, unless running their dogs.)
To start, here are some logistics: Competitions usually use 3 to 5 sheep at a time for each run, depending on the trial and the number of sheep available. The sheep will be held in two different places during the competition. Before the trial starts, the sheep are herded into the “set out” pens. A couple of volunteers will separate out the number of sheep for each run required for that particular class. Let’s say it’s going to be 4 sheep for each team. Each team of dog and handler will run a different set of sheep. And which sheep you get can make a big difference: You could get 3 sheep who are buddies and one from a different flock who has no interest in staying with the others. You might get a group with one ewe whose older lamb is back in the set out pens. You might get tired and cranky sheep in mid-afternoon who move like wooly sloths, or sheep early in the morning who are frisky and want to run like deer.
Once four sheep are separated out, the “set out team” (a person and a dog) move the sheep to the “set out” point. This is the same place for every run. Sometimes this team, usually a top handler and a skilled dog, hold the sheep in place by using their skills and experience to place themselves in exactly the right place to keep the sheep in place until the dog running gets to them.
More often lately, the sheep are driven by dog and handler to a pan of grain which keeps the sheep busy until the competing dog can get there to take over the sheep. There are lots of pro’s to the grain method: The sheep are in the same place for all handlers, and they might be worked less and be less hassled by a dog before your dog gets there. On the other hand, your dog has to “make contact” with the sheep who are presenting nothing but their butts to the dog, and they are less likely to want to move, especially if there is a lot of grain in the pan. Often, especially with flighty sheep, you need both grain and a great dog/handler team to keep the sheep in place. And it doesn’t always work–Maggie and a few other dogs got reruns because the sheep had escaped to the barn before our dogs could anywhere near them.
The other group of sheep is in the “exhaust pen.” These are the sheep that have already run, and are taken to the pen to rest and eat with their buddies. What’s important about these groups is that each flock will act like a magnet for the sheep on the course. Almost always each individual sheep is run more than once each day, with a long rest in between. As a result, they get very clever about where the exhaust pen is, and start fighting the dogs harder and harder to get back to either the set out pen, the exhaust pen, and, as in the case of this trial, their barn. So imagine that every dog is trying to move sheep around a prescribed course, countering the sheep’s desire to go back to their buddies or back to the barn if the trial is on their home farm. Okay, now you’re ready to run your dog and send her in a wide semi-circle around to the back of the sheep.
But not until you’ve decided which way to send your dog, left or right. It can make all the difference in the world. There were extensive discussions at Nippersink before the second run about the pitfalls of sending your dog right (would dogs disappear over steep hills and have trouble finding the sheep?) or left (would the fence corner cut into the usual semi-circular path of the dog and mess up a clean run?). Everyone decided to send left, believing that sending our dogs to the right would get them lost 500 yards away in a deep ravine on the other side of a set of hills.
Secondly, you’re not ready until you’ve let your dog watch several runs so that they can see where the sheep are being set. If the sheep aren’t moving it can be hard, if not impossible, for your dog to see them and know where to run to. Ideally, you and your dog are able to handle things if they can’t see the sheep, but every time you have to signal your dog on its outrun you lose points, so you position yourself at the beginning of several runs so that your dog can see the sheep when they start to move and get some idea of where to look for them. Then you need to insure that your dog doesn’t focus too much on the sheep behind you in the exhaust pen. They, after all, are much, much closer, and inexperienced dogs, or those with little confidence, will run to them rather than running out to the ones hundreds of yards away. (Maggie began doing that last year when we started Open, and I’m sure it was “But these sheep are right here, and it would be so much less scary to work them than those other ones a million miles away…”.)
Okay. Now it’s your turn. After the last run was over, you’ve walked up to the judge and introduced yourself, then walked to a post where you have to stand for most of your run, waited for the sheep to be settled, taken a breath and sent your dog on the OUTRUN, which is worth 20 points. The clock starts the second your dog leaves your feet. In the Open class you usually have from 9 to 12 minutes to complete the course, depending on its length and difficulty. The Judge decides the time allowed; we had 9 minutes at Nippersink.
“Come Bye” you say, and your little dog streaks away to the left in a big semi-circle around to the back of the sheep. You stand at the post and watch her run, let’s say to the left of you, and get smaller and smaller. You are hoping that she doesn’t run too wide, and lose valuable time and energy. (Maggie can do that sometimes.) Some dogs run “tight,” and disturb the sheep before getting into position. An ideal outrun is pear shaped, so that your dogs saves time the first few hundred yards, but than casts out so that she gets herself well behind the sheep and in a position to bring them straight down the field to you. You need to be ready if your dog is making a mistake. For example, on Maggie’s first run she got to the creek, about half way between me and the sheep, and began to turn in way too soon. Imagine a dog turning into the middle of a clock when she reaches 9 o’clock, but the sheep are at the top at 12. Lots of dogs made that mistake, and I was pleased that Maggie stopped, and then took my “redirect” whistle, bent out, got herself over the creek and finished with a beautiful circle to the back of the sheep.
As your dog rounds around to the back of the sheep, you have some decisions to make. If your dog has great sheep sense and “balance,” or the ability to know where the sheep want to go, and what she needs to do to bring them to you, you let your dog stop on her own. That might not be directly behind the sheep from you. Let’s say you’re standing at 6 o’clock on a clock face, and the sheep are at 12. But, the sheep came from a large group behind them at two o’clock, and they’d like to go back there. Your dog needs to stop at 1, not 12, to counter that and get them moving in a straight line to you. Either you trust your dog to stop in the right place (Maggie is great at that), or you whistle them to stop just where you think they should. That’s tricky, because at 500 yards your whistle needs to be given in enough time to reach your dog when she gets to the exact right place.
It gets trickier. For example, last summer Maggie and I were in that exact situation. On previous runs, the dogs needed to stop before 12 to get the sheep moving in a straight line, and I saw what happened if dogs weren’t doing that. So I asked Maggie to stop at 11 o’clock and she did, good girl. Whoops, I should’ve trusted my dog. I didn’t notice, which I should have, that unlike the others, our group of sheep was facing toward where they came from, to the right. Maggie should have stopped at 1 o’clock, not 11, to get the sheep moving on a straight line to me. We got it fixed, but it made Maggie work harder and cost us a few points.
The next stage of your run is called the LIFT. It’s worth 10 points, but can last literally only seconds. This is the moment when your dog makes “contact” with the sheep and gets the sheep moving forward. In an ideal lift your dog walks quietly but confidently toward the sheep, aware of which way the leader wants to go and ready to counter act it if necessary. The sheep begin moving away from the dog without panicking, and begin moving in a direct line toward you. Your entire run can be made or broken here. If your dog charges in the sheep will be too flighty or turn to fight your dog later on. If your dog is hesitant, the sheep get an instant “read” on her and will respect her less later on. Maggie usually has gorgeous lifts, although she can be slow and take up some time, but she loves to “pick up” the sheep.
Now you’re starting the third phase, the FETCH, worth 20 points. Now it’s all about keeping the sheep “on line.” Usually the fetch line is directly from where the sheep are set out to you, and through a set of free-standing gates in between. On occasion, the dog is asked to do a dog-leg fetch, or bring the sheep part way to you, then move cross wise left or right, then back on line to you. The direct line is a test of a dog’s natural “balance,” or ability to read the sheep and put pressure in exactly the right place to bring you the sheep. The dog leg is a test of a dog’s ability to listen to her handler and counter act her own instincts. Dog leg fetches are rare, but the two trials we’ve run in them so far this season have had at least one run with one in them.
You complete the Fetch by swinging the sheep around the back of you, as close as possible for the maximum number of points. They have to go around to your left or right side, depending on the direction of the next phase, the drive. You get full points if the sheep come to you on exactly the line prescribed, and through the fetch gates.
The DRIVE is worth thirty points, and the kicker is that if you don’t complete it, you don’t get any points for it at all. You and your dog can work incredibly hard, run out of time just seconds before completing it, and not get any points. (You might note that I’m hyper aware of this, since it’s happened to Maggie and I far too many times. The drive is Maggie’s hardest challenge, the Outrun, Lift and Fetch is where she shines.)
The drive is shaped like a triangle. First your dog drives the sheep 100-200 yards on a diagonal to say, your left, goes through another set of free-standing gates, then “cross drives” them in a straight line through the last set of gates. Those gates can be hundreds of yards apart, and feel an infinite distance from each other. Points are all about staying on line and getting through the gates. It takes a lot of experience and depth perception to know at that distance whether your sheep are heading for the gap between the gates or not. Once through the last set, your dog brings to sheep to you for the PEN. Now you can leave the post, and walk to the pen and help your dog bring the sheep into just the right position.
The pen is worth 10 points. Your job is to move the sheep into a three-sided pen that the sheep think is a truly bad idea, and will do all they can to run around to either side to escape it. Every time they lap around the pen you lose points, and you lose chances of getting them inside, because once they’ve figured out they can circle the pen, geometry makes it difficult for your dog to get around them fast enough to stop them. Successful pens take a lot of sheep sense of both handler and dog–you can destroy everything by moving toward the sheep just two inches at the wrong time, or not having a dog who stays well back until you ask her to come in. The faster your dog moves, the jumpier the sheep will be, and it’s critical to keep you and your dog as quiet as possible in order for the sheep to be relaxed enough to enter the pen.
Dog and handler trying to get the sheep into the pen. (Photos from earlier years; this year, because of Covid, you can’t touch the gate or a rope to it. Some trials now have no gate at all which makes it even harder.
After the pen comes the last exercise , the SHED. (Although sometimes the order of the pen and shed is reversed.) This is when you and your dog, again keeping things as quiet as possible, split off one or two sheep from the rest. The judge tells you exactly how he or she wants you to do it. For example, “Take a single off the back on the nose” means your dog needs to split out the last sheep in a line that is facing her when she comes in. Shedding is hardest, ironically, when sheep have no fear of humans, and worse, clump to you like velcro as some kind of ovine safe space. The sheep at Nippersink are much less comfortable being close to people, and in some ways they were easier to shed. On the other hand, they were also so pulled to the barn that keeping them in one place and quiet was extremely hard. Maggie and I got lucky on our first run, and I was able to get a quick but inelegant shed. Maggie came in like a champ in the gap and held the sheep away, as required, until the judge had determined that the dog had control of the sheep. (There was no shed in the second one, probably because we had switched directions and where working on a very steep hill.)
Okay, have I bored you to tears yet? If you’re still with me, here are some videos of Maggie’s run on Saturday and Sunday.
The first one is our second run, our best by far. This is the run that had me all gooey when we were done, I was blown away by her heart, her physical ability and her sheep sense. My goal for the beginning of the year was to score in the 70’s or above, which means your dog probably isn’t going to win, but did a damn good job. We got a 71 so I squeaked in there. The run you’ll see is actually her second try; on her first attempt the sheep got away from the set out team and ran to the barn before Maggie had a chance to control them. That resulted in the judge calling a rerun, which occurred less than 15 minutes later, so she started this run after having already crossed the creek twice and run over 800 yards. The run is also actually done in reverse from the first one on Saturday. In this one, the sheep are close to the barn and we are up at the top of a steep hill. It meant Maggie had to cross the creek where the banks were steep and edged by thick grasses, which turned out to be a challenge for her.
You can see at 8 seconds she struggled to get across the creek and then disappeared in it for way too long. My heart in my throat, I was a few seconds from tossing our run and running down to rescue my dog. But she made it out, struggling hard to get up the far bank,. Whew. I was able to breath again and she began the rest of a really gorgeous outrun (20/20 points).
If you have the sound on around second 47 you’ll get a laugh, because my dear husband couldn’t help talking to himself when he saw that the sheep had yet again run off their set out point and were booking to the barn long before Maggie was anywhere near them. (A note here: It was incredibly difficult to keep these sheep in place, and I applaud Hixie and John, who were doing the hardest work of the trial trying to do so. It was Hixie working when I was running Maggie, and she did a great job getting the sheep back into place for Maggie. I saw what was happening but let Maggie keep going, because there is just so much time in the day for multiple reruns and at some point I figured it was my and Maggie’s job to sort it out.
Things settled down, Maggie did a great lift (10/10), a super fetch (16/20), and we made the fetch gates with ease. You can see during the fetch how hard Maggie had to work to counter the sheep’s desire to go to their right. However, once they got up hill, the sheep ran past me at the post, which cost us a couple of points. It was extremely hard to stop the sheep from running past you to the exhaust pen which was very close by, but I should note that some people were able to do it, so I need to go to school on how they did it.
The video loses both Maggie and the sheep for a bit, but picks up around 3:20 for the start of our drive, which is the part I’m proudest of. Maggie didn’t put a paw wrong, took every whistle and made both of the gates. Drives are the challenge for Maggie and me (note that they will be the easiest part for me and Skip I’m predicting), and it’s where we’ve had the most trouble. It helped that the sheep were Maggie’s kind of sheep and that they were moving freely in the right direction, but still. Damn. What a girl. Took every one of her whistles, I never had to default to verbal or repeat myself (as I do in her first run).
The rest of the run isn’t in the video, it was hard to get a good tape of it. Maggie and I worked hard to get the sheep in the pen. We struggled mightily, Maggie worked her tail off for another 4 minutes, the sheep running behind the pen to the exhaust, Maggie bringing them back several times. She did great work and never gave up. We did get them in the pen too . . . Two seconds after we ran out of time! Hey, I’ll take it, and we would only have gotten another point or two any way.
Still with me? For those of you who are, here’s her first run, or at least the first part of it. (Videographer, Jim, apologized for the quality of both videos, but I am ever grateful to him for doing it at all. As you can see, it’s not easy.) If you want to watch, turn the sound off if you don’t want to hear other handlers chattering, and incessant gunshots from the property next door. (I’m amazed they didn’t seem to bother Maggie.) Leave it on if you want to hear me signaling Maggie. I’ll warn you right now that I made a huge mistake and gave her the wrong signal at exactly the worst possible time. It took me the rest of the day to get over it, and I still actually can barely watch the video, but Maggie recovered and did fantastic work. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve included it. You’ll see on this run the sheep were on top of the steep hill, and we were down closer to the barn. It made the drive much harder than when run in the other direction.
Maggie did so much right on this run. She stopped at the creek on her outrun and began to run in too soon, but she listened beautifully when I stopped her and took her “redirect” to go out and go big and run clockwise around to the sheep. She had a lovely lift although she over ran the sheep at the top (I am not sure she saw them at first). This fetch had a very difficult dog leg in it: We were to bring the sheep through the white gates you see above the creek, then turn them abruptly left and go behind the gates on the left. We missed both gates but overall Maggie did a good job. (Note that lots of dogs never made it over the creek at all.)
After that the fetch went smoothly, Maggie brought the sheep through the creek and straight to me even though the sheep wanted to run to the barn, behind you and to your right. We had a great, tight turn around the post (at 3:19 in the video) and Maggie did a good job driving them to the first set of drive gates. The drive started at 3:35; watch how Maggie had to stay to the right of the sheep because they wanted to go to the right to the barn behind the camera. This is a perfect illustration of “pressure,” and a dog balancing the sheep to stay on line. At 4:30 we had a good start to the cross drive, with the sheep being pulled to the barn as if on a spring, but Maggie covering them well. They got away from her a bit, but she faced them on and got them back on track.
So things were going great, until they weren’t. First, Maggie needed to swing around clockwise a bit to get the sheep back on line and she didn’t want to because she knew it was risky… once she took any pressure off they might take off for the barn. But she had to flank left some, or we wouldn’t get them going in the direction of the second set of gates. I keep repeating Come Bye to get her to do so, but when she finally did and got the sheep going perfectly, I put on my idiot hat and told her to flank Come Bye again when I should have said the opposite, Away. I just pure and simply said one thing when I meant another. Argh. Kind handlers told me later than they’ve done the same thing, but, it still irks me.
Maggie and the sheep disappear by the side of the barn from 6 to about 7 minutes in, but she did great work pushing them out of there (not easy at all, very proud of her) and we went on to get an easy pen and our first shed ever in a trial. It’s not a perfect shed, I might have stepped in too much when the dog is supposed to make the break between the sheep after you get a gap started, but hey, lots of people didn’t get sheds that day, and it was our first, so I’m taking it.
If you’re interested in scoring, we got 15/20 on the outrun (points lost when Maggie came in, in front of the creek, and I had to redirect her), 9/10 on the lift (Maggie’s specialty, cool and quiet), 10/20 on the fetch (very fair since we missed both gates on the dog leg), 5/30 on the drive (that’s minus 25 points for my being an idiot), 10/10 on the pen and 10/10 on the shed (very generous of the judge on that!). A total of 59/100, which sounds pretty bad, but keep in mind we rarely finished the drive last year, and had more letters than numbers. (As in, RT for Retired, when you stop because things are not going well and your just messing up your dog.) There were a lot of better scores, but an equal number that were worse, and I was still very very pleased with Maggie.
I could write so much more, there is so much going on during a trial, especially related to the relationship between the sheep and the dog. Both are learning about each other every second, and making decisions about what to do next based on what they’ve learned. It’s easy to focus on the “obedience” part, and it is indeed pretty impressive when a dog lies down or flanks right when 300 yards away. But the depth and nuance of what goes on during each run between the dog and the sheep is what fascinates me the most.
I’m posting this a day late because I spent a ridiculous amount of time on Labor Day writing this up and couldn’t get it finished before leaving to play Extreme Croquet (hills, rocks, and occasional use of shovels versus mallots) with some dear friends. Please let me know if I’ve bored you silly (seriously, I won’t be offended) or if you’d like more on this topic. And I’d love to hear your stories of the times your own working dogs, in any field, have blown you away.
I can’t end this without thanking all the people who work hard to make these competitions run smoothly. In this case, biggest thanks to Margaret and Catherine who put on the Nippersink Trial, and to John and Hixie for working so hard to set out the sheep. And the next trial starts this coming Friday. Wheeee!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Not going to write much here, got to actually get up and do something on the farm now that we are back! But here is a photo from a lovely walk that Jim and I took before the trial, outside of Lake Geneva, WI at the Kishwauketoe Conservancy . It’s a gorgeous area and the magnificent result of a tremendous number of dedicated volunteers. Whoever you are, thank you so much!