Well Lucy and I have been to 2 trials since I last posted. The Vashon Island Sheepdog Classic is a great trial and I would highly recommend it. Very well organized, tough field and beautiful location. We were running on Eric Harlow's fine wool range sheep and they can read a dog like a book.
When I first got Lucy, she would often unwind off the pressure and struggled to walk into the heads of the sheep consistently. Well, we have come a long way since then.
Lucy is not the strongest dog in the world, but she is strong enough to get most anything done, and has enough finesse to move even the touchiest hair sheep calmly. On Saturday, we had a tough go of it. I was quite worried about the outrun as it is over and around a variety of hills and blind at a number of points along the way. I think I counted 5 spots where the dogs were blind, and 4 where they could actually check and see where the sheep were.
Lucy and I were running 7th. I took her up to the blind to spot nice and early for one run, I think it was the 2nd run of the day? I am very glad I did. I got her out 2 dogs ahead of my run and took her to spot. Neither dog found its sheep. Now my nerves were strung tight. I feared a re-run of Lacamas where she got lost on the outrun. I need not have worried.
Photo by D. Pagel
I thought she got a good look at the sheep from the post. I sent right and she ran a little narrow until the first hill, which she automatically ran out and around. I think I held my breath until she finally got about 80% of the way up the field and got a good look at the sheep. She kicked herself out wide and picked them up. She was not as deep as she could have been on top, but I left her go since she is usually quite responsible at the lift. Our fetch was acceptable but a little wavy as the sheep had Lucy's number. She was a bit too polite to them on the lift and they were leaning hard to get back to the set-out. They had been standing to graze through 2 dogs trying to find them and had no interest in running for this dog who did. That being said, everything went fine for the rest of the fetch. We split them through the panel and turned the post well. The first leg of the drive was straight and I was very pleased with how she walked into her sheep.
Photo by D. Pagel
There had been one particularly high-headed fast running ewe since the lift. She decided this was her big chance. The drive-away panel was perched on the side of a steep knoll. The runner got out ahead and Lucy was behind the group of 3. I was completely at a loss as far as the right way to handle so I kept Lucy on the 3 and pushed them through the panel. By this time my single runner had crested the top of the knoll and realized she had the highest ground. Note to self: Range sheep who live in very flat areas are shocked and amazed by the power of having the high ground. The 3 joined the one and I flanked Lucy around to start the cross drive. The lead ewe had no intention of giving up the hill.
Can you pick out the "troublemaker" ?
Photo by D. Pagel
She stomped at Lucy and lowered her head, charging a couple of times. Lucy did not give up any ground, but neither did she move the sheep off the hill. Finally I asked her for a grip so she ran at the sheep with great intent. I gave a hard down to prevent an actual bite, but now the sheep were moving! She completed the cross drive and we timed out on the 3rd leg.
This was an example to me of how improved Lucy's confidence is. A year ago I'm fairly certain that ewe could have run Lucy off, or at least gained a yard of ground. I was quite pleased that Lucy held her ground.
Photo by D. Pagel
Sunday was much better. Lucy ran out knowing that her lift would need to be harder, and so it was. The fetch was pretty straight, made the panels. Turned the post and the draw to the exhaust (behind the handler and off to the left, with a left hand drive) was very strong. She got them past the exhaust but the high-ground game started again around the drive-away panel. This time Lucy was wise to them and maneuvered the sheep smartly through the panel. A wide turn and then the cross drive started well. Part of the cross drive (like over 1/3 of it) was blind. I sent her into the blind and she did not come out as quickly as I might have hoped. When I could finally see the sheeps' ears they were facing in 2 different directions. I flanked the direction I thought would help but apparently I picked the ears of the sheep that had been facing her instead of moving off her so they turned back. I retired and walked down to the blind to help Lucy understand what I wanted. I was very happy with this run. Lucy demonstrated a much better understanding of her sheep and I wanted to retire before using up my dog completely on a run that would not win.
After those runs, I was glad to have my lesson last week with Scott Glen. He gave me some good pointers for teaching a bold approach when whistled to do so, and how to change Lucy's intent when needed so it is perfectly clear to the sheep without an actual grip.
Yesterday we ran at Island Crossing. Joe and Heather Haynes are so nice and they always put on good trials. I missed the last one so I was glad to make it to this one. Lucy and I were 20th to the post. Many dogs were having trouble keeping a good lift and early fetch as the draw to the setout was intense. I sent Lucy left, between the set out and the sheep. She got to about 11 o'clock and slowed way down, lifting from the side. I gave her a pretty stiff walk-up whistle and she lifted them expertly. I was very pleased with this. The fetch was good. For 10-15 seconds in the middle, the fetch on this field is blind. They went into the blind on-line but came out just a touch off-line as Lucy had moved to cover the draw side just a little too much. (Read: Lucy chose to stay on the pressure - GOOD GIRL) but the second half of the fetch was offline to my right. There were no fetch panels, and it was my first time to run without fetch panels. I looked over the sheep's backs about 3/4 of the way through the fetch and realized they were off-line but it was too late to do much about it. Bad handling!!
A nice tight turn at the post and first leg of the drive was uneventful. Many dogs were losing their sheep/creating runners through the drive panel back to the set-out pens. I was very pleased with Lucy as we had geared down the sheep a fair bit to keep them from running. The draw is tricky as there is a strong draw to the right (exhaust) and ahead (set-out). It took several flanks to get Lucy to let go of the exhaust pressure and flank around to begin the first half of the cross drive. The turn was a little wide, but the first half of the cross drive was just peachy. I had an elaborate strategy that is not worth sharing here. Suffice it to say it worked, and I was pleased to see it work! The draws switch about 6 different times during a run on this field.
At the cross drive panels, I knew the sheep were a little high but Lucy did not want to take the necessary come-bye flank to let them go through the panel because it opened up the escape route to the exhaust. Probably half of the dogs lost their sheep onto the exhaust, with a number of them bouncing sheep off the fences at the exhaust. While we skimmed the cross drive panels high, we got a beautiful turn and the sheep never even believed they could get to the exhaust. I was very pleased, though it probably cost me 10 points between missing the panels and being high on the second half of the cross drive. Lucy is choosing to stay in the pressure consistently. This is a thing of beauty. She also maintained control of her sheep through the run and never lost them to the set-out or exhaust. GO RED DOG!
The third leg was a Herculean effort on my part to salvage points. We walked into the shedding ring and magic happened! Grouped the sheep, I pushed them onto Lucy a few steps, I looked at her between 2 sheep and she made the gap. I called her in and the sheep split around me, as one might predict for a farm flock. But all our practice has been paying off -- she stayed in the gap and held the shed. We regathered them in the ring before they could think about the exhaust.
Last was the pen and it was a surprise to me. I think this was only our 2nd time to make it to the pen and not complete it (first time was at Wessels). I had one very quick Cheviot(?) cross who wanted nothing to do with the pen, one very slow agreeable Clun and 2 middle of the road Cluns. The draw to the exhaust was heavy and Lucy was a bit tight and slicing her flanks at the pen because she could feel the draw. I allowed it thinking it would help convince the sheep that the draw was not an option. After a bit of mussing around, I nearly retired. Instead I decided to train a bit and cleaned up her flanks. We had 2 sheep into the pen and 2 nearly. I had just started moving the gate when time was called. It likely did not affect our score very much because I had wasted most of my pen points anyway with mussing around.
All in all, I was very pleased with this run. Lucy kept control of her sheep through the entire course (even too much control in 2 places!) Her sheep were happy and calm everywhere but at the pen where the Cheviot cross was a little rattled. At the end of the day, this sport, for me, is supposed to represent what a real shepherd and his dog are capable of. I like to see sheep looking as calm as they can and still moving efficiently, because to me, that translates into big, healthy tasty lambs and hardy, excellent mothers.
What do you like to see on the trial field?