First Time at the Post

First Time at the Post

by Donald McCaig
PART 1

Next Saturday we will host our 14th sheepdog trial and as in previous years I'll be spotting sheep for the novice handlers.

Like them, I've walked to that post for the first time and imagine that I have an idea of their hopes and fears.

Let me provide some generalized reassurances: everybody hopes your dog lays down a beautiful run; unless you lose your temper or are rude nobody will think less of you (or your dog) if you wreck. After many flamboyant novice wrecks I would have bought the dog on the spot. Some dogs I wish I had.

It is easy to forget when you walk to the post how difficult a task you are attempting. In recent years I've seen Herding champions, top Herding trainers, Herding Judges (attested by other organizations) attempt our novice/novice course. If any have finished the course, I was not present that day. In Virginia, novice/novice trial dogs can earn seventy points and most of those points - the outwork - are the most important points earned in open. Two years ago Samantha Furman's novice dog's score wasn't surpassed until the open dogs ran and Sam had one of the few pens of the day. Novice/novice does not translate "easy".

Because I'd like to see you run well (and hope I won't have to pluck our sheep from the river) I've a few tips.

If you are a handler who trains on a few dog-broke training sheep, please, before you enter my trial arrange to spend a day at a working farm working with real sheep, doing a real outrun. You might have to travel a few hours; no doubt you'll hate to ask and feel guilty for imposing, but most sheep farmers (with working dogs) will accommodate you. After all, somebody accommodated us.

Walk to the post quietly. Do not yatter at your dog. No doubt you will have determined which side the dog should be sent. If your dog has a strong preference for the other side, let him have his way.

While I hope your dog does a lovely outrun, he may not.

(a) If your dog doesn't leave your feet. First try exciting him with shrill cries. If that fails (as it likely will) abandon the post, walk halfway to the sheep and send your dog again. If that fails move nearer. NO SHOUTING! When your dog gets behind his sheep and brings them to you, exhaust them if you are capable, leash your dog if not. Thank the judge as you leave the field.

(b) Dog crosses over at your feet. Hush up. This mistake doesn't always scramble a dog's brains and he may be okay henceforth.

(c) Dog bullets straight up the middle and blows the sheep apart. Promptly run, DON'T WALK to your dog. Hush up. Until you are very near, your dog won't take your commands no matter how loud. Leash your dog. Thank the judge as you leave the field.

(d) Dog starts to cross over halfway out. This crossover does scramble a dog's wits so you must do something about it. We are all tempted to hope the dog will correct himself at the last minute ( the trial equivilant of filling an inside straight). Correct your dog. He will have the bit in his teeth and the longer he is uncorrected the less correctable he will be. AS SOON AS HE IS ON THE WRONG TRACK DOWN HIM. Don't try a flying redirect, your inexperienced dog won't take it. You'll be lucky if he downs. Cry his name. It's the strongest command you have and perhaps the only command he will hear. Try it soft, try it loud, try it in-between: DOWN HIM.

Then take a deep breath. Count to five. Let the dog (and yourself) get off the wrong track. Wait until he looks back at you; wondering what next. Don't be afraid to use a recall whistle before you resend. Often that will break the dog's concentration and he can more easily be redirected.

If you remember that your dog is learning as you are what a trial is (is it a good place for a handler, fun for a dog?) and that you and he have a good many years of trialing ahead of you -and if you remember to thank our judge, you'll be welcome at my trial next year too.

PART 2

It has occurred to me that I left our novice standing at the post with his dog having got behind the sheep, but with much of the run ahead.

In a novice run when the outrun goes bad, the run is usually kaput. But having completed the outrun, the dog must lift the sheep (10) points - take command of the sheep and start them toward his handler. This is not always simple.

Usually the set out man will do what he can to help the beginner. If, for instance, your dog goes out of sight the set out man will often be looking directly at him. And if the setout man doesn't start to run toward your dog, the dog's not doing anything awful. If the setout man does get excited, get excited too. Get to your dog toot sweet.

The setout man has the absolute right to stop your dog from savaging a sheep by rude words or if necessary, blows. I have known novices who resented this. Thank him. If it's one of my ewes he may be saving you $125.

(a) If your dog starts ringing the sheep. Try a down and let the sheep drift until your dog regains his wits. If he doesn't down the second time you utter your calm, quiet command - he probably won't - run most of the way to him. Down him and let him fetch the sheep to you and the exhaust.

(b) If the dog holds the sheep to the setout man - as he may if you haven't had somebody set out sheep for you at home - use the dog's name. Next time you watch Tommy Wilson run count the number of times - and the different ways - he uses his dog's name. Remind your dog you and he are the team, not him and some stranger. You may need to down the dog, wait a beat and call (sweetly but insistently) "Spot" Don't panic. Most of the time you can get the dog bringing the sheep.

(c) The dog comes in too hard and the sheep bolt left, right or straight down the course a million miles an hour with your dog right on their heels.

Not a pretty sight, not uncommon and, probably not a lot a novice can do about it. You should try. The dog's thinking these sheep are getting away and he's got to stop them (he may head them). The sheep are thinking they're lunch. The judge is thinking of calling you off.

Take a resolute step toward the dog, raise your crook , try to make eye contact with the dog. If the dog hesitates, call his name, don't be afraid to take another step. The judge is going to be so happy at your attempt to restore order he may not call you off for leaving the post (and certainly won't until things settle down).

Any command your dog will take will reestablish your connection and improve matters. In order of preference try, "Spot!" "Spo-otey", "Hey!", "Spot, lie down." "Down, you stupid son-of-a-bitch", "Awaaay to me", "Spot, come by", "That'll do, Spot", "Spot! Din-Din!" If you can get him to listen once, to anything, you have a chance to regain control. Please don't shriek the down command over and over on an escalating scale. Doing so tells your dog "EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY!"

And he is telling you, "I KNOW IT'S AN EMERGENCY -THE SHEEP ARE GETTING AWAY! Instead, try getting softer. Next time you see Jack Knox with a young dog, close your eyes and listen. Top handlers' voices (and whistles) have as many notes as cathedral organs. Don't be Johnny-one-note.

(d) The dog comes on to the sheep too slowly, too hesitantly and perhaps the sheep are considering challenging the dog. If the setout man has been using corn to hold the sheep, sometimes they stay put until the dog is so close behind them you can't see the dog. Some dogs creep up closer and closer, and at the last minute nail a sheep. Others lie down and wait. I've seen some young dogs pretend these aren't the sheep they were sent for and look around for others.

Try exciting your dog. Use random high pitched noises.Clap your hands. If that doesn't work try a recall - he'll be glad to take it. The moment he starts forward, promptly flank him behind the sheep. That may jar them loose and, if not, the dog has been jarred loose and you might be able to do something with him.

I don't know what the decisions-per-second rate is at a trial. I do know it is everything I can do to keep up with events and perhaps anticipate a half second ahead. I cannot believe many novices - during an emergency - will recall these bits of advice, nor am I confident my advice will perfectly fit any particular novice/his sheep/his dog. I offer them because you should know that at a sheepdog trial, whatever can go wrong, will. And over time you will learn how to (sometimes) regain control of bad situations. You might also remember that the dog is doing what it would rather do than anything else in life. Novice handlers who persist will run in Open one day, and they will never forget the dogs they started with and the lessons those dogs taught them.

PART 3

Your dog has gone out okay and come behind the sheep okay and you told him to lie down and By God, he did!

Alas, a brand new element now enters the handler's equation: a third living creature. It's a sheep (at least three of them actually) and all your training, all your dog's skills won't have a prayer of finishing the course unless you have learned to be a stockman. This sheep-creature is the biggest single difference between sheepdog trialing and dog events like obedience and agility. If you don't understand the sheep-creature it won't matter one whit how well you can or have trained your dog. Tom Wilson, Alasdair MacCrae, Bruce Fogt, Angie Pickle, Stu Ligon, Barbara Ligon,Patrick Shannahan, Dorance Eikamp, Jack Knox, Ralph Pulfer (to name a few) were all stockmen before they became (or as they became) dog handlers.

Next time you attend an open trial, offer to bring sodas to the people working the put out pens. Walk to the top end, have a seat, and get a free education.Watch how the sheep evaluate the dogs, how the less skilled dogs make them nervous, how hard the setout man has to work to keep the wilder dogs' sheep in place. Watch the sheep's ears, their posture. See how they react to strong dogs, calm dogs, lunatics. We handlers sometimes inflate our role in this work. At the top, listening to the handler's faint whistles, you will see clearly that what sheepdog trials are about is one particular dog and three particular sheep.

Some years ago I spent three months in Scotland, attending four or five trials every weekend. At these trials I was startled by what I did not hear - never a word about "Oh my dog did this or that", never a remark about training to overcome a dog's problems. What I heard, trial after trial, was a running commentary on the sheep, "Oh they were worked by a fool on a motorbike" or "I know these Blackies "Scottish Blackface)." You'll have to put your dog just at their shoulder to turn them."

Imagine you are one of your sheep. It's ten o'clock in the morning--late graze-early siesta time. Instead of your usual comforting routine, since 6 am you've been jammed together into a let out chute until a human and a strange dog move you (and two others from the flock - not sheep you'd associate with by choice) onto this hilltop and there's so many strange humans down there where the salt feeder usually is and big glistening motorhomes that weren't there yesterday and you'd like to have a bite to eat but there's this human down there with a dog and the dog starts running toward you in a threatening manner.

That ewe is not a willing participant. She wants to hang out with other sheep and eat some grass. Her daily habits are deeply reassuring to her and this trial is--unless she's a professional training/trial sheep - frightening and unpleasant. (If she's a t/t sheep its merely unpleasant). A good dog and careful dog handling will reassure her so that she will escape toward you, around the handler's post. She and her pals will follow as you trot backwards around the cone or stake that marks the end of the wear. She will even escape into the pen if she must. But is no robot, no billiard ball, no mere excuse for having a dog trial. She has a mind, habits and, push come to shove, courage. She is a gentle, splendid animal.

All breeds of sheep eat when its cool, doze in the heat. All sub-yearlings are goofy, all twelve year old ewes are too old for the stress of a trial. Sick or exhausted sheep will fight the dog or just stand head down, resigned to their death. All sheep are good at reading a dog (they have genetic Phd's in predator calculus) and if they ever determine to beat the (novice) dog, they will beat it. If they are suddenly alarmed by a dog they will try a desperate escape to the exhaust, through or over the nearest fence, back to the letout chute. Once they get rolling, this attempt is often successful.

There are dozens of sheep breeds in this country, and no one who has worked both will ever again mistake a Suffolk for a Blackie. Easterners traveling west for Meeker make a point of stopping somewhere in the west so their dogs can work, and adjust to, western ewes.

To a novice, what matters most is the sheep's condition and how often they are used in trials. Fortunately, this is something you can learn--ahead of time--and prepare for. Call and ask. In some cases you can arrange to work the trial sheep (or similar sheep) ahead of time. That will help enormously.

So, back to the trial. Your dog has encountered his sheep and started them toward you. You may remembering how, at the handler's meeting, the judge said he will deduct for every step offline. Perhaps you are planning, at any hazard, to keep those sheep on line. In my view this is mistaking the end for the means. Forget about line. Line is the result of pace. Concentrate on pace.

PART 4

Some inexperienced handlers believe that since dog and sheep are coming straight at you on the fetch, all you must do is steer the dog a little and down it when it's coming on too hard. Grateful at getting his (her) dog behind the sheep, the novice handler may be relaxing at one of the trickiest parts of his run.

To get the fetch right you must get the pace right and that is difficult for open dogs and handlers. A couple of novice runs at my trial least Saturday were quite nice. The best examples of what novices ought not do on the lift/fetch happened to two open handlers who I shan't name. (We are all subject to occasional "brain fade"). Since I was spotting the sheep, I could see better than the handlers what was happening at the top end. In both cases the dog came around nicely, started quietly but determinedly toward its sheep, the sheep started to lift and the handler whistled (or called) the dog up, the dog took the command, bumped the sheep and they flew on down the course - and neither dog recovered.

There is a magic spot where each individual dog should be behind (or on the flanks of) each group of sheep. Too near: the sheep bolt, break up or one will turn and fight (her pals duck behind her saying: "Okay Betsy, you fight that nasty dog and we'll sneer at him." Too far, the sheep mosey and have a bite of grass and the handler may achieve a pretty good line but will run out of time. (Unless his dog gets frustrated and starts circling the sheep or grips). The magic spot will vary by dog and time of day. At a trial with even sheep it will not vary much from one group of sheep to another.

If the dog is on that spot, the sheep will move at a brisk walk.

It is up to the dog to find that spot and he will do so during the lift/first part of the fetch. It is up to the handler to assist him. Unless the dog is diving in, give him a moment to feel his sheep and start them moving. Afterwards, the weak dog should be encouraged to stay on the sheep's heels, the powerful dog must be restrained. Once pace is established and the sheep are making their comfortable escape , then the handler can put them on line.

Pace is mental. The sheep should feel the pressure of the dog but not be rattled, terrified or confused. The sheep should believe that they are making the decisions where to go next. The dog is comfortable doing his job.. Correct pace is three species/one mind. Commands stress all but the most experienced dogs. The weaker the handler/dog bond, the less confidence each has in the other, and the greater stress commands produce. Thus, John Templeton was able to command Roy at a rate of 2 commands per second (watch Amanda Milliken work Hazel) but you (or I) probably should ease up a bit. Commands always ask the dog to do something different than what he is doing and young dogs may take them as rebukes - particularly the down command which some dogs understand as "You dope - you're fired!" When the inexperienced dog is off his feet, he has no contact with the sheep, the magic spot is moving away as the sheep escape and when he can get up again, he may come on like a kamikaze . . .

Some clappy dogs (as Dorrance Eikamp's Rex was winning the Sheridan Finals, Rex flopped down repeatedly) don't seem to feel "lie down" pressure much. Other dogs truly hate to go off their feet (and the upstanding dog is more fashionable today than he was twenty years ago).

Trial pace is achieved at home by handlers who learn how to slow their dog and speed it up. If you don't work on pace at home, you will not have it on the trial field. You speed up your dog with shrillness, slow him by using his name (which is how you ask him to think) and/or gruffness. An "Ahhh you!" or "Get out of that" will produce better effects than LIEDOWNLIEDOWNLIEDOWN.

Dogs read handler shrieking as EMERGENCY! HANDLER HAS LOST HIS WITS! and in such circumstances the dog either quits or decides to take matters into his own hands (jaws).
I don't know many handlers who walk to the post without butterflies in their stomach. Many novice dogs are every bit as nervous. If the dog has got around behind his sheep, lifted them and started toward you, he has increased his confidence. Now, it's up to you to set the pace. Sssshhhh.

PART 5

All too often, outrun, lift and fetch being more-or-less achieved; as the novice's dog nears the post, the novice grabs this chance to deliver a heartfelt lecture on morality; informing the dog that he must listen forevermore and remember who is the Boss. Omit this procedure. Your dog already knows who is Boss and whilst you lecture, the sheep are drifting toward the exhaust pen and the judge is deducting points.

Instead, as the sheep approach the post, move to the side opposite the side where you wish them to turn, extend your crook and wiggle it a little so the wrong side will seem unappealing to the sheep.

Take a deep breath, coo to your dog.. Settle him and yourself. Be wary as the sheep near the post; last instant swerves are common on courses where the judge (and/or spectators) are too closely behind you.

Imagine a revolving door. You in one compartment, the sheep in the opposite compartment. As they come around revolve with them. Most novices prefer to keep their eyes on their dog to insure he doesn't commit mischief.Open handlers mostly watch the sheep. It is not always possible to watch both and the sheep turn, not the dog turn is what the judge scores.

If you have kept your cool, here at your feet is the least likely place your dog is likely to lose his. Perhaps dogs have gripped at the turn but in many, many trials I cannot recall a single instance. Keeping your eyes on the sheep is a (reasonably) safe strategy. The sheep will tell you what your dog is doing.

The Wear: Although I have judged novice classes. I was out of novice before the wear was invented and have never run it myself. Hence, others can advise you better than I.

The Pen: If you have to sprint for it, get to the pen ahead of your sheep. If the sheep pass the pen you have lost points unnecessarily.

As they approach, waggle your stick a little, adopt a mildly threatening posture;notify the sheep that you are also a predator to be reckoned with.

Some sheep are so over-dogged they've learned that the pen is their fastest way off the trial field and will walk in if you fling the gate open, stand aside and keep your dog back. If you are unfortunate enough to train on these faux sheep, you and your dog will be helpless when you encounter real ones.

You cannot "Put" real sheep in a pen. They must elect to go in of their own will. Nor can you "put" them in by chance or on the fly.

Often, novices picture the pen as a single task. It may help to think of penning as a two -stage operation: getting the sheep in the mouth of the pen and the pen itself.

What you must do--you will not be able to sleaze this--is bring the sheep into the spatial cone that empties into the pen. You will hold your side, the dog his. Unless the sheep are unusually man-shy, the sheep will be less wary of you than of the dog.

Gate, rope, your body, extended crook: that's you: nearly twenty feet of swinging bluff-gate. Your dog prowls the other side, balancing constantly.

There are only two places on the trial field where a dog absolutely must be willing to go off his feet. If your sheep are pressing too hard against you or seem ready to bolt, down your dog.

It may help to think of that spatial cone between you and the dog as a tube of toothpaste. Persuade the sheep to enter the cone and then you and dog squeeze gently at the big end until they go into the pen.

Hold your side! A dog (who bears most of the pressure) can be excused for sheep slipping around him, the handler cannot. Rope and crook are part of your bluff-gate. When a sheep is thinking about jumping the rope, flick it. Don't wait until a sheep's head is beyond the reach of your crook before you wriggle it at her. Remember that you too have "eye".Use it.. Don't be afraid to make your body the sort of body sheep don't wish to approach. I have dropped to my knees to block a rope-ducker.

At the 94 Sheridan finals, when extremely man-shy range Rambouilette sheep were locked up in the mouth of the pen, Stu Ligon (a one-time 4-H kid) could not put any pressure on them. He and his dog were at the greatest distance they could be while holding an explosive device (the sheep) they could not squeeze . Stu started jumping up and down and carrying on like a lunatic. His sheep were so puzzled and disconcerted by Stu's actions, they walked in the pen.

When the sheep are considering going in the pen, they will look into it. Until they look, don't push. Do what you must to make the lead sheep nervous enough to look there.
J.M. Wilson claimed that when a sheep finally decided to go in, her eyes changed. If this is true (it may be) I've not been able to detect it. After two sheep go in you may need to individually persuade the final sheep. Don't count on her to follow her pals.When all three (4) cannot bolt, swing the gate briskly and bring your dog to your feet. That will help train your dog for open when you must do a shed after the pen.

If they break, start anew. YOU MUST create and bring them back into the cone.
If the sheep run around behind the pen toward the pen opening (NOT THE HINGE SIDE) there is a secondary cone. This secondary cone is: dog pressing them against the pen while you block their forward movement until you open the gate and let them roll around into the mouth of the pen and in.

The primary cone accounts for most pens - and all full point pens. The secondary cone can sometimes salvage points from disaster.

If you have closed the gate (with or without sheep in the pen) exhaust your sheep if you are able. If not don't worry. Someone's open dog will take over. Give your dog a pat, lead him to the cooling tub. You can schmooze him later, in private. Take a long moment to come down into the tremendous, slow, noisy, senseless world where all of us spend our ordinary days.




When Ordinary Humiliation
Just Isn't Enough