National Sheepdog Finals Blog

2013 National Sheepdog Finals - Watch an experienced dog handler team walk calmly to the post, begin their run with complete composure, manage their sheep quietly and competently, and close their work with a soft “that’ll do”. The road to that run ran through struggles and successes and more struggles, humble beginnings where managing stock could seem like trying to control birds in flight. The National Finals has a tradition of excellent blogs showcasing how top handlers train and prepare for the event, using their skills to come down the home stretch tuned for perfection. In recognition of the miles travelled to get to that final lap, of tenacity and hard work and the fact that our travails can be a source of inspiration, education and humor, we are dedicating the 2013 Finals blog to the beginnings and the lessons learned along the way.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ellen Skillings - Heppner Oregon 1986

The trial at that time, unlike now, is held in the rodeo arena in town. The high solid sides surrounded by bleachers certainly prevent the yearling range ewes from escaping back to the range, but the close and unfamiliar quarters readily elicit the ‘Fight or Flight’ response when faced with unfamiliar dogs. Caleb was not a ‘kind’ dog. He had a rough, big boned, Scottish ‘Herdsman’s Tommy’ build, with intense wolfish yellow eyes. He used them to great effect.

The Novice Class is an “outrun”, “fetch” and “pen”. Three sheep are let out of the chute gate at the far end of the arena where they stand pressed tightly together against the arena wall well under 100 yards away. Well under the distance at which Caleb’s predatory glare provokes a ‘fight or flight’ response from these Western White face yearlings the size of small ponies.

The handler’s post is set just in front of a horse trailer where the judge sits protected, a little, from the steady rain. The rain provides a gray wash reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands to all memories of that weekend.

I step to the post. I unclip the lead. I say, “Come Bye”. The words start the clock. Everything but the clock and the rain remain frozen. Sheep, dog, the expectant bedraggled crowd in the bandstand are still and quiet. We have three minutes to get the sheep to the post, around behind it, and into the pen.  Caleb is to go out and get them and bring them to my feet. We will negotiate the pen together.

I shush, I plead, I bark, ‘Come bye’ a little more firmly, words that should send my dog in a nice arc, clockwise, to the far side of the sheep. Caleb apparently forgets, or else considers optional, the expected response to the command.  He has the sheep under perfect control from his position at my feet. The sheep seem to know a move in any direction can have no good end; ‘Uhn uh’, ‘no siree’, not a muscle twitch among the three of them.

When I insist again he rises to his feet and begins marching straight up the center of the arena. Again this is not the expected response. He is marching straight into the statue-esque sheep faces. It’s a mutual eye thing. The sheep, trapped by the high wall, would flee to the hills if it were an option.  I continue my pleading for Caleb to cast.

Caleb seems to consider their position and demeanor perfectly satisfactory. My pleading is to no effect.

For the sheep the moment of decision arrives when Caleb is about fifteen feet in front of their noses. ‘Fight?’ or ‘Flight ?’ Flight wins. Some slight shift of a sheepy ear shoots a command straight to that Border collie brain ’ The instant the sheep twitch everything explodes- zero to sixty in under a second. Caleb loops around them in a flash, and now they waste no time on the clock, barreling down the arena’s length, wrapping themselves in the tongue of the horse trailer and unwrapping again before the judge can get his head out in the rain to see what’s going on. Then, as quickly as the storm erupted it stops.  All this occurs in the amount of time it takes me to yell, “Lie Down, Lie  Down, LIE DOWN, I SAID LIE DOWN.!”

Now the sheep and the dog are doing the mutual eye thing again and the sheep are at a dead standstill, refrozen and mesmerized at a good spot in front of the pen.
I step away from the post and pick up the pen rope, opening the gate carefully. My job; open the pen gate. Caleb’s job; put the sheep in the pen. Sheep’s job-figure out a way, at all costs, to avoid getting trapped in a little pen with a wolf outside salivating.

Pen, sheep, Caleb. Me off to the side holding the end of a six foot rope tied to the end of a six foot gate leading to a 6’x9’pen, trying to stay out of the way.

Usually getting sheep in the pen is a matter of gentling them a little, but in this case it is matter of convincing them that moving in any direction other than straight backwards is a bad idea.

I was chanting, a fairly constant mantra, “Lie down, LIE down, I said lie down, do you hear me? Lie Down…….”

A sheep-feeling trapped in this way- will sometimes tip her ears back, and, head still high, slowly turn her eyes from the dog’s gaze as if saying, ‘I think I’ll just tip-toe out to the ladies room for a moment.‘  Usually it’s just one in the group. Sometimes a sheep will raise one foot and slowly stamp as if to tell the dog, ‘I could tromp you into the ground if I wanted, but if you will just stay there I will slip away and you will hardly notice.’

Caleb isn’t buying any of it.  When a sheep head shifts so does Caleb’s. When one stomps his body still pressed to the ground seems to roll forward slightly into the pressure as if saying, ‘try me’.

I ask him up to shift the sheep.  He raises slowly, the sheep tense and all shift back a step. Every time they shift I tell Caleb to ‘lie down’ again. Afraid that if they move anywhere fast he will use every available tactic to stop them. Gripping is not allowed in Sheep Dog Trials. More than once, at home, I have stitched a sheep cheek or lip. When she has answered his ‘try me’ with ‘I wlll then’. Did I mention, Caleb is not a kind dog?

We continue on like this. If a sheep twitches an ear to check an escape route, Caleb twitches one or shifts his nose in reply. Get up. Lie down. Twitch, shift, and slowly as a unit the sheep back up, step-by-step, oblivious to the pen walls slowly encircling them.  As soon as they realize their predicament they spin as one to run, the only direction they think might be clear, straight into the pen. I rush to shut the gate.
It is five years before I step onto the trial field again. This time with a different dog.

The odd thing about a spectacularly bad run, at least if no one has to stitch up a wound or pull a sheep out of a pond, is that no one remembers any of it except the handler who ran it, and perhaps the dog. Perhaps the dog dreams about how great it was.

© Ellen Skillings (all rights reserved)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Maria Amodei - First Lambing

My sheep are kept in a field a short distance from my house.  I had read and re-read the sheep books describing how to care for ewes during lambing.  I decided to bring the flock (6 ewes) to my backyard for lambing so I could keep a closer eye on them.  I set up a maternity pen off the shed in the backyard.  Since I don't have much room in the shed the lawn tractor had to move out onto the back porch. This redneck tradition of piling implements on the porch each March continued for years. I did not have a trailer to bring the sheep so I decided to bring them with my dog. The problem is I live on a very busy road and my dog and I were novices. The sheep field is around the corner, with a short leg on my busy road, then an equal leg on a less busy road. There is a pond belonging to the town inside this corner. If I look across the pond I can almost see the sheep from my window. My brilliant idea was to bring the sheep across the frozen pond, thereby avoiding the busy road entirely. I just needed some snow for traction. The lambing dates drew near and we had no snow. Finally we got a storm. This was my chance. I grabbed my dog and went up to get the sheep. We only needed to take them on the road for about 50 feet before turning in the entry to the pond. There was a short steep bank down to the ice. The sheep thought little of this option but the dog was persistent. We got on the ice and I realized it was still quite slippery despite 4 inches of snow. One of the girls kept slipping and falling, no doubt exacerbated by the dog working too close and fast. She finally lay down in the middle of the pond and quit. I tried lifting her. No luck. So here I was in a snowstorm standing in the middle of the town pond with 5 standing sheep, one sheep laying on the ice, a dog, and no clue. I gave up and took all the other sheep back to the field. I went back to get my reclining diva and she had managed to return to the shore so we collected her back to the field. Now for another try, this time I decided to cross further down where there was some rough area on the ice. This required another 200 feet on the road. We got almost to our planned crossing route and an impatient driver came upon us and tailgated about 10 feet behind the dog. I lost my cool, the dog lost his cool, and one sheep escaped and ran back to the field. We turned around and went back again. Third time was a charm, no impatient drivers and the footing on the ice was better at the lower crossing. I brought the sheep across the pond and into my back gate. Whew. I still periodically hear rumors in town about people swearing they saw a sheep laying on the ice in the middle of Woodward's Pond as they drove by. I just smile and say "Really!"

Now you may be wondering what I did when the sheep and their new lambs needed to get back to the field. The ice had melted. No problem, each ewe and her young lambs were stuffed in a very large dog crate on a big crate dolly. With one person pulling and another pushing the cargo was rolled down Route 113 and up Pond Street to the field again. I feel it is my civic duty to entertain the town. Fortunately I only had a few sheep back then.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Robin French - "HELP"

In the beginning...well, I was about as ignorant of dogs and sheep as you can possibly be. In 1992, my old BC mix had passed away, and I wanted "another of those smart dogs", so picked up the newspaper and started looking in the classifieds. There was an ad for border collies, with red merles and blue merles. I made the fateful phone call and had to ask "what is a merlie?" (yes, I pronounced it merl-ie). Yes, that uninitiated to the breed. I drove right out to this backyard breeder's place, where there were half a dozen different breeds of dogs for breeding. And of course I brought one home. But the biggest twist of fate that day, was the "breeder" handing me a copy of the first chapter of the book "The Versatile Border Collie", because right there in it, it said I had to give this dog a job or I was in big trouble! Bailey was the smartest thing I'd ever met, picking up every trick I could teach her in minutes. So, I found her a "job" and we started dabbling in obedience training. One day I noticed a post-it on the bulletin board in the training building where we took lessons -- "herding training, saturday mornings, $10, call xxx-xxxx". Next thing you know, my little dog and I were off to meet the very first sheep I'd ever seen in person. I was soooooo bad at working my dog, good grief! But I stuck in there because Bailey loved it so. I decided I'd do sheep for her if she'd do obedience for me (because I didn't stink quite as badly at that!). Pretty quickly, the obedience stuff faded away, as I met more great people in sheepdogs and started training with different and better trainers. I was still pretty horrible and I don't know where some of my early mentors found the patience for me (come bye? away? I couldn't even manage left and right!), but we stuck in there. I was exceptionally lucky to meet some wonderful people who were getting into sheepdogs at the same time as I was, and we all helped each other along. And of course I was perched at the top of the sheepdog slippery slope, as more dogs, a move to the country, a farm, a flock of sheep, etc, etc, etc were in my near future.

In the beginning of trialing....well, I pretty much stunk at that too. My first trial was at Roy Johnson's. I sent Bailey out on her outrun, she went about 20 feet and came right back to me. The sheep ran off to the barn and that was that, the shortest trial debut ever. I have to say one of my more embarrassing novice trial experiences was at the Bluegrass classic. The Bluegrass had just started back up in its modern version, and all the classes ran on the same big field. I was running two dogs in novice-novice and Bailey and I were up right after the lunch break. After our less-than-stellar run, there was no one at the exhaust pen to clear the field because of the lunch break, so I walked the sheep over and put them through the gate. Unfortunately, the exhaust gate and the gate for handlers exiting the field were right next to each other and covered with black fabric. I put the sheep through the wrong gate, right through the fancy tent with drinks and snacks and sliced fruit for handlers coming off the field! Off those darned sheep ran, right into the antique tractor show that was going on. Fortunately, I had learned enough by this point to NOT send my little not-ready-for-prime-time dog out into the crowd. I had been taking lessons with Vergil Holland at the time, and I have a very clear memory of standing there yelling "Vergil, HELP!".

The 1999 Finals at Belle Grove was one of the most fun weeks I've ever had. I wasn't even running in Open yet, but I spent the week there with friends and had a ball watching the dogs and generally cutting up and laughing like mad with some of the wonderful people I'd met in sheepdogs. In the 2010 Finals at Belle Grove, my dogs exceeded my expectations so far that a friend called it my "fantasy week at the Finals", with my Open dogs finishing 2nd and 4th in the first round, and my Nursery dog getting through to the Open Finals and finishing 8th. What a long way from the early days with my "merlie". It's been a long, wonderful trip, filled with the most amazing people and dogs and places, and I'm looking forward to going back to Belle Grove again this year.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Lori Cunnigham - The Injection

Not long after I started keeping my own sheep, I had reason to need to give a sheep an injection.   I went out with a syringe of medication, proud of myself for getting on with the job.    My dog put all the sheep in a pen, which I now know, was way too big.   I was a very inexperienced sheep flipper and it was a  I chased the ewe around the pen for quite a while  before I finally caught her.   I lifted.  I pulled.  I twisted.   I could not get that sheep to go over.    While I was bent over tugging on every sheep body part I could reach, the ewe reared back and head butted me squarely in the face,  whacking my nose and splitting my lip.    Looking back, I believe that the combination of the heat, exertion and pain in my face  caused me to go temporarily insane.   What had started out as a simple farm chore now became an epic battle of wills and looked something like a grotesque inter-species Greco Roman wrestling match… the ewe bucking around the pen with me attached to her neck,  threats, curses and profanities flowing as freely as the blood dripping from my face.     Suddenly, in the midst of the battle, I saw the ewe’s eyes roll back in her head and she slumped to the ground.    There was little doubt in my mind that I had killed her.     Regardless.    Still cursing triumphantly, I dragged her limp carcass over to the side of the pen, re-gathered my syringe and gave her the injection.    I pumped my arms in the air.    Victory! 
Then I noticed there was a UPS guy standing in my driveway staring at me, his clipboard dangling from his hand.    He didn’t say a word.   He just backed up slowly and got in his truck and drove away.
Shortly thereafter, the sheep came to.    She was fine.   Way better than me.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Patrick Shannahan - The Reluctant Trialer

As a young boy, I was crazy about animals.  All types of animals, but mostly I was crazy about sheep.  My home was a suburban acreage, and although my parents were supportive in some ways, they never could understand my fascination with sheep. None of my relatives were interested in agriculture.  But they liked living in the country and raising their kids in that environment.

So, as a young boy, I purchased sheep to start a registered herd.   I managed that flock without much supervision.  It is not that I didn't have support, but my sheep flock was my project and I was the only individual who really cared about my herd.  My flock continued to grow into my 20’s and 30’s, and developed into a quality-registered flock of Hampshire’s that I started to show on a National level.

Then, on a farm visit to a famous Hampshire flock near Albany, Oregon, in the mid-80's, I saw my first working dog.  Ronald Hogg sent his Border Collie off to gather his yearling ewes.  Ronald was in his 80’s now, and I was shocked at ability of the dog and how it was able to help Ronald. I wasn't quite ready then, but I knew someday I would have a dog that could work like that.

So when I went to look for a pup to start, I used my knowledge about genetics on sheep and asked questions about the parents.   I found a dog that was 1400 miles away, but it had the solid genetics and cost the same price as the local pups.    That pup happened to be Hannah, my first National Champion.

A small group of friends formed when we discovered we were all interested in working dogs.  None of us knew anything about training dogs, and we relied on pooling our resources of limited knowledge to start our pups.

When I had purchased Hannah as a pup, I bought also a trained dog named Toss six months later to help me work.  Toss and I became a good team while I was learning to train Hannah.   My friends all wanted me to go to trials, but I was happy staying home and working on my registered flock of sheep.

Michelle was one of my good friends at the time, and insisted I come to the next trial.   She recently went to her first trial, and had such a great time. Reluctantly I went.  I thought I knew what it would be.  It was nothing like I though it might be.  It wasn't long before I figured out how much I would enjoy seeing the other dogs, people and sheep.  I got entered in PN and Toss won the class.

Needless to say, that was the end of my career with registered sheep.  I was hooked on trials.  Toss, Hannah and I would jump in the pickup and head to any trial I could find.  Didn't matter if I heard the trial was poor, or the sheep were bad, I just couldn't get enough of sheepdog trialing.  We traveled all over the Western US experiencing all that we could in the world of sheep dogs.

I still remember many of those trips with the dogs.   Both Toss and Hannah were such great influences on my career.   They would lay a solid foundation for a successful career. I am fortunate that my friend, Michelle, dragged the reluctant trialer along with her for that first trial. 

This year I am very excited about attending the Nationals.  I have only missed two Nationals since I started, and the Finals in Virginia in 2010 were one of my favorites.   Since it is yet early, I am not sure which dogs I am bringing back, but you can bet there will be no reluctance in attending the premier event of the year.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Joyce Geier - Troy

In the beginning, there were Shelties, good friends, and a herding clinic that needed "just one more participant".

That led to a herding club, an Aussie, and the day almost 25 years ago that my Aussie and I lost the club's entire flock of sheep into the coyote-populated New Mexico desert.  While I was examining my checkbook to see if I could pay for 40-some-odd sheep (nope), another club member sent her young Border Collie, Ross, after the sheep.

When Ross went blithely up the cliff-edged mesa and disappeared from view, I panicked.  I knew that I didn't have enough money anywhere,  or even enough equity in my house, to cover both Ross and the sheep.  I was  doomed.

Except that, five minutes later, Ross reappeared, all 40 sheep in one nice tight group, and brought them casually down the cliff and back to our club's demo area.   That day, I swore that - if I ever got a Border Collie - it would be a Ross pup. 

A bizarre series of events resulted in just that, and a few years later a black and white fur-ball  tumbled out of an airline crate and into my arms.    Troy started licking me the moment he came out of that crate, and fifteen years later, he was still licking me when he transitioned into the next world.

But oh, the places we went and the things that we did and the people that we met in between!

He was just nine months old when I bought a dozen rambunctious Cheviot yearlings and started herding; it took me all of three weeks (maybe)  to teach him everything I had learned about it.  It took him the rest of his life to teach me a fraction of what he knew from the moment he was born.

In the beginning we had only a small ring to train in, and so we walked our wild woollies  almost daily to larger, neighboring fields.  And we lost sheep - everywhere.  Sheep in the swamp, sheep in the garage, sheep on the neighbors second-story deck; sheep in ditches, sheep in the woods, sheep in a pond.  No sheep was ever injured or ever really misplaced - in fact, they often looked quite puzzled at the unexpected turn of events, and participated in these adventures with impressively good grace and a surprising sense of humor.

Troy always tried to prevent these mishaps, but he was dealing with a hopeless dunce. It took me a long time to learn to leave him alone and just trust him when we were in a jam. In the meantime, his solution was to simply listen (perhaps a bit too well) and do what I asked him to do.  He let me make the mistakes, and then he let me figure out how to salvage the job.

And yet he always had my back during these recovery missions.   I (we) waded in the swamp to carry the sheep out, I (we) got cut up by the sawgrass heaving sheep out of ditches, and I (we) walked sheep two miles home the day we (I) couldn't get sheep on the trailer.  But his teaching method was effective; I rarely made the same mistake twice.

Troy taught me to trial, too.  From Novice-novice to the USBCHA Nursery Finals to Open and even the USBCHA semi-finals, we won and lost our share.  He had this knack of looking at me when we were at the post in the big trials, and then heaving a deep sigh as if to say, "She's a basket case again.  I guess I'll just have to take care of it."  And then off he would go, and do, and my confidence grew and I learned to have fun and I dared to dream.

Troy isn't here anymore, and I still miss him. But every dog I work with and every trial I enter just builds on the foundation he laid.   I'd like to think that, now, maybe I can actually share the things he taught me whenever I'm training young pups or running green dogs, and that maybe now I'm a better student as they, in turn, teach me.

If only every handler were so lucky.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dave Young - The Great Rabbit Muster of '68

Dogs, more accurately a Border Collie, helped open up the world of agriculture to me. My first one, Lassie, hum...wonder where that name came from, was a natural. Although not directly from Alex McKinven, I believe she was more than likely from his very early lines. I should have asked him.  As 14 year old part time urban rabbit farmers, a friend of mine and I were deep in the production heavy carcass rabbits, yeah...right. A dream of financial freedom and an excuse to skip school, one in a very long list, was driving force behind this endeavor.  Soon though, subsidies from not so understanding family members began to dry up. An action plan was needed. What to do... oh what to do? Gardens could free us! Not our gardens though, the neighbors’ gardens. The Mizner's garden was right next door. Well weeded and packed with all kinds of rabbit fodder plus, we schemed,( heh, heh, heh) that the natural occurring rabbit tracks could be a possible alibi, not that 14 year olds ever needed one. A short muster from their warrens, the garden was surrounded by trees and hedges providing the much needed cover and nutrition for both the rabbits and their wary keepers. How do we get them there?  Lassie could help do this. We should have thought of this sooner! The initial drive worked well. Unlike sheep, hungry rabbits seem to drive easier. We got them to the garden unnoticed. After a short while of foraging, both species were full. The return drive is where things really fell apart.  Rabbits everywhere. Kids, rabbits and one really happy Border Collie all stomping through the Mizner’s garden. Much to the satisfaction of Lassie, the gather took a couple of days. In the end poor hutch construction was the excuse... coccidiosis, our eventual downfall.