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.

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.


  1. This is encouraging and a fun read. Thanks for sharing your experiences.