21 January, 2010

A birthday wish… that came true.

I’m sitting at my computer alone in a foreign house. In Florida, 3500 miles from home. I look out the window and the skies are gray and dull, rain pouring from open seams in the clouds. The wind is whipping the trees making them moan, and 3 dogs who are strangers to me are sprawled out around my feet. It seemed today on my birthday, there was no better time to sit down and recount the story of Lucy.

In August, 2006 I met Diane. I had brought my Aussie, Magick, to do some herding with her. Magick had plenty of talent, but at 8 years old with 2 rebuilt knees, her stamina was not terrific. I really enjoyed working with Magick and our already deep partnership developed a new dimension. As the months went by, Magick would come up lame after herding but not after any other kind of work. She could still do obedience, agility, Frisbee and go to the dogpark while remaining sound. She really enjoyed stock work but it was not the best thing for her health. So I made the decision to retire Magick from stock and continue enjoying our other time together.

While I was learning to handle Magick, Diane was also teaching me to sort sheep using her more experienced dogs so that I would have sheep for my lessons. First I learned with Tess. Tess would work for me, but only because she had to. I tried using Scott but he had no interest in listening to me at all. So Tess it was. Tess taught me my flanks, the value of having gears on a dog, and the value of a seasoned professional partner. I subsequently entered a few trials with Tess just to see what trials were about. About this time I retired Magick, and was left without a dog to work.

Diane showed me how to start a puppy, and I helped to start a few of her young dogs at the time. All the while I had my eye on a small red bitch of Diane’s called Lucy. I really liked what I saw in her. Her personality and willingness were wonderful and she would try all day long to please. She was a young dog, just learning how to drive when I began working with her. One day I needed to sort sheep and Tess was recovering from an injury. Scott and Roo were both too much dog for me, so I asked Diane if I could use Lucy. “Sure,” she replied. “Just make sure her flanks are square.” I let Lucy out of her kennel and we walked through the gate together. I sent her to pick up the flock and she sliced the top off her outrun. I stopped her, called her back and went to the flock myself. Then the circle drill began to fix the top of her outrun. After only a few repetitions, I pulled her off the sheep and took her back to the barn. I sent her from my feet to gather the flock. She was sporty and fast but cast wide and deep, landing at balance behind her sheep. And I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Working Lucy was like putting on my favorite pair of jeans. We understood one another better than any dog had understood me on stock before. It was a special moment.

As the months progressed Diane allowed me to borrow Lucy so I could my first lesson from Scott Glen. That was the lesson where Scott showed me the basics of a good foundation in driving. I walked miles and miles with Lucy behind her sheep in the following weeks. Lucy would come spend weekends with me sometimes for bonding so we could work better together. I also got to take Lucy to the post in Nursery once when Diane couldn’t run her. Then Lucy was sent out for training. I was heartsick. During the months she was away, I worked another dog – Ray. Ray is a very sweet male, biddable and willing to please. But he wasn’t Lucy. We didn’t find that connection. I took a lesson from Scott with Ray as well while Lucy was away.

Lucy returned from training and we were very excited to see one another. The first time I worked her when she came home, we needed to retrieve 2 cows that had gotten across the marsh and fence at Diane’s. It was a terribly difficult task – the cattle did not want to jump the fence, nor wade the chest-deep water to get back home. I sent Lucy, took my crook and hat to those cattle. That brave little bitch looked me in the eye when I sent her… she did her very best for me. That was one of the formative moments for my understanding about what it means to have a stockdog as a partner. Lucy trusted me. She had to take the Spring off that year and spent the Spring at my house. That experience really cemented the bond between Lucy and I. I told Diane I wished I could buy Lucy but that without my own sheep it seemed unfair. She said not to worry that Lucy wasn’t for sale.

Time went on, Diane continued to let me use Lucy for chores and put training on her. Diane worked her during the week and ran her and did very well with her in trials. I did not to ask to run her in trials because I knew my handling wasn’t up to snuff and that I didn’t want to hold a good dog back with poor handling. It was difficult for me to distance myself from that situation, accepting my own limitations and ignorance. An exercise in looking out for the greater good of the dog. Diane and I had become good friends and that summer, Diane had her heart surgery and Lucy stayed with me during that time. While I’d had the ability to step away from trials with Lucy, unfortunately, I hadn’t exercised enough self-restraint in other areas. I was falling in love with someone else’s dog… It was a difficult time.

The months went by. Due to an unexpected turn of events, Lucy went to Scott Glen to be polished for Open and have a start on shedding with only 36 hours notice. I was heartbroken. I dropped Lucy off at Diane’s for Scott to take her up to Canada. I cried the whole way home. Scott debuted Lucy in Open last March and Lucy came home. Diane finished the season with enough points on Lucy for her to run in the National Sheepdog Finals. I was watching all of this unfold and decided it was long past time I learned to shed. I signed up for the shedding clinic in August with Scott Glen. Diane agreed to let me borrow Lucy and she would take Nan. That shedding clinic was a turning point for me. Lucy let me see a whole separate level of training and understanding stock work. She did everything I asked and more. I knew I needed a sheepdog of my own.

I also knew Diane would never sell me Lucy. She had always told me that Lucy would go to me if she ever left Diane, but I knew that would never happen. I resigned myself knowing Lucy wasn’t mine and made a plan to find a dog of my own. In the meantime, I would continue to work with Lucy as much as Diane would permit so that I could become a better handler. I also vowed to do a better job keeping Lucy at an arms-length emotionally because it was not fair to get so attached to a dog I did not own. I continued going to clinics, taking lessons and working Diane’s young dogs as well. I ran a few of Diane’s young dogs in trials with good success, and I helped some friends start dogs with terrific success. I began to understand the relationship between handler, dog and stock.

September rolled around and I drove down to the National Finals in Klamath Falls to watch Jenny Glen run Lucy. They did well, timing out at the pen in the preliminary round. I ran into Jenny later and thanked her for running Lucy. She asked if I would like to pick up Lucy – I said absolutely. I followed Jenny to her camp and Jenny hopped into the dog box, letting Lucy out. Lucy took one look at me and flew off the truck bed into my arms. That moment was when I knew I couldn’t hide my heart from Lucy anymore. She was not mine, but I would agree to be hers. And I would look in earnest for a dog of my own.

The semi-finals spread over 2 days and we would all gather for dinner in the evening. At Diane’s camp the night before I left, I asked her to think about letting me run Lucy in Open over the informal winter series trials. She was very quiet and said she would think about it. I think she reckoned I was nuts as I was clearly not ready to run in Open. The next morning I drove home with Lucy, Sava and Zora in the back of the van. I wasn’t sure what the future would hold but I was looking forward to it.

I began entering Lucy in trials. My first time to the post in Open was a disaster. I was very nervous and cost my dog a lot of points on the fetch. Her drive and pen were lovely, we timed out on the shed. Lucy listened to everything I asked, though she was unwinding her flanks a bit and her confidence was not as high as usual because I was nervous. It was not a stellar first outing but it was extremely exciting.

Each trial I would fix the handling problems from the prior one, and more handling problems would emerge. Lucy was consistent, though would unwind her flanks if she wasn’t confident in the moment. After 2 trials timing out on the shed, the next 3 we had successful sheds or singles each time. With each trial our scores improved, and we even earned a 2nd place in Open! We were coming together as a team and really enjoying our time on the field together. I asked Diane if she would sell me Lucy, but the answer was no. Many people asked if I had bought Lucy, or why I would run a dog who was not my own. My answer was always that Lucy was not for sale but if she were, I would be first in line. I planned to get a dog of my own in the next year, but Diane was kind enough to let me learn by loaning me Lucy for the smaller trials.
The week after Christmas, Diane came to me and said she had been thinking about Lucy and I, and she would agree to let me own Lucy with some conditions. We came to an agreement and I was in shock. I couldn’t believe Diane would be willing to part with Lucy. Or that I deserved to have such an amazing dog. It was so much information I couldn’t process it all. I loaded Lucy into the car, kissed her on the forehead and drove home, crying the entire way but for a different reason this time. Tears of joy slipped down my cheeks. Lucy and I would be together after all.
Lucy knew things had changed as soon as we got home. She was my shadow even more than normal, and very attentive and affectionate. I write this today, on my birthday, from Florida, 3500 miles from home. Ironically, Lucy is staying with Diane since I am out of town, and the first 2 trials after Diane agreed to let her go to me, Diane is actually running her… Gotta have a sense of humor.

So this blog is to thank Diane for being a great friend, for teaching me about stockdogs and for her incredible generosity. I know how much she loves Lucy and still cannot believe she agreed to let Lucy go. Thank you to Scott Glen for being an invaluable mentor and teacher. Thank you to the sheepdog community for welcoming me into the fold, even when I didn’t have a dog of my own. Thank you to my husband, for being so patient with me and my dogs, and for falling in love with Lucy. And thank you to Lucy, who has taught me so much about life, love, friendship, stock work and what it truly means to make an agreement between man and dog.