When all is said and done.....
by Dawn Wessels

Sometimes when we motivate ourselves to experiment "outside of the box" - we aquire a deeper understanding and appreciation for whatís "inside" of that very box. As many of you know, I have lately become intruigued with the sport of sheep herding trials. Herding is a sport that one never completely masters. It can bring feelings of exhilaration one moment and the next thing you know, youíre looking for a solid fence post to bang your head against in frustration.
As simple as it looks, it appears to me that on a bad day you could truly lose hundreds of points on a eighty point run. For starters, you have the sheep... some are kind and cooperative while it is obvious that others are experiencing a serious Malox moment. If the stars arenít alignment for you on the day of the trial, you could get one of the matronly girls who couldnít give a rats ____ who you are, why you are there or where you want to go. Mix these types together and you have a true-to-life simulation of a video game that costs you forty to seventyfive dollars a pop to play. This sport is done outdoors - rain, shine, gale force winds......you get the drift. I have been in beautiful, grassy fields that have been groomed to a turf by grazing livestock. On the other hand , I have also been "attacked" by thistles and weeds that I believe are carniverous. These botanical snipers have grabbed my legs, torn my pants and pulled me to the ground. Had there not been witnesses, god knows how far they would have gone.

I own a fantastic Border Collie but he has been already been spoken for as my husbands competition partner. So my choices were simple: get another dog OR give it a try with the breed that I know well as a working partner - one of my Black and Tan Coonhounds. This sport requires a very advanced level of control, so I decided to start with Ricki and we are having the time of our lives!! We have been herding now for about a year and have been invited to demonstrate our ability at a couple of large public functions. On a good day, we do quite well on a Started A course or a small B course. Most importantly though, Iíve learned that there is literally no limitation for a bright, versatile and athletic Black and Tan paired with an innovative thought process. In this article, I intend to share and explain a portion of this remarkable experience and how it has boosted our performance in everything that we do.

I think the biggest lesson that Iíve learned is that my training challenges arenít any different than anyone else at my level - regardless of the breed of dog. Truth be told, there are individuals with a dog that belongs to the "herding group" that are training the same way that I am. As we advance, we all need to work on the same things: longer outruns, quick stops, working various types of stock, handling pressure from stock and the list goes on and on. We all know too well what a "wreck" (herd spliting and going all over the place) is and are learning what to do when and if it happens. As in all classes, we all have our strong points and must work harder on things that are easier for others. I have an outrun that is to die for but I am constantly working on my dogs ability to cover if the stock splits and goes in different directions. My husband has the opposite challenge right now because his dog creates a higher level of anxiety in the stock. When Ricki and I participated at the herding clinic at the Border Collie National Specialty in 99 (there was an opening that didnít fill) I was somewhat apprehensive about how a Coonhound would be received as a potential stock dog. To my pleasant surprise we were welcomed with support and enthusiasm. Some participants had memories of their fathers and grandfathers fancy for Black and Tans and shared some wonderful stories with me. I was so enthralled by how a breed that I adore had touched so many people that at times I nearly forgot that I was at the specialty for my "Black and White" dog. These experiences have certainly given me a different view and perspective about competition in any sport because rarely do we get to see what the road to get there looked like for all of the other competitors. While our approaches to get past the "bumps" may vary greatly, the "bumps" are primarily the same and are a challenge for everyone at some time.
When Ricki and I first started herding there were some BIG "bumps" to tackle. First of all, I had a dog with alot of prey drive but not a dog with "eye" (an intense staring posture that is inherited in many Border Collies and other various breeds). As I mentioned before, not all dogs - even Border Collies have alot of natural eye. Eye is very helpful when holding or sorting stock. So how was I going to create this and would the sheep really respond to a behavior that was trained? Our first step was to attend a seminar on understanding "stock". From this, I understood the effect of this behavior from the sheeps point of view. We then broke down what we wanted into pieces and created the body movement that stock responds to along with the "mark" from Rickiís utility training to teach her to "stare" at a designated sheep until released. This was very difficult at first but now we have convinced the sheep that they had better "stand tall and salute" for her. I also had the dilemma of a dog with alot of prey drive and no herding instinct. This will accomplish nothing but alot of panicked and potentially injured stock if its not addressed. We started by teaching Ricki how to gather sheep with plastic step-stools (you can get a whole flock of these at Fleet Farm for fifty bucks!). When we mastered this game, we introduced the stock one at a time until Ricki was able to calmly bring me several sheep at once without leaving anyone behind. Ricki is now able to flank in both directions, stop, hold stock, send sheep through a sorting chute, pen them into a gaited enclosure, remove them from a pen and gather them to me, out run and gather sheep to me, move stock calmly from place to place, drive sheep through obstacles with me behind her, move obstinate stock that donít want to go with the rest... and the list continues to grow every week! So the next time someone comments on how limited you are with your Black and Tan, perhaps itís best to remember that whether you say Tomayto or Tomahto isnít really important if you donít know what one really tastes like.

The last subject that I will cover is the importance of learning to "go with the flow". The true beauty of herding is that every day - every field - every sheep deals you a different hand of cards to play. Every single run challenges your ability and level of skill. I have been told by some very successful and experienced exhibitors that their competition strategy is to take what you get and to do your very best with it. Sheep are, for the most part, gentle and peaceful creatures that deserve to be handled the same way. Neither they or your dog strategically plans for things to go awry on you. The fact that your plan may not be on sheeps appointment book for the day is part of this sport and you must accept that and take responsibility for handling each situation the best that you can. Every experience serves you an honest evaluation of which skills you need to sharpen and I believe that the toughest experiences have given me the most benefit. This experience has taught us to handle all of our training and competition with a new level of excitement and satisfaction that we never had before. Herding has taught me that when all is said and done, if you and your dog have truly done your very best - you will be a Winner All Of The Time. Thatís an exciting place to be with a Black and Tan!!!

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This page was created by Edith S. Atchley
Page updated March 1, 2001