A week out from the Sonoma Wine Country Sheepdog Trial, a big, important trial for us, I am thinking about fine-tuning the dogs and instilling as much confidence as I possibly can. I had just the kittehs with me today, because they are light, light, light and good for the confidence part. They are also very touchy, so good for the fine-tuning part as well.
I started with bigger outruns for Star, 1 to each side, then shortened them up to a couple hundred yards. The shorter outruns keen up my dog measurably and, because it is so easy for him, they create the confidence I need going onto an unfamiliar field and fresh wool sheep. After the outrun, we practiced shedding and taking a single. On the hill field the finish is shed, pen single, and Star needs the practice. The kittehs don't split well, and so with an eye towards confidence, I made it as easy as possible, calling my dog through no matter where they split. As long as I got an easy shed, I called him through. Right now I don't need any mis-steps, only work I can praise, praise, praise.
With only 2 days left for practice, I kept things short and sweet today. I wanted to start, remain and finish on a good note, and that is just what happened. I had the kittehs, and 2 Dorper lambs to keep things interesting. I set them at the bottom of the hill shaded up under the big eucalyptus tree where they were impossible to spot. Guiding Star by taking steps in the necessary direction of travel, I told him to "look," then sent with a shush. In both directions today, Star started well, picking up pace along the way to finish spot on. From correcting him on the come-bye side weeks ago, he is still a little unsure that way, but much improved today, which was good to see.
Sonoma Wine Country Sheepdog Trial
I can safely report that my dog is completely unaffected by inclement weather. At Sonoma, he was tested absolutely. Throughout the dog trial, on either field, and both days, Star stayed true to form remaining steady, compliant and precise. The only hiccup to the entire trial experience for us occurred when I let him down Saturday at the pen during the first running on what is called "the flat field."
To be perfectly honest with you, I thought this trial might be a bit over little Star man's head. Both fields are small, but treacherous, and the trial always provides sheep that are fit and testing. Add to that the fact that water was to be found everywhere on both fields from puddles to muddy bogs, to rivulets to rushing streams, and you've got quite a challenge for a nursery dog.
On Saturday, Star ran towards the end of the run order on "the flat field," named that way, because compared to "the hill field," it is. The gather is short, maybe 200 yards, and my dog managed it with no trouble at all coming around at the top fence line to gather himself up and make a nice lift. The sheep would rather not breach strong rain run-off flowing across the fetch and drive lines, and I was liberal with encouragement, both voice and "walk-up" whistle to keep him coming forward. The post is set beside and a little behind the pen, so to make a nice turn there, you must be between the two. After a competent fetch that cost only 5 points, Star easily kept his sheep where they needed to be, and the most difficult part of the course was begun without any fuss at all. The instant the sheep were pointed towards the drive-away panel, I said "there," and Star stopped dead allowing the sheep to comfortably toddle up the drive line. After that it was just a matter of quiet flank and walk-up whistles with some soft voice encouragement all around the drive for tight turns, straight lines and a completed drive worth 26 points. That's when the wheels came off, at least for me.
|On deck on the "flat field"|
As you well know, Star-man is so sensitive to my pressure. All it takes to curb his enthusiasm is my least bit of frustration, a careless tone of voice, or too many decibels. I knew our run had been a good one up to that point. I was worried about penning to begin with, because we have not practiced it much, and it hasn't been a factor at recent dog trials where I could have developed confidence. The sheep were penning well, but still required convincing, some more than others, and there had been the errant ewe who ran off on previous runs. It happens. Where I should have used "here, here, watch 'em, shush, shush," I used "come on," in a growly voice, and Star slowed to a crawl giving ground to my demeanor on flanks necessary to stop ewes who were sizing up my dog. One ewe in particular knew when she had the upper hand, and after stopping a break or two, Star lost to her when she simply strutted right past him. We timed out leaving 20 precious points on the field and I was reminded yet again of a valuble lesson. No dog is perfect. Every, single dog, no matter how talented has bits and pieces that must be handled around. Going forward I will only encourage my dog, and not do anything to reduce his cha-cha especially where I need it most. It was a very expensive lesson that I should not have needed.
From 60-some dogs, Star finished somewhere in the top 20. The breakdown of points off looked like this:
OR 1 - Lift 1 - Fetch 5 - Drive 4 - Pen 10 - Shed 10 for a total score of 69 out of 100. Just for the record, a score of 89 would have put him 2nd. Argh!
|The "flat field"|
The "hill field" slopes up gently, then angles up sharply to level off again at the top where sheep are set just where you can see them, but not where you can see the dog's approach. There is really only one way to send, and that is right, either inside or outside a now-rushing stream that bisects the field from top to bottom. Star went the long way around, crossing the stream in a big, awkward leap after which he got confused and lost his way. A re-direct whistle put him right, but he was reluctant to cross back over the stream, choosing instead to run all the way to the top fence-line of the field where a huge culvert was gushing big water from under a road, and down the rock-faced incline. It's a pretty waterfall, but impossible to jump, and I was really impressed to see my smart dog wisely back-track of his own accord to a narrower place where he jumped across and headed up the hill to his waiting sheep. It is a good thing he is a clever fellow, because I never could have whistled that maneuver.
|The blustery "hill field"|
The finish on this field has always been shed, pen, single, and without a complete finish of some sort, there will be no wine for you. Sandy gives wine and money as prizes. Frank Cashen, our Irish judge, had declared a split of any 2, a single of any 1, which I knew would help my young dog where he needed it most and the split came easily enough even if it was on the butts of sheep that were happily moving away. Remembering my bitter lesson from the day before, I shushed and "here-here'd" my now happy dog and the pen was made with quite a bit of handler help. Not wanting to put him off as I had done the day before, I left him alone after flanking him into position, and did the work myself with lots of cooperation from willing ewes that for the most part walked straight in. I have been involved in some very exciting penning in my time, and this was not that way, but it was good for 9 points, and on to the single.
We had a missed attempt, and I suspect the reason the judge did not call it was because while Star came through on the correct sheep, he never fully committed to her. It was hard to hear under all those clothes and weather, so the judge kindly spoke his request for us to re-single. Running out of a very generous 12 minute time clock, I chose to help my dog here as well, running a ewe off the front and calling him in to follow her off. Follow her he did, and this time with intention, so the single was called and we were off.
It had been a decent run, placing us 8th out of over 60 dogs, which was good for an excellent bottle of 1994 Clos du Bois merlot and $125. The points were deducted as follows:
OR 8 - Lift 1 - Fetch 3 - Drive 3 - Split 2 - Pen 1 - Single 8 for a total score of 84 out of 110.