I’ve been without computer for the past couple of weeks so haven’t been able to write regularly.  I have a number of posts to write, but today will start with my latest trial experience from this past weekend.  

I left to drive to the trial on Friday around noon.  It had been up in the air as to whether or not I would be able to go right up to the night before.  So I needed the morning to pack and get organized.  Then off we went, me and the three dogs squished into my little car, book-on-CD in the radio and lunch sitting on the passenger seat.  It was a looooong drive.  In good traffic and weather it’s about 5.5 hours, but it took us 7 on Friday.  Seven hours to go to a trial.  One way.  That’s verging on crazy!  Fortunately the trial took place in the town where my grandparents live so I made this a trip to see them as well and spent most of my time at their place.  Having the dual purpose made the drive more worth while.  My grandparents have had a tough year health-wise and I’m grateful for any time I can spend with them now.  

Amazingly they started with Pro-Novice on Saturday.  That meant we didn’t run until after 9am, which made for a relaxed morning start.  It as a 40 minute drive from my grandparents’ house to the trial field, and Sunday I had to be there by 7am.  Ugh.  But we’ll get to that…

I took the dogs out, let them stretch their legs and ran Hannah a little.  Then I went to watch.  We had about 30 minutes to get settled in before we ran.  I should have spent that 30 minutes exercising my dog, but it wasn’t clear exactly when I would be running so I had to stay near the trial field.  I think next trial I will do my best to get to the trial well before my run to really let Hannah shake out her beans.  She had been in a crate the entire day before, and slept in a crate in the car overnight.  So almost 24 hours, minus some potty breaks and short leash walks. 

Not surprisingly, she was a bit wild on our run.  Her outrun was very nice, although she came up short.  She does that a lot at trials, which is something I need to fix.  At home I always set the sheep so they are wanting to go away from me, not towards me, and she always goes right around behind them to stop them, lift them and push them up the field to me.  At many trials, the sheep know the exhaust is at the bottom of the field and want to go that way.  Hannah has a lot of eye and so the sheep leaning into her hangs her up.  She will take  a redirect, which I gave her.  She was very slow in lifting them, being a bit too kind.  These sheep were a bit odd – very, very light when moving, but once stopped, they would face a dog and stomp at it, testing to see if the dog had it in them to move them.  Hannah did, and she brought them down the field.  I can’t remember if we made the fetch panels.  I don’t think so.  She still isn’t taking my flanks on the top of the fetch and when the sheep get off-line, she doesn’t straight them out, giving us a banana shaped fetch.  Something else we need to work on, although I’m not quite sure how to fix that.

The drive (wear) was messy, with Hannah bumping the sheep past me.  She was way, way too close and (I was told, as I don’t remember) kept popping up without permission every time I would lay her down.    We kept them on the field though, and made it around the course.  Then we got to the pen.  The pen has been our downfall in quite a few trials now, and I really need to fix that.  Some handlers gave me tips on things to try, which I will write about later.  During this run, my biggest mistake was that I moved out of the way of the sheep when they tried to push out of the pen.  We had them perfectly set up, but I gave ground when they turned towards me.  I had it so hardwired in my brain that I cannot touch the sheep that I jumped of the way and let them escape the pen.  Three times.  (hanging my head in shame)

My poor dog.  Each time she had to round up the sheep and bring them back.  The third time they got away (I flanked her the wrong way) and ran to the exhaust.  I sent Hannah to get them and she ran them down.  She is fast, that’s for sure!  She beat them to the exhaust and then body slammed one of the sheep to stop her!  I was amazed, as were a few other people.  No DQ because she didn’t use her teeth.  Good girl.  

At this point I wasn’t sure if we should retire or keep trying.  I gave Hannah a few commands while she tried to peel the sheep off the gate that separated them from the rest of the flock, wondering if I should just call her back.  Then, mercifully, the timer went off and I heard the judge say “thank you!”  We timed out, which meant that while we got a zero at the pen, we kept the rest of our score.  Which was 61 out of 80.  That was a pretty decent score without a pen, so I guess the first part of our run was better than I thought.  It was also good enough to put us in first place.

That afternoon I decided it was too nice to sit and watch a trial while my dogs sat in crates in the car.  There was a beautiful provincial park 20 minutes away, with hiking trails only (no roads going in).  I packed up the dogs and headed over there for a 2 hour hike.  It was the highlight of our weekend.  The trees are all turning and the sun was out and there was nobody there.  We sat by tiny little lakes reflecting orange and red trees whose images were broken by beaver trimmed tree trunks poking up out of the water.  I could have stayed there all weekend.  

This  hike reminded me of why I have dogs.  Sure I love training and herding and am sort of enjoying trialing, but my first and deepest love is of being deep out in nature.  And having a dog allows me to feel safe doing that on my own.  In fact, I can’t even imagine being out in the bush without a dog at my side.  Not only do they make me feel safe, but they make me feel like part of nature.  They are my bridge, my messengers.  

I promised the dogs that once a week we would find a place like that (not that there are any around where I live – I really need to move!!!) and go for a good, long hike.  No training, no sheep, no commands.  Just me and them and a packed lunch.  How I miss doing that.

Back to the trial, Sunday’s run was worse than Saturday’s.   Again, poor Hannah had been in a crate for 17 hours with only potty breaks.  This time she didn’t even get a chance to run before competing.  She came out of her crate, went pee, and went to the post.  Gotta love those ‘first light’ starts (not!).  The run was wild, the sheep were fast, Hannah was faster.  Our lines were non-existent and the sheep were quite rattled by the time we got to the pen.  This time, however, I didn’t move back from them.  We also didn’t lose them.  We got them into the mouth pen and worked our hearts out to get them in.  Stupid sheep wouldn’t move.  They love people and just leaned against my legs!  I almost got them in, with one sheep’s butt preventing me from closing the door.  I had Hannah walking up, trying to get her to push them further in without accidentally popping them out.  Then the timer went.

I didn’t get a chance to check our score, although I knew we had come in second because there was only one other dog who kept its sheep on the course (the others had to retire).  I was asked to scribe for the next class, which I was happy to do.   You always learn a lot scribing, and this time the judge was quite talkative, giving a running commentary of what we were watching.  He was kind and helpful and said good thing as well as some critical, to explain to me what to strive for and what to avoid.  He also deconstructed both my runs with Hannah, which was humbling but immensely helpful.  He pointed out people making the same mistakes I did, and ones who did it right, and so on.  I came away with a lot to think about and many ideas on how to improve

By the time we were done, I had been sitting for nearly 2 hours and was practically frozen solid.  I was shaking and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably.  I was about to dash off to the get some hot coffee and find the bathroom when my trainer came up to me.  She straight away said “so, what did you do wrong today?”  I had been hoping to avoid that lecture, but figured I’d have it coming at some point so might as well get it over with.  I replied “um…everything?”  She then pointed out that Hannah had no pace and that our training had totally fallen apart.  We haven’t taken a lesson in months and I’m sure she’s thinking that we’re totally falling apart as a result.  If that’s all she’s seen of us run, I can understand why, but it was still very demoralizing to here her say that.  I was so deflated afterwards that I never even checked my score, even though we came in second (and took first overall for the weekend).  I packed up and left the trial on the verge of tears, wondering if I should bother continuing with herding, or just stick to hiking in the woods.  

I beat myself up for a good hour or more down the highway before some more positive thoughts entered my mind.  For one, I did have a strong score on Saturday, despite not having a pen (why didn’t I check my Sunday score?  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought…).  Second, several people mentioned that I was showing very good feel for my sheep.  That’s a very, very big complement in the herding world.  Third, an open handler corrected me when she overheard me saying that Hannah didn’t have much presence, pointing out that she felt my dog had more than enough push.

This last comment got me to thinking – if Hannah has developed more confidence, and therefore presence, then I am doing something right.  I have been focusing very hard on building her confidence this last couple of months, and also building her natural understanding of what she needs to do.  And she’s come a long, long way.  She was very different at this trial, far more pushy and confident.  I mean, she body slammed a sheep, knocked it off its feet and then whipped around and stopped it.  This is not the same dog!  So clearly I’m doing something right.  And if she’s a bit wild, so be it.  I can reign that in later.  Building confidence and push is not something that is easy to do.  

Once all these thoughts settled into my head, I started to feel better.  Perhaps I’m not such a terrible handler, and perhaps I haven’t ruined my dog.  Which is a good thing, because we’re moving up to Pro-Novice at the next trial (in two weeks), and it’s only going to get tougher.