Fond Memories of Mel Five Years Ago

Mel and Andy at Powick sheepdog trials

Mel at her last sheepdog trial in July 2011

Many of you will remember Mel as one of the great sheepdogs we've had the pleasure of living and working with. Sadly, Mel passed away in March of this year, but she's far from being forgotten.

Her daughter Carew may have been easier to control in a delicate situation, and indeed Mel was not an ideal trials dog because she was too "pushy", but when it came to common sense and getting practical work done with difficult sheep, Mel never failed.

This is Mel's final outing at Powick Sheepdog Trial in July 2011. It was a boiling hot day, and the ageing Mel was clearly exhausted by the time the awkward sheep reached the "Shed" stage, so I retired her from the competition. I don't regard this as a failure on Mel's part. I miscalculated the demands the heat and the sheep would put upon her.

It wasn't a great run by any means but as ever, Mel gave her very best.

Farm Dog vs Trials Dog?

A sheepdog takes the sheep down towards the fetch gates at a sheepdog trial in Wales on a glorious day

Was Carew right to disobey me?

I've looked forward to Penybont Sheepdog Trial for some months now. It's a delightful setting with a friendly atmosphere. The sheep are good, the field's reasonably straightforward, and once the sheep are in the exhaust pen, they're well out of sight for other competing dogs.

A view of the trials field at Penybont from the end of the field where the sheep are released
Penybont trials ground seen from the top end, where the sheep are released from. (Click to enlarge).

A slight complication is the outrun. If you send the dog left, unless it's too tight, it must run around behind a large mound where it's not only out of sight of the handler, but the dog loses sight of the sheep for a while too.

The sheep are brought to the holding pens along this route, so if you send the dog to the right, everything is well within sight, but the sheep occasionally wander away from the peg. Because they're trying to get away, they naturally want to go back the way they came, so from the post, the sheep are sometimes seen walking or trotting off to the left. With this in mind, sending the dog left to meet the sheep would seem a logical choice.

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In Carew's case, however, she's shown a tendency to stop on her outrun - and being out of sight of the handler (me) is when she's most likely to do it. Because of this, I decided I'd send her in the "Away" direction.

Now, I like to think I'm fairly open minded. In fact one of my failings (if it is one) is that I'll change my plan at the last minute if unexpected circumstances crop up.

So what happened yesterday at Penybont? I walked up to the post full of confidence. Having watched the first four runs (we ran at number five) I was looking forward to watching Carew's superb handling of these particular sheep. They were flighty and difficult if the dog was fast or too close, but moved very well if the dog handled them with respect - just what I knew Carew would do.

Sheepdog Carew takes the sheep off the trials field.
Carew takes her sheep off the trials ground after we retired when she crossed the course. (Click to enlarge).

As we arrived at the post, I called Carew to my right to show her that she'd be going right, but to my surprise, she dodged back to my left. I called her back to the right, and noticing that some of her sheep were walking to the left, I quickly sent her off.

She went off at high speed, but to my amazement, crossed over very quickly. I shouted and directed her right again, whereupon she set off to the right, but soon bent back to go left. I stopped her and re-sent her but once more she headed left. This time I redirected her without stopping her, and it worked. She went out beautifully but by now the sheep were something like sixty yards off line and I realised Carew would get virtually no points at all for her outrun.

Very cross and humiliated, I signalled to the judge that I was retiring. Carew and I took the sheep straight off the field and put them in the exhaust pen. Muttering discontentedly as we walked back to the car, I was at a loss to understand why Carew had crossed over again at a sheepdog trial. She'd done it earlier in the year at Clun.

Although the Penybont sheep would certainly have suited Carew, they were not the sort of sheep that Kay would have excelled with in a sheepdog trial. Kay can be difficult to stop and inclined to push her sheep too hard, so rather than risk another dreadful run, I decided to withdraw her from the trial.

A young handler works in the holding pens at Penybont sheep dog trial
Young handler Ben Owen working in the "Letting Out" pens at Penybont Sheep Dog Trials. (Click to enlarge).

I told the competitor who was due to run immediately after Kay and I, and then waited for one of the runs to finish. As the sheep were being taken off, I went to the Judge's car to tell him that I wouldn't be running Kay.

The judge on the day was John Thomas who's still respected as one of the top handlers in the world, despite no longer being in the first flush of youth as it were. I've known John for many years. He's highly knowledgeable, fair, and speaks his mind. As he saw me coming towards his open car window, his face lit up and he said: "That was your fault you know, don't blame the dog, she's a good dog."

I must have looked a little confused, because he added: "Your sheep were trotting off to the left and she saw them. She was only going to get them for you. Don't blame the dog, it was your fault!"

My immediate reaction was to agree with him. How foolish. I hadn't realised it, but Carew clearly saw the sheep going to the left, and she'd gone to get them.

By the time I'd walked back to the car though, I'd changed my mind. Surely, right or wrong, the dog should obey it's command. Carew should have outrun to the right wherever the sheep were, and whatever they were doing. If you start to let your dog ignore your commands, chaos will ensue.

Carew has stood her ground and the stubborn ewe has turned away
Carew has plenty of power for trials or farm work. Here she's facing a stubborn ewe. (Click to enlarge).
Sheepdog Carew facing a stubborn ewe
Head held high, Carew has moved forward despite the ewe trying to "face her down". The ewe turns away. (Click to enlarge).

I could see John's point though. It was comforting to think that Carew was just doing her job but it threw up lots of questions, not least of which was how I could stop her crossing over on her outrun in future trials?

As I drove home I relived those chaotic few moments in my mind time and again. Just as at Clun Valley Sheepdog Trial, Carew had indicated her intention of going left very clearly on the way to the post. If she'd stopped behind the mound on the left of the course, we'd have lost a point or two, but that's insignificant compared to the disastrous loss of points (or possible disqualification) we'd have suffered for the multiple crossing over episode.

I haven't mentioned the video have I?

Yes, there's video evidence. I placed a little camera near the windscreen of the car before Carew's run in the hope that I might be able to review it later. Looking through the windscreen as it was, it was only ever going to be of poor quality, and conditions on the trials field were quite misty too, but as long as I could make out the dog and the sheep I thought the footage might be of some use.

As I sat out in our field with the dogs and a glass of wine that evening, I remembered the video, but it wasn't until much later that I managed to motivate myself to watch it.

Everything looked fine as we walked out to the post, except that Carew seemed very keen to go left. I'd noticed one or two sheep slowly moving to the left but despite this I set her up on my right. While I was looking down at her, the whole bunch of sheep began trotting smartly to the left. I sent Carew off, but she crossed over. The evidence was incontrovertible. Whatever the sheep were doing, Carew should have obeyed me and gone "Away".

Watch the short video of Carew's outrun.


This morning, while I was out in the glorious sunshine with the dogs once more, my mind went over the events yet again. Surely this was covered in our "Close Work" sheepdog training tutorial. Words to the effect that if you give a command, the dog should obey it, but if that command proves wrong, a dog which has the sense to correct it should be commended.

I dismissed this because Carew had clearly gone the wrong way, but within seconds, I realised that she HAD obeyed me briefly. She'd clearly set off in the "Away" direction, and then crossed over. Of course, none of this is conclusive, but I feel I've misjudged Carew and yesterday's abortive run at Penybont opens up the old controversy of whether a good trials dog can make a good farm dog, and vice-versa.

Gill reminded me that if Carew had been gathering a flock of sheep in a farm situation and I'd erroneously sent her the wrong way, I'd have been delighted if she'd shown enough initiative to cross over and correct the situation, but crossing over at a sheepdog trial is seriously penalised. Some judges even disqualify the dog for it.

Carew certainly has the finesse required of a trials dog, and she doesn't lack power in a farm situation, so she seems to have the best of both worlds, but unless I can stop her crossing over on her outrun, we might as well forget sheepdog trials.

A sheepdog takes the sheep down towards the fetch gates at a sheepdog trial in Wales on a glorious day
A dog takes the sheep down the course towards the fetch gates. Note the mound on the right where the dog loses sight of the sheep if it goes left on its outrun. (Click to enlarge).

Let's face it though if I'd been concentrating, once I'd seen the sheep making their way from the peg I should have waited to see what happened. If I had, I like to think that I'd have changed my mind and sent Carew left under the circumstances, but arguably the "letters-out" should have kept the sheep on the peg. That's their job.

With the sheep trotting so far away, if I hadn't sent Carew off, it's likely the judge would have told me to wait until the sheep were back on the peg, or even awarded a re-run, but instead, I hastily committed to the run by sending Carew the way I'd previously decided would be best (completely ignoring the fresh evidence).

For the future, my conclusions from this are:

1. Don't make the final decision about the direction of the outrun until you reach the post and can see what the sheep are doing.
2. In Carew's case, unless there's a strong reason to send her one way or the other, if she shows a clear preference for one side, send her that way - she probably knows best!
3. Listen to John Thomas - what he doesn't know about sheepdog trials isn't worth knowing!

Training Really Works!

Sheepdog Carew poses with the silver trophy she won for best outrun, lift and fetch at Evesham Sheepdog Trials

Carew's performance is vastly improved at The Vale of Evesham Sheepdog Trials

I've got quite a soft spot for Evesham Sheepdog Trials. The "Open" at Evesham was the first sheepdog trial I ever attended (albeit as a spectator). It has a long history, is always efficiently run and has a friendly atmosphere.

Gill sitting with the dogs watching the sheepdog trial in the sunshine
Carew and Kay both look pleased after their runs while Gill watches the action on the field. (Click to enlarge).

Some of the top handlers in the world compete at Evesham and the trials raise a huge amount of money for cancer research each year. I understand that last year, more than a thousand pounds was collected for this excellent cause.

Traditionally, the trials consist of a local novice event on the Saturday (for eligible competitors living within a sixty mile radius of Evesham church clock tower) with the main Open trials taking place on the Sunday.

With both Kay and Carew being novice dogs (never having won an "Open" trial) and living well within the required distance, I entered them both (some months ago) for both trials but when Carew went lame recently, I was very worried that she wouldn't be able to compete.

Sheepdog Carew in control of her sheep at the post in a sheepdog trial
Gently does it! Carew brings the sheep around the post at Evesham Local Novice Sheepdog Trial. (Click to enlarge)

Poor Carew couldn't understand why suddenly I didn't want her to do any sheep work, and only took her out with the other dogs towards the end of their run when they were quite tired. It paid off though, because by Friday she seemed perfectly fit and I decided to run her in the trials.

As regular readers will know, I've been trying to put more "pep" into Carew's trials performance recently by giving her all the encouragement I can to speed up when she's working at home. The problem lay with her outrun (she would often stop on it - losing a lot of points) and then, particularly at the top of the field, she was indecisive - lifting and bringing the sheep too slowly.

She showed quite an improvement at Mathon Sheepdog Trials in mid July, so my efforts appeared to be working, and I've been further encouraging her on a lot more since (until she injured her foot, that is).

Cars, vans and the judge's trailer at Evesham Sheepdog Trials.
There's always a good attendance at Evesham Sheepdog Trials. (Click to enlarge).

Carew's shown so much improvement in fact that I was a little worried she might go too fast in her next trial, but I decided it was a risk worth taking.

The Local Novice class at Evesham begins on the Saturday afternoon, and it was in glorious sunshine on the ninth of August that Carew and I walked out to the post for her run. I'd made certain she knew where the sheep were and duly sent her off to the left.

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To my delight, she did a superb outrun - coming in nicely behind her sheep (perhaps stopping the tiniest bit early if I'm brutally honest) then smoothly lifted the sheep and brought them down the fetch and through the gates in superb style. Her pace was vastly improved compared to previous trials, but still a "teeny" bit slower than I would have liked. Never mind though, this was excellent progress.

Carew brought the sheep around the post in tidy fashion and set off on the first leg of her drive - still very neatly. The sheep passed through the gates, but the "duffer" giving the commands mis-read the situation and (not realising the sheep were clear of the gates) allowed Carew to drive the sheep on further, thus putting them well off-line for the cross-drive.

Andy crouches down and calls Kay through the sheep on the shed section
When we finally managed to part the sheep, Kay came through immediately. (Click to enlarge).

As though this were not enough I over-compensated, and by the time the sheep reached the right-hand drive gates they were too far to the right. Fortunately I was able to get Carew to bring them back onto line and all went through the gates. She turned them reasonably well and brought them to the shedding ring without further incident, but here the five North Country Mules proved very difficult to part. Eventually though, we created a gap and Carew came through instantly when I called her.

I ran to the pen from the shedding ring because I realised we must be getting short of time. This was a good run compared to the others I'd seen so far, and I was determined to get as many points for the pen as possible but the sheep just didn't want to go into the pen. We tried everything - taking pressure off, putting pressure on, staying out wide, coming in close - all to no avail. The judge called "Time" and all our pen points were lost.

A young child watches while a man pours a pint of beer from the keg.
A popular attraction at Evesham Sheepdog Trial was the beer keg! (Click to enlarge).

Never mind though. I was very pleased with Carew's performance. When I'm training sheepdogs I like to see some sign of improvement (no matter how tiny) each time I take a dog out. In Carew's case, the improvement had been dramatic, and convinced me that encouraging her to work rather too fast at home was having a good effect on her trial so this was special.

Carew still has an excellent stop, so I'm confident there are no detrimental side effects to her training programme - and most important, she seems to be fully recovered from her foot injury.

Sheepdog bringing the sheep around the post at a sheepdog trial.
Jenny Atwell's Spice brings the sheep around the post at Evesham Local Novice Trial. (Click to enlarge).

Later in the trial, Richard Smith who was judging and who is also the chairman of Evesham Sheepdog Society kindly let me take a photo of Carew and Kay's points from each section of their runs. I was so proud to discover that Carew lost just one point off each for her outrun lift and fetch. My misjudgement had cost us eleven points on the driving section, and then we lost a further four when the sheep wouldn't part for the shed, but worse still, all ten points disappeared when we failed to pen the sheep in time.

Carew's seventy two points still amounted to a competitive score for a local novice trial though, and I look forward to finding out how close she came to being amongst the leaders.

Kay's run was quite typical of her. She has such a great talent, but I really think she's finding sheepdog trials a little too much for her now that she's getting older.

It seems the more tired she gets, the more her enthusiasm gets the better of her. She proved difficult to stop for much of her run, and wasn't flanking as wide as I wanted either. Her points lost for each section don't read too well: Outrun 2, Lift 3, Fetch 5, Drive 14, Shed 6, and Pen 10 (timed out). Kay was left with a total of sixty points - a whole twelve behind Carew.

Silver trophies and a bronze statue of a shepherd with dog and sheep.
Evesham Sheepdog Trial has an enviable array of trophies on offer to the winners. (Click to enlarge).

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the field on Sunday to find that Carew's Saturday run had earned her the Christian Salvesen Perpetual Challenge Trophy for Outrun, Lift and Fetch! What better confirmation that she's responding well to her special training?

Sunday was a completely different day to Saturday though. The weather forecasters told us that the remnants of hurricane Bertha would bring heavy rain and high winds, and they weren't wrong. During the morning, torrential showers drenched everyone and if the afternoon, the wind coming straight down the field caused handlers to struggle at times to remain at the post. I spent much of Carew's run holding my peaked hat on with one hand and holding the sheepdog whistle with the other!

A tall poplar tree bends in the high wind at Evesham Sheepdog Trials
Note the poplar tree! With wind like this, it's not surprising some handlers had difficulty standing still at the post. (Click to enlarge).

Carew had a wonderful run though. I thought her outrun lift and fetch were as good as the day before, and the drive was the best I think I've ever achieved with any dog since I've been competing in sheepdog trials. Carew took the sheep straight to the first drive gate, turned them quite tightly and kept them on a good line right through the second gates and bringing them nicely up to the shedding ring.

Evesham SDT
Sunday 10th Aug 2014

Judge: Bob Powell
Open National (with Single)

  1. Thomas Longton - Maya, 95 (OLF)
  2. Adrian Hall - Gwen, 95
  3. Richard Smith - Glen, 93 (OLF)
  4. Jenny Atwell - Alice, 93
  5. Val Powell - Cully, 92 (OLF)
  6. Eamon Lawless - Niamh, 92

Novice National Class

  1. Jenny Atwell Alice, 93
  2. Angie Blackmore - Charlie, 91

(OLF) means that in the event of a tied score, the place was decided by the number of points scored for the "Outrun, Lift and Fetch" sections of each run.

Thanks to South Wales Sheepdog Trials Association for the results

A total of seven points were lost on the drive which might seem a lot, but on the day it compared very well with some of the very best runs. The sheep were hungry and kept getting their heads down and eating - causing most dogs to lose a point every time this happened. On the shed we lost just one point, so I was very optimistic as I ran to open the pen gate, but here, once more, we failed.

I can't blame Carew - she did everything I asked, just the way I wanted it. I don't even blame myself on this occasion. For some reason, most handlers struggled to pen these excellent sheep and although I'm determined to get lots more penning practice in at home, I think Carew and I worked well together.

Unfortunately, not only did we lose the ten points for the pen, but for this open trial, there was a single (where just one sheep must be parted and held away from the others) too. By running out of time, poor Carew lost a whopping twenty points from her total. There was no chance of picking up a place after that loss - except possibly in the novice class, but we must wait for the full results to appear before we know that.

4x4 vehicles and the judge's trailer at Evesham Sheepdog Trials
The best place to watch the runs from during the torrential rain was your car. (Click to enlarge).

Was I disappointed? Not at all. I was overjoyed.

Carew had once more done a good outrun, lift and fetch. It seems she's got out of the habit of stopping on her outrun (something I was once told you couldn't train a dog out of) and she's now working the sheep more fluidly at a distance - marking a vast improvement on the very faults she's shown in the recent past.

Added to that, I was more than happy with her drive; her control of the line was nothing short of remarkable. Even though the sheep did stop and start a little, she was able to get them moving again without them going off line. The shed was near faultless - just one point dropped is highly competitive. Carew has demonstrated superb sheep control skills in all sections of an open sheepdog trial. Now all we have to do is string all those sections together - regularly.

Sheepdog Kay cools off in a water tub after her run at Evesham Sheepdog Trials
Kay cools off in the water tub after her run. (Click to enlarge).

We're not there yet, but I'm convinced Carew has what it takes to become an excellent trials dog.

Kay, on the other hand was (putting it politely) less than helpful. It seems she just doesn't have the stamina to run in sheepdog trials on consecutive days. After a good outrun - losing just two points - she rushed at the sheep and lost three more on the lift. Then she didn't want to stop or respond to flanking commands, so all the sheep missed the fetch gates. It was obvious she was tired and impatient, so I retired - and she then drove the sheep to the exhaust pen beautifully - but that's little Kay for you!

international handler Thomas Longton's dogs bring the sheep towards the post at Evesham Sheepdog Trials 2014
Thomas Longton not only won the open trial, he and his dogs gave a near flawless performance to easily win the brace competition. (Click to enlarge).

Apart from Carew's performance, for me, the highlight of the day was provided by International Sheepdog Trials competitor Thomas Longton from Lancashire. Thomas and his dogs not only won the Open class of Evesham Sheepdog Trial, they easily won the "brace" competition with what may be best described as a near perfect run. Knowing how difficult it can be to work two dogs together, I'm envious of anyone who can work a brace properly, but this was a masterclass!

Thanks to the organisers Richard Smith, Jenny Atwell - and everyone else from the Vale of Evesham Sheepdog Trials Society who worked so hard to arrange and run such an excellent trial under difficult conditions.

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Carew’s declared fit for Evesham Sheepdog Trial!

Close-up of sheepdog Carew looking at the camera.

She seems sound again now, so we'll give it a go!

After her cattle herding escapade last Sunday, Carew went lame, and we were worried that she might not be fit to run in the Evesham sheepdog trials this weekend.

Sheepdog Carew facing two cattle which are looking back at her through the fence.
"And don't even think of coming back!" Carew faces a defiant pair of cattle through the fence after she's driven them back to their own pasture. (Click to enlarge).

Several careful examinations failed to reveal any sign of injury, foreign body or obvious inflammation but we were concerned that her recovery seemed slow, but yesterday she seemed much better, and this morning when I gathered our small flock with her, I couldn't detect any sign of lameness at all.

We've deliberately kept her away from the rough and tumble of the other dogs when they go out for their morning and evening runs - something that didn't amuse Carew at all - but this morning she was out with the others for the full run. We made sure we didn't throw the frisbee though, that's something the dogs take very seriously.

All being well, Carew and Kay will run at Pebworth over the weekend. The local novice trial begins at 2.00 pm on Saturday (9th August) and the open trial runs all day on Sunday.

Carew injury worry for Evesham Sheepdog Trials

Sheepdog Carew with her friends Meg and Jan behind her

We're worried that Carew may not be fit for Evesham SDT.

On the downside of Carew's heroic cattle herding on Sunday, we noticed in the evening that she was limping on her left front foot.

Sheepdog Carew quietly brings her sheep to the pen at a trial
Carew was excellent in her last sheepdog trial at Mathon in Worcestershire. (Click to enlarge).

With all the fencing we'd been doing that day we assumed she'd picked up a thorn, but when we examined the foot and leg in question, there was nothing visibly wrong. Normally these things heal up very quickly, so we decided to keep Carew on "light duties" and monitor the situation.

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When we took the dogs out yesterday for their evening run I made sure Carew stayed close to me. I was relieved to see that she wasn't limping, but this morning, after keeping her in while the rest of the dogs went out for a good race around she seems quite stiff on it.

The first trial (Local Novice class) doesn't start until the afternoon on Saturday, so there's still time for Carew's foot to heal, but I must admit Evesham is the one sheepdog trial I would hate to miss this year.

We'll continue to watch Carew's foot closely and make sure she only has the lightest of exercise between now and the weekend. (I'm tempted to say "fingers crossed" - but I know it's bad luck to be superstitious!)

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    Click icon at bottom-right of viewer for full-screen mode.

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Long distance motivation – give me ten points ‘stead of three!

In pouring rain and with thunder crashing, Carew keeps perfect control of her sheep.

With apologies to Chuck Berry

Many years ago, I asked a regular prominent member of the Welsh sheepdog trials team for advice on what to do with a dog that sticks on its outrun. "Sell it," came the blunt reply.

Sheepdog and handler standing at the entrance to the trials field
Carew looks for her sheep at the rain-soaked Mathon sheepdog trial. (Click image to enlarge it).

I was shocked at the time. I hadn't realised how difficult it is to train a dog to keep going once it's got into the habit of stopping before it reaches the point of balance behind the sheep.

It's comparatively easy to train a dog that's close to you, but as the distance between you increases, body language, hand signals and even voice and whistle commands have an ever decreasing effect on the trainee. Unless it's supremely confident (in which case the problem wouldn't exist) the farther away the dog works from its handler, the less secure it will feel. It's likely to revert to its instinct rather than follow the commands of a pack leader who's nowhere near the scene.


"How can HE know what's going on..?"
"He's not up here at the sharp end!"

Another very well known handler told me to run up the field, waving a stick and shouting at the dog to make it continue its outrun. I tried it, and all I managed to do was make myself really tired, and the poor dog even less confident than it was before.

In the years since this happened I've realised that, if the dog's sticking on its outrun, it's clearly lacking confidence. Running up the field in an aggressive, threatening manner is hardly likely to build a dog's confidence, is it?

Sheepdogs Carew and Kay at Mathon Sheepdog Trials
We arrived early at Mathon Local Novice trial to find the sheep still grazing the field. Here Carew and Kay are having a "comfort break" before the start. (Click image to enlarge).

Improving the dog's work when it's a long way from you can be extremely challenging - especially when the problem's been going on for some time. It will have become a habit for the dog. In other words, "this is how we do it. I stop on my outrun to assess the sheep (best to be on the safe side) and then when I'm good and ready I nip around behind them and take them back to my handler".

As I mentioned in my last blog, Carew's been stopping on her outrun and she's hesitant when taking her sheep around the trials course.

Sheepdog and handler with the sheep settled and well balanced between them.
Carew's ability to keep her sheep calm makes her a potential trials winner, but she must learn to keep them moving in the outfield. (Click image to enlarge).

When she first started to work sheep, I marvelled at Carew's willingness to stay back off her sheep; it means she doesn't upset them. This, combined with her power when confronted with aggressive sheep, make her an ideal farm dog but, for trials, she clearly needs to display more drive and keep in closer touch with her sheep.

After considering the various options (including retiring Carew from sheepdog trials altogether) I decided that I should practice what I preach. If anyone's going to have the resolve to, at least try to, change Carew's attitude when working sheep (and this is really what's required here) it must surely be the sheepdog trainer who urges others not to give up on their dog. In other words, me.

At the moment, once she picks up her sheep, if Carew will keep them moving she can be a formidable dog on the trials field - especially with flighty sheep that need very gentle treatment. My personal challenge is to iron out the stickiness by motivating her to work fluidly (not stopping on her outrun) and to push the sheep harder when required.

It's a tall order of course, but I'm hopeful that I can do it.

Cars and competitors at Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trials
Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trial is very popular. Here competitors chat in the sunshine while they wait for their turn. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Whenever I have a sheepdog training problem that's proving difficult to rectify, I find the best plan is to go back several stages in the dog's training - even reverting to the training ring if required.

I'll go back even further if I need to; sometimes putting the dog on a lead and walking it with me when all the dogs are out for their twice-daily run. With all its friends running around freely the dog on the lead doesn't like this severe restriction of privileges at all - but it's very effective indeed for re-establishing your authority over the dog.

In Carew's case, the only way I could think of to improve the flow and pace of her work when she's working a long way off, was to change her whole perception of the speed and power I want her to use in her everyday work so recently, whenever she's worked the sheep, I've made a point of giving her every encouragement to work enthusiastically.

As well as giving lots of enthusiastic vocal encouragement, I make shushing and hissing noises, clap my hands, and over the last few days a loud "Brrrr" sound seems the be the most effective. (The sort of excited sound you might hear in some Latin American songs like "La Bamba").

Wide picture of a sheepdog trials ground on  fairly steep, undulating ground.
The course at Bromsberrow Heath Sheepdog Trial is fairly steep and undulating. (Click any image to enlarge it).

This often results in Carew bringing the sheep too fast, but I try not to correct or stop her unless I really need to. She's got an excellent "Stop" - let's just concentrate on the "Go-go-go" for the time being!

It seems to be working too. At Bromsberrow Heath Sheepdog Trial on July 16th, I was delighted when Carew didn't stop on her outrun. She lost four points for veering-in before she reached her sheep, but she realised her error and widened out again once she'd spotted them. As this was her first run on a fairly steep, undulating field, I feel it's not a problem. Now that she knows where the sheep are, she'll hopefully do better in future trials on the same ground.

Sheep running around the outside of the pen at Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trials.
One of the unusual features of Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trial is the pen which is on a fairly steep slope. Note the sheep running around the outside. (Click any image to enlarge it).

A number of dogs were struggling to lift the sheep at Bromsberrow Heath because there was a mineral supplement bucket at the peg to encourage the sheep to stay there until the dog arrived. Once the sheep got their heads firmly in there they were reluctant to move, but Carew shifted her charges in an acceptable time and lost only one point for her "Lift". This may have been chance - she lost a whopping eight points on the fetch even though the sheep went through the gates, partly because they went off line, but as I recall, they stopped a couple of times too. It was an improvement over her recent trial performances though, and looked promising.

sheep grazing a field before the sheepdog trial begins
Sheep grazing the course before the Local Novice trial begins on a very warm July evening. (Click image to enlarge).

Two days later, I ran Kay and Carew in the (very hot and humid) Mathon Local Novice Trial (near Malvern). I was worried about Carew's outrun here because if you send the dog left, the sheep have a tendency to run back to the letting out pen. If you send it to the right, the dog has to go up under some dark overhanging trees. Dogs seem more likely to stop in dark places like this, but in fact Carew went well. I whistled her on twice (losing a point for each occasion) and the second whistle cost us dear, because Carew flanked a little too far and the sheep began to run to the right of the ground (just as they do if the dog approaches from the left) instead of straight down the fetch. She lost three of her points for the outrun, and two for the lift - not great, but another improvement because, in the event, the extra whistles had been unnecessary.

Unfortunately, one of the sheep in Carew's bunch was somewhat wayward! Try as Carew might, one sheep kept going off line and the run was spoiled. I'm not one to complain about the sheep at a sheepdog trial, because I feel that tricky sheep make it more interesting. Sheep that trot round like little robots are boring, whereas (within reason) the more "trying" can be a great test of the dog's resolve - as long as the sheep are the same for everyone. In the past, Mathon has had a reputation for difficult sheep - probably because they're brought in from a farm several miles away, just for the occasion. Sheep like to be settled.

Sheep running out of a shedding ring because the dog's too close
The sheep at Mathon SDT were fine if the dog kept well back. Here, the sheep are leaving the shedding ring because the dog's putting too much pressure on them. (Click image to enlarge it).

At this year's Mathon event though, the sheep were generally excellent. If the dog was calm, well disciplined but firm, the sheep behaved well, but if the dog was too pushy or erratic, they'd be very difficult. This is how sheepdog trials should be - but there appeared to be just one sheep in the bunch that came out of the holding pen prancing and bucking like a mule - and poor old Carew got that one.

We saw the same sheep in someone else's run the following day and they struggled with it too. It's just the luck of the draw. Carew dealt very well with it, and managed to "catch" all the gates, but we ran out of time at the pen and the best we could manage was fifth place - nothing to shout about as there were only ten runners - but the most important thing for me was that, once again, Carew seemed to be more responsive.

Kay on the other hand, managed second place with a super run, but just as with Carew's run, we were timed out at the pen. Ironically, immediately after the judge called "Time" the sheep trotted into the pen but, of course, it didn't count. The judge remarked to me that if we'd penned the sheep we would have won easily! Never mind. To me the performance of the dogs is most important - but of course, a prize is always very welcome too. It's such a pity that I didn't start running Kay in sheepdog trials until she was getting older.

The following day was the Open Trial at Mathon, where some of the top handlers in the country compete. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, there's normally a substantial gathering of spectators on the day because there's a local dog show on the ground too, but this year the judge was not available, so the dog show wasn't there. The weather was completely different too; heavy rain with thunder and lightning at times.

In pouring rain, Carew separates the sheep perfectly at Mathon Sheep Dog Trials.
My best shed ever, with the best dog I've ever had, but on other parts of the sheepdog trials course, Carew needs to keep better contact with her sheep. (Click any image to enlarge it).

As usual, I ran Carew before Kay. For some reason, "prima donna" Carew takes offence if I run Kay first and her performance suffers in the trial. I'm working on this because it's not a good situation, but compared to Carew's other problems, it's hardly significant.

The run before Carew's didn't start when it should because the handler was worried about his dog's reaction to the thunder, so the judge asked me whether I wanted to run Carew a little early. I was confident she wouldn't mind the crashing and banging, so off we went.

I'm very proud of the way Carew worked in the heavy rain. She completely ignored the thunder and lightning, remaining totally focussed on her sheep and obeying every command. Of course, it wasn't perfect, but I was happy with everything she did on the run. Nearly all points lost were my fault, not hers.

We lost two points for the outrun (she may have been a tad tight at the top of the field as she approached the sheep) four for the lift (because I was a little too eager to keep her moving and she approached them too quickly) and just one point off the fetch. With the thunder, lightning and heavy rain, it was a joy to see the sheep come straight down through the centre of the gates without wavering.

Typical scene at the pen in a sheepdog trial with the dog and handler in control of calm sheep.
So near yet so far! The sheep were calm and settled. All looked set for a good pen, but we ran out of time! (Click any image to enlarge it).

We lost seven on the drive even though all the sheep went through both gates. Sadly, the man in charge of the whistle misread the sheep and got his timing slightly wrong, not to mention bringing the sheep too far down the course on the cross-drive.

The shed was simply excellent. Dog and man worked together patiently in the rain, keeping the sheep in place whilst they gently applied pressure at the right point to part two from the five. Carew came through immediately, turning on the two to hold them away from the rest. The best shed I have ever done - with no points lost!

The pen was looking the same too. Carew and I were perfectly placed and just as the sheep were looking certain to go in, I heard the judge call "time". TEN points lost!

Never mind, Carew had been wonderful; clearly her best run to date, even though we didn't complete it. I'm certain that given another fifteen to thirty seconds those sheep would have gone into the pen (they were ready) and Carew would have had an excellent score for a novice dog.

The sheep run around the outside of the fetch gates at Mathon sheepdog trials.
It was obvious that Kay was still tired from her run the previous evening when she failed to take her commands and the sheep missed the fetch gates. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Unfortunately, Kay's run didn't go so well. The heat and stress of her run the previous evening at Mathon had clearly taken its toll. Kay was visibly tired on her run, failing to take her commands on the fetch, so the sheep missed the gates. I retired before the sheep reached the first drive gates.

Now, as we look forward to Evesham Sheepdog Trials on August 9th and 10th, I'm still working on Carew to build her confidence at the top of the field. I'm not pretending we've solved the problem of her hesitating up there, but the signs are encouraging. In fact I hope I'm not overdoing it!

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Oh, me of little faith!

A sheepdog showing confidence while working sheep

Or, if you're a sheepdog trainer, practice what you preach!

A lovely picture of sheep with the sun behind them on a summers day
It's difficult to update the blog regularly in summer because so much is happenening. (Click any image to enlarge it).

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and we've been very much aware recently that our regular readers will be wondering why no new blogs have appeared. For this I apologise. I've been intending to write a blog for several weeks now, but there's so much I want to write that the task has become ever more daunting as time's gone by - and consequently been put off (further compounding the problem).

Summer is always a very busy time of year anyway. With the longer, drier and warmer days, it's an excellent time to catch up with maintenance work. Although "catch up with" is perhaps a little ambitious. "Tackle the most desperate" maintenance work might have been more accurate. It's an ideal time for training sheepdogs too (something I'm doing far too little of recently). What with making new sheepdog training tutorials, running our sheepdog training days and countless other tasks I've somehow burdened myself with, time and energy seem to be in short supply at the moment.

I had resolved to keep you posted with our sheepdog trials exploits though - and this is where I now have so much news. I'll give you a taster of the situation as it is, and what's to come, and then try to keep up to date with future trials - beginning with Evesham on the ninth and tenth of August.

Anyone who's read my previous trials blogs this year will realise that the biggest problem throughout has been handler error (me). For their part, Carew and Kay have mostly shown great promise, but Kay seems to get tired before her run's over (especially on hot days) and Carew's presented me with all manner of problems with her outrun, and then with her general ability to push the sheep hard enough to keep them going round the course without stopping. I accept that my handling has been below par, but I'm working on it.

Tricolor sheepdog looking over its shoulder
Kay's not as young as she was. She gets tired on bigger trials grounds. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Kay's problem is probably age related (mine too, I suspect). She's on the wrong side of seven years old and clearly slowing down at home, even when she's out with the other dogs. She used to run for long periods, but more recently has taken herself off to lie down somewhere quiet to watch the action, rather than join in. I'm trying to get her fitter, but even that's not so easy during a heatwave like the one we're currently experiencing. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those who regards high humidity and temperatures as "glorious weather" - on the contrary, I find it an effort to do anything much during the day (he whined). For me, anything over about twenty-three degrees Celsius is oppressive.

Carew's lack of "push" at trials is very puzzling because at home, if faced with stubborn sheep, Carew's in her element. Given a little encouragement, if I'm not too far away she'll face even the most stubborn ewe with a lamb - and as I've said more than once already, Carew's the best sheepdog I've ever had. So what's going wrong?

Close up of a sheep's head in the foreground with a sheepdog in the long grass behind it.
Carew's work is outstanding when she's close to me. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Note that I said "if I'm not too far away". At the top of the field (sometimes several hundred yards away) Carew sticks. Often she'll stick towards the end of her outrun, and even if she doesn't it can take her an embarrassingly long time to "lift" her sheep once she gets to them, so she loses points. Once the sheep start to move down the fetch she's too willing to let them stop again (losing still more points). Sheep learn very quickly, and if they sense they can boss the dog they will. While I wouldn't say the sheep can boss her, Carew's sheep in trials seem more than willing to "give her the runaround."

At Clun Valley sheepdog trial in June, I set Carew up on my right (to indicate to her that she was to go in the "Away" direction) and I quietly told her to "look" for her sheep. Of course, I'd already attempted to get her to see her sheep in the runs immediately prior to her own so now, as she looked up the field, the moment she appeared to spot the sheep I gave the "Away" command.

To my astonishment, Carew shot to the left in front of me, running at full speed up the field in the "Come bye" direction. She'd crossed the course (a serious offence in sheepdog trials) the instant she set off. It was a few moments before I could believe my eyes, but then I desperately tried to correct her with "away" whistles and voice commands. For some reason she took this as an indication that I wanted her to run straight up the field, so she did. Straight as a die, through the fetch gates, before opening up just enough to go around the sheep.

I signalled to the judge that I was retiring, and began to walk towards the exhaust pen so that Carew could take her sheep off the course but, to my further acute embarrassment, she began one of her all-too-familiar sticking routines, once more taking what seemed an age to move the sheep at all. At last they began to walk and I decided to try to salvage at least some of my shattered pride by trying to get her to bring the sheep down the field tidily. Imagine my relief when Carew immediately rose to the occasion and brought the sheep quietly down through the fetch gates and then into the exhaust pen in an exemplary manner - it was one of the best fetches I saw all day!

Despite this late consolation I was crestfallen. I'd rather not run in sheepdog trials at all if this was going to happen regularly. A dog which fails so comprehensively is no fun! As I drove home, I confess the thought of giving up trialling altogether crossed my mind, but then I remembered a story my father used to tell.

Coming from a wealthy family, all my father wanted to do was farming and when he left school at a very early age, he was apprenticed to a well know gentleman farmer near Kidderminster. He recalled that on his first day at work, a cold damp winter's morning, he was allocated lime spreading as his first task.

A man riding a horse out through the front door of a stately home.
Always one for a dare, my father rode this horse into the house, up the stairs, down again and out through the front door! (Click any image to enlarge it).

Long before tractors were invented, in those days lime came as a very heavy, sticky, clay-like substance that was delivered to the farm and then distributed by horse and cart in regular piles across the whole field. At some later stage, men would come with forks and spades to dig the lime out of the heaps and spread it thinly on the ground.

It was a job to be avoided if you possibly could. Poor Dad was sent out to a huge field by himself, and spent the entire morning digging the hateful material out of the piles in which it had solidified. He then had to expend even more energy shaking and scraping every spadeful to part it from the spade or fork. Often it fell as a solid, sticky lump and had to be chopped into smaller lumps - sticking to the tools and his boots. It was the very devil of a job for anyone unfortunate enough to experience it, but for a young apprentice, barely more than a child, and working alone that way, it was a truly miserable experience.

Dad did his very best though. My father was a very strong man (later playing rugby for Kidderminster for seventeen years). He recalled that by lunchtime he was proud of both the quantity spread and the uniform quality of his spreading.

In those days it was customary for all the farm workers to sit down for lunch in the farmhouse. During the meal Mr Williamson would ask each worker in turn how they were progressing with their tasks, allocating new ones where appropriate.

When he asked "young Harry Nickless" for his report, Dad enthusiastically said he'd learned how to spread lime rather well - and wondered whether this afternoon he might learn something new.

"Oh yes, of course," replied the farmer. "Now that you've learned to make a good job of lime spreading, I'd like you to go back to the field and learn to stick at it!"

I'm very much aware that I urge others to believe in their dog and never give up with it. This story brought it home to me that just because I've had some embarrassing times with Carew on the trials field, it's no reason to give up on her trials career altogether. Once she has the sheep moving, as long as I can urge her to keep them going, her control of them is the best of any dog I've owned or worked.

After some consideration (and possibly just a tiny sulk) I decided that I must motivate Carew to keep her sheep moving when she's further away from me - but how was I going to do it?

In my next blog, I'll tell you how I went about it - and whether the method worked.

Footnote:
I mentioned that my father came from a wealthy family. Unfortunately, most of his share of the estate disappeared down the "gents" lavatory at the Button Oak pub near Bewdley and on Cheltenham and other race courses! (Ho-hum)!

A sweet and sour performance from Carew at Ivy House SDT

A sheepdog watches one of the runs at a sheepdog trial

And it wasn't just the Red Arrows that were jet propelled - WAS IT, KAY?

I’d heard about the challenges of Ivy House Sheepdog Trial, and was (cautiously) looking forward to it as I drove to Shropshire on Sunday morning.

The handler stands at the post while his dog brings the sheep into the field at a sheepdog trial
Austin Bennett's Jan brings her sheep through the gate and into the main field after gathering them from the far end of the third field. (Click any image to enlarge it).

At Ivy House, the letting out pen is two fields away from the post. If it's sent to the right, the dog must go through at least one gateway - and two gateways if it's sent left. This is further complicated by the exhaust pen being next to one of the left hand gateways. If the dog should see the sheep in the exhaust pen, it could easily mistake them for the ones it was intended to work - something to avoid if at all possible! In all the time I was at the ground, I didn’t see one dog sent to the left (but I'm told one or two were sent that way).

The sheep seemed perfectly manageable - at least until they reached the pen. For some reason few competitors were able to get their bunch into the hurdle pen, even though there was no gate on it (meaning the handler could stand wherever they liked to assist the dog. If the pen has a gate there's a rope attached and, once the gate is open, the handler must not let go of the rope until the sheep are penned.)

Ivy House sheepdog trial is set next to Shropshire's glorious Long Mynd hills.
You couldn't wish for a nicer location for a sheepdog trial than Ivy House Farm in Shropshire.

Ivy House Farm is set alongside Shropshire’s wonderful Long Mynd hills, so as with the South Shropshire Trial a few weeks ago, we were able to enjoy stunning scenery. Add to this, an unexpected low level fly past (directly over the field) by the Red Arrows soon after I arrived, and it was altogether shaping up to be an exciting day. Apparently, the aircraft were due to perform at the Shropshire River Festival in Shrewsbury before moving on to Cosford Air Show during the afternoon.

A dog guides the sheep through the second drive gates at a sheepdog trial.
Arwyn Davies' Meg guides her sheep through the second drive gates. At the far right is the gateway through which the dogs ran out to collect the sheep from the far field.

The sheep were good; lively enough to be a problem for over-enthusiastic dogs, but responding calmly to dogs that treated them with respect.

Generally, though, they were tricky to pen and needed firm handling to push them in. For the afternoon session the gateless pen was converted to a chute - in the hope of making it less intimidating to the sheep.

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Carew was booked to run at number nine, which gave me time to study the way the sheep behaved. As I hadn't run at Ivy House before I was also looking for the best way to get the dog to the sheep across three fields. Preparation proved to be far more difficult than usual.

Try as I might, I couldn't seem to get Carew or Kay to look further than the confines of the field they were standing in - and this proved costly to their runs.

As each dog set off on its outrun I brought Carew out of the car to watch. I hoped that she'd watch the departing dog all the way to the sheep but, as soon as the dog went through the gate into the next field, it would disappear behind trees and Carew immediately lost interest in it.

At first she didn't see the sheep until they came into the main field, but I persevered with each run (taking her away before the sheep reached the post so that she didn't see the rest of each run) and gradually, she seemed to catch sight of the sheep earlier and earlier until I was fairly sure she'd spotted them in the letting out field.

A handler and Sheepdog attempt to coax the sheep into a small pen at a sheepdog trial
Andrew Houghson and Fay were surprise visitors from the Shetland Isles. They finished fourth in the morning trial.

I was quite hopeful when it came to our run. Carew's at her best on tricky sheep - and these were very testing if the dog didn't give them plenty of room.

I sent Carew off to the right, and all seemed well. She was heading straight for the correct gate but, just before she reached it, she bent inwards to follow the hedge. She was clearly expecting the sheep to be in the first field. I stopped her and sent her back quickly, but she took me too literally and went shooting past the gate in the opposite direction.

I stopped her again and tried to redirect her, but Carew was clearly confused. Convinced that the sheep must be in the field, she went this way and that before eventually realising what I wanted and disappearing through the gate. The rest of her outrun went well except that (typically) she stopped before the point of balance. (I'm working on this with Carew at home.)

On the positive side, Carew responded well to my whistle commands, lifted the sheep well, and brought them nicely to the gateway into the field with the fetch gates. It's a great feeling when your dog's responding well to your commands and bringing the sheep in a straight line. Straight through the fetch gates, the sheep then continued straight through the gateway into the main field. It was looking really good; the sheep were coming quietly and headed straight to the red cone that was serving as the post.

Wide view of the trials ground a Ivy House Sheepdog trials
An ultra wide-angle shot of the Ivy house trials ground in Shropshire.

As Carew turned her sheep tightly around the post to begin the drive I remember thinking that I couldn't ask more from a dog. The sheep barely deviated off line before passing through the first drive gate and Carew turned them just as well onto the crossdrive.

Regular readers will know that the crossdrive is often the part of a trial that I find most difficult, but on this occasion the drive ran parallel to a nearby hedge - which acted as a perfect guide towards the second gates. Carew's sheep duly passed through these and, again, she turned them nicely towards the pen (whatever happened to shedding, I wonder?)

Once more, I cannot fault Carew at the pen; she did everything I asked. Carew kept out when I wanted, applied just enough pressure as required, and was supremely accurate with her flanks but, try as we might, we just couldn't persuade the woollies to go in. I must take full responsibility for this failure because just as with Kingsland trial last weekend, those who penned most successfully seemed to "muddle" the sheep in.

So engrossed was I with the precision of the run (after such a disastrous beginning) that I'd forgotten my mental note to try "hustling" the sheep in if they wouldn't pen quietly. I'd also lost track of time. We'd wasted quite a lot of our allowance while I was redirecting Carew on the outrun and, quite quickly after reaching the pen, the timekeeper sounded his car horn. Another ten points lost.

On paper the run was terrible, but for those watching, and more especially for me, it was a mixture of inexperience (Carew's done very little gathering from another field) and my own failure to keep track of time and to try to push the sheep harder at the pen. The obvious downside of hurrying the pen is that the sheep are more likely to dodge away and even circle the it, but if they simply won't go in after having time to settle and patiently applying pressure, it's worth having a go!

What can I say about Kay's run?

I completely failed to get Kay to see the sheep in the far field but, being more experienced than Carew, I hoped she'd turn through the gateway on her outrun.

Ivy House SDT
Sunday 8th June 2014

Morning Session

Judge: Karin Haker
Open Class (Points lost)

  1. Arwyn Davies - Floss, 14
  2. Idris Morgan - Scott, 20
  3. Lorna Owen - Dot, 21
  4. Andrew Hughson - Fay, 22 (OLF)
  5. John Wheaton - Ros, 22
  6. Aled Owen - Llangwm Cap, 23

Afternoon Session

Judge: Huw Francis
Open Class (Points lost).

  1. Aled Owen - Llangwm Cap, 5
  2. Karin Haker - Rob, 6
  3. Aurwen Price - Lyn, 8
  4. Angie Blackmore - Moss, 10
  5. Gwyn Lightfoot - Mari, 17
  6. Sheila Lewis - Jill, 18 &
    Charlotte Russell - Bob

Thanks to South Wales Sheepdog Trials Association for these results.

As we walked out to the post after Judge Huw Francis had kindly wished us luck, I was alarmed to see that Kay's focus was firmly fixed on the exhaust pen at the bottom left of the field. I set her up on my right to show her that she was going that way, but for some reason I said "Come bye" and Kay (quite rightly) shot to the left.

Realising my mistake, I stopped her immediately and sent her "Away" but she was convinced the sheep were in the bottom left of the field and crossed again. For the dog to cross over once on its outrun is a cardinal sin (some judges will disqualify the dog for this) but twice is unimaginably embarrassing!

I decided to abandon the run altogether and raised my stick to show the judge I was retiring. It's the responsibility of all competitors at sheepdog trials in the UK to take the sheep off the field after their run, so I sent Kay off towards the proper gate to fetch the sheep, but she circled as she approached it - searching for sheep.

Eventually I managed to get her to go out through the middle gateway by the fetch gates, and sent her "Away" but she crossed over once more. Remember, although we'd retired, everyone else was still watching!

I was terribly embarrassed. Kay didn't help when she refused to stop, and she behaved just as though she was an excited young dog working at a task that she wasn't properly trained for. Fortunately the competitors had been asked to stay by the exhaust pen after their run, to keep the sheep in there while the next run took place.

A delightful view of the trials field (from the exhaust pen) at Ivy House
A delightful view of the trials field (from the exhaust pen) at Ivy House.

This gave me time to simmer down and reflect on Kay's behaviour (and my own terrible mistake when I sent her the wrong way) before I had to talk to anyone who'd been watching.

Kay clearly needs more preparation before her run and, to be honest, I hadn't been working her over the past few days. It was altogether one of those runs that every handler dreads - and most experience at some time or other.

Congratulations to Arwyn Davies and Floss - winners of the morning trial, and of course, Aled Owen with Llangwm Cap for winning the afternoon event.

We're booked to run at Clun next Saturday - let's hope for a much better run from Kay and a good outrun from Carew. If Carew can get the outruns right, I'm sure she will do well (and if I can remember "Come bye" from "Away" that is!)

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