Originally Published in
American Border Collie Magazine, September/October 2001. Reprinted with permission.
In my first column, I described in great detail our entry into this sport with McEwan, a gift from a dear friend, Gail Dapogny. I mentioned in that article that after working with McEwan (the novice leading the novice!!!), I had decided to purchase a trained dog, Meg. There have been a number of articles written about the value of a novice handler having a trained dog and I definitely agree that it is the best option for the novice handler. This article is a thoughtful journey over the last four years with my "Meggie".
Meg came to me when she was five years old and had just whelped and weaned a litter of puppies. She had been through a number of owners and had been trained and trialed through pro-novice. I remember the thrill of seeing her balance on the sheep--clearly this dog knew more than I!! At this time, I had begun to play around with a whistle but had not been "forced" to whistle while training since McEwan did not know whistles yet. At my first clinic with Meg, I remember Alasdair saying to me "Aye, one of your biggest handicaps at this point is not whistling to this dog." Well, that certainly motivated me. So, Meggie forced me to whistle. Of course, at first the whistles were pitiful squeaks, spits and shadows of any meaningful whistle . . . but in a short time, she began to understand what I wanted with the various whistles.
As a very novice handler/trainer with this "wonderful" trained dog, I was thrilled to have a dog trained so that I could begin to look at the sheep instead of looking solely at my dog. Does this sound familiar to novice handlers with a trained dog?? We had a great first novice season- winning many ribbons and prizes. I was thrilled. However, in retrospect, I realize, that I let her get away with "murder," because I was so unsure of myself (and was even more prone to giving wrong flanks then) and Meg seemed so sure of herself!!
Year two--were we ready to move up to pro-novice? Certainly, Meg KNEW she was ready! Well, at yet another training clinic, it was pointed out to me (undoubtedly by Alasdair) that Meg was definitely the one in control. Does this sound familiar to novice handlers with their first trained dog?? The next step was PACE, PACE, PACE--it was needed everywhere. I vividly remember at an Alasdair clinic at our farm concentrating on the sheep at the turn at the post, when Alasdair says to me "Watch your dog!" "What?" I replied, "I thought I was supposed to watch the sheep." He replied, "Aye, your have to watch both!!" Pro-novice for us was quite a leap. We needed more control, more pace, more control, more pace. . . . The battle continued. Sometimes, when I came off the field, I was exhausted and couldn't believe that ANYONE could yell so loud for 4 to 5 solid minutes!
Year three--still in pro-novice. Going nuts because Meg was still running all over me. I decided that enough was enough. All of a sudden, I realized that I needed to be TOTALLY consistent with enforcement of my commands. The results were amazing. Within a week, Meg was behaving like an angel. I had control!! Now, it wasn't all sweetness and light, but we had many more good runs than bad that year!!
Year four--now we were moving up to ranch!! We had more highs and lows, and continued to struggle with control. "All of a sudden," I was having trouble getting Meg onto her sheep at the lift and if I stopped her on the drive, she stalled out. Now--TOO much control! I had not realized that Meg was really not a very powerful dog. I know that this did not happen "all of a sudden." As a novice, I simply did not recognize the warning signs.
Year four--still in ranch!! I was having more difficulty with Meg stalling out on big courses and then once she got going again, she would circle the sheep!! Yikes, it was frustrating!! By this time Meg was 9 years old. What to do?
Then, an opportunity presented itself. A novice handler approached Dal and me at a trial about obtaining a trained dog. At this time, I did not have the intention of placing Meg. We spent several hours with them at this trial. They expressed the concern that "Well, we don't have any kennels, so Meg would have to live in the house. Would that be a problem?" I began to warm up to the idea of placing her with this delightful young couple, Channin and Mark. We dropped by their farm on the way home and I was very comfortable leaving Meg. I had phone calls and e-mails from Channin and learned that Meg was adapting very well. She played in the kiddie pool, swam in the creek behind the house, had a regular grooming appointment, went to "show and tell" at school and generally ruled the roost. Channin had taken several herding lessons with her and was planning on entering a Novice trial the end of August. Meg had even herded the neighbor's pigs when they had accidentally escaped. She took her commands but her tail was in the air the whole time!! Tragically, she was killed just 22 months after she joined this family.
I don't have any regrets of placing Meg. It was the right decision, both for her and for me. I was ready to move on and she was still young enough that she could teach another novice handler many lessons--in her own inimitable style!! I just wish that she had had the opportunity.
I will remember her lessons and I will miss her.