We very rarely go to auctions - when it comes to sheepdogs we both suffer from 'twitching arm' syndrome, so it's the only way we can restrict ourselves - but I'm always interested to read the reports afterwards. It seems that every Skipton sale sets a new record that can't be entirely explained by inflation.
February's record dog, the tri-coloured bitch, Dewi Fan, from John Bell of Selby, was sold for 6,000 guineas (£6,300) to an overseas buyer. I'd like to think it's a result of UK breeding being recognised, as well as an appreciation of the value of a good working dog. Probably worth its weight in gold, a good dog saves the shepherd's time and temper, and avoids sheep stress.
Though if I could afford to spend £6000+ on a dog I wouldn't, because it would be completely wasted on me, but for an experienced or naturally talented handler with some money to spend, it must be so exciting to pick through and mark the catalogue before the day.
Last year a local farmer came to us with a dog he'd just bought at auction. He was so pleased with her that he wanted to be sure he was working her correctly, and not confusing or abusing her with his inexperience. She was a lovely, smooth coated, prick-eared bitch - just the sort of dog I like; I'd have tried to buy her too! Needless to say, because he was so concerned to get it right he and his new dog got off to a flying start, and because he was prepared to be patient, and not to blame the dog if things went wrong, the dog's confidence in her new handler was growing daily.
If I'd sold this particular bitch I'd want to know who she was going to, and then how they were getting on together. And that's why we don't sell dogs at auction, either.
I wonder what happens to those dogs who aren't so lucky? The stage is set by the terms and conditions of sale (in Skipton's case, the wording is "...no warranty is given that any dog will give equal performance for its new owner with regard to work"). You'd think that was just common sense, but if a buyer is disappointed and takes the view that it's the dog's fault, what sort of life will that dog have until the next auction? And how will its life chances be affected if it fails to perform well on the day?
Auctioneers, and sellers at auction, are not unique in stipulating that dogs are sold on a non-returnable basis, but the dog is the innocent victim when it goes wrong simply through a lack of experience on the buyer's part.
The few dogs we sell can be sure that, if the new handler doesn't suit them, or vice versa, they're sure of a home with us and, if they're brought back within 30 days, the full purchase price is refunded too. The only condition applied to this is that they keep the dog for at least 14 days, and preferably 21 days, before making the decision to return it. Dogs don't start to work "straight out of the box" and if they did, they wouldn't be nearly so fascinating to work with.
Maybe it's just sentimentality, but I hate losing touch with a dog; we're always delighted to hear about dogs we've trained or sold. I hope John Bell can enjoy the occasional email from a delighted new owner!