Since Carew left here, Kay's hearing has deteriorated badly, and occasionally we're stuck for a skilled dog
It's hard to believe that it's nearly two years since Carew left here and to be honest, there have been a few occasions when I've wished she was still here. One such occasion was only a week or so ago.
Our landlord John needed to move some very lively sheep from a field where one of the boundaries was a steep-sided brook with a dense wood on the other side. John warned me that the sheep were likely to "take fright" and disappear into the depths of the wood when they saw the dog, so I was keen to make sure they didn't.
Since Carew left here, my natural first choice for any difficult work like this has been Kay, but Kay's hearing has deteriorated so much recently that she works purely on instinct. I can only give her commands when she's very close. I've had limited success with hand signals, but of course, they depend on the dog looking towards you, and when Kay's concentrating hard, she's not looking at me, she's looking at the sheep!
Once Kay's more than thirty metres away from me, I can shout for all I'm worth but she can't hear me, so for this tricky work, I decided to take the young Odo with me instead. Poor Odo has been 'sold' twice, but he was returned to us on both occasions. The first time was when his owner couldn't get him to jump into the car (can you believe it?). We actually used Odo to make a training tutorial about it, to show others what to do if they get the same problem. The second time he came back to us was (I think) because the farmer's other dogs didn't like him. Either way, I was happy to buy Odo back. We're very fond of him, and he has great potential, but he lacks experience of "proper" farm work.
We've got other dog's coming along nicely of course. Another of Kay's daughters, Maddie, shows great promise. She has a lovely pace, stops well (most of the time) and she's got plenty of confidence to push stubborn sheep. For this job though, I thought Maddie's lack of experience and her somewhat over-enthusiastic approach might be a problem. The same goes for Pippin, Mew and Jago. All are showing great potential, but lacking experience.
Much as my instinct was telling me Kay would be the safer choice, I felt I couldn't risk using her because although she has a fabulous outrun (just what was needed on this occasion) if things went even slightly wrong, I'd have no control over her at all. If Kay knows where you want the sheep to be, such as when she's working at home, she's unbeatable, but on new ground, she sometimes misunderstands what I want and I struggle to direct her.
It also occurred to me that if Kay went chasing off into that wood and couldn't hear me, it could literally take hours to find her again!
My next choice would have been Jet, but she was heavily "in season" at the time and sometimes hormones can affect the work of female sheepdogs. If Jet's anything like her mother Kay (when Kay was younger) this could adversely affect her work.
These sheep needed a gentle, controlled touch. Carew would have been "in her element" with them, but she's not here.
Next choice was Odo, but it was risky because he'd only been back here for a few days, and he'd never worked in this field before, or with these particular sheep. What's more, I had only worked Odo for a very few minutes since he came back to us. It was a gamble, but I decided to go for it because Odo had been such a good worker before he left here.
It was a bad decision. Odo hadn't had time to re-settle with us.
When we reached the field, the sheep were in the worst possible place, right next to the brook at the bottom of the field. Odo has a pretty good outrun, so I guessed that would go reasonably well, but I wasn't sure I could stop him at that distance. If you can't stop the dog at the end of it's outrun, you should shorten the outrun to a suitable distance and if the dog stops well, gradually increase the distance. The closer you are to the dog, the more control you have over it - but that's when the dog's in training. This was farm work, and it was skilled farm work which Odo wasn't ready for. Although I could have walked down the field to get closer before I sent him off, the sheep were already looking uneasy. Our approach might provoke them to pop over the brook and into the wood.
I decided to trust Odo's outrun, and sure enough, he went out beautifully wide, but he was excited and clearly going too fast. Because the sheep were tight against the boundary, once he reached the brook on his outrun, he had to follow it. This meant he was coming straight at the sheep, and worse, I couldn't slow him down. He brought most of the sheep away from the brook and into the field well, but on occasions like this, most is not good enough. Two of the sheep dived over the brook and into the wood, and thick with undergrowth as it was, I couldn't get Odo to go in after them. Sadly, John and I made the decision to abandon the task and let the sheep settle for a few days.
I'll use Jet next time. She's got a good outrun, and I'm pretty certain she'd have gathered all of those sheep cleanly. I worked her the next day and her hormones weren't affecting her work at all. Poor Odo did his best but he was too excited. He went too fast, and too straight. He needs more work so that when he goes out it's not such a novelty.