Carew's first sheepdog trial went much better than expected
In Worcestershire there are very few sheepdog trials venues, so we normally have to travel a significant distance to parts of Wales, the north, or south west of England to get a run for our dogs. With all my website, video and sheepdog training commitments, the long distances involved make most sheepdog trials impractical for me.
We look forward to Mathon Sheepdog Trials every year, even though I have not run in it for several years. No more than twenty minutes from home - and it's the trial with the best atmosphere of any I know. Even competitors who retire are given a warm round of applause, so even if you've not had the best of runs, you walk off feeling a little bit special - and that's nice.
In addition to this, the Mathon Sheepdog Society raise a lot of money for local charities and cancer research, partly from proceeds of the trial, and also from the "Fun Dog Show" which takes place on the ground on Saturday afternoon. Admittedly, Mathon has something of a reputation for difficult sheep. It's the only ground where I've watched the sheep actually chase a poor competitor's dog off the field (so embarrassing - and even worse for the dog) but this year they were great. They were tricky to work, a good test for the dog as sheep should be, but they were manageable and seldom showed any aggression towards the dog.
I decided to run Kay and Carew in this year's Local Novice class, which is run on Friday evening, and if all went well I would run them again in the Novice and Open classes on Saturday. The Local Novice class is for dogs that have not won an Open Trial and live within twenty miles radius of the trials field. With a low to modest number of entries, and the exclusion of a shedding section, it's an excellent chance to give a young dog some actual competition experience and, of course, it makes a good "dress rehearsal" for the organisers to check all's well for the "proper" trial the next day.
When I arrived my first impression was surprise at the number of vehicles on the field. Being rather early I'd expected to be one of the first competitors there. In fact there were only ten or so entries, so most of the vehicles belonged to spectators. I decided to run Carew first, because I'd already run Kay in Powick Sheepdog Trial the previous weekend, and was pleased with her performance. As a rough "rule of thumb" the better runs at sheepdog trials tend to come later, rather than earlier (the sheep are often more placid later in the day) so competitors are inclined to work their best dogs later on, if they have a choice.
Running at number three, I was able to let Carew watch the early part of the first two runs so that she would know where the sheep were. She spotted them well, and I took her away again. It's wise to prevent the dog from seeing the sheep leave the field at the end of a run, and go into the "exhaust pen" because a dog who's new to the ground may mistake those for the sheep it's required to gather!
I had some difficulty setting Carew up correctly beside me for her outrun. She cast out well, and kept going up the long slope to the sheep, but then she cut in a little at the top, possibly because she didn't like the look of the vehicles and strangers in the shaded letting out area. She wouldn't have lost more than a point for this though, and will improve with experience.
I can't pretend the Fetch went well. Carew has done very little work at long distances and, although she worked better than I expected, the sheep missed the Fetch Gates and were well off line until I brought Carew almost in front of them to push them back onto line. She brought them round behind me like an expert though, and the sheep were right on line for the first Drive Gates.
From this point on Carew did exactly what I wanted, just when I asked her. She lost only two points on the driving section, and brought them to the pen near perfectly, but penning the sheep was not to be. Despite Carew's excellent response to my every command, we just couldn't get them in. The sheep went so close to the entrance several times, and two or three of the five went just inside on three occasions, but try as we might, with Carew applying exactly the pressure I wanted at the right time, they wouldn't go in.
Eventually, of course, we were timed out. Poor Carew. She tried so hard, but I had to abandon the pen and take the sheep off the field with her. I was delighted though. Apart from the Fetch, which highlighted Carew's lack of experience while working at a distance, the overall experience of working this dog in a sheepdog trial was one of the best I've had.
I can't claim the same for Kay's run though. Right from the moment I brought her from the car, to spot the sheep at the far end of the field, Kay was over-excited. For a six year old dog she was embarrassingly difficult to set up, and at the last moment she spotted the sheep in the exhaust pen. I was afraid she'd go after them but, fortunately, she knew where the correct sheep were - so why did she run straight up the field to them?
Outruns are one of Kay's greatest attributes. She NEVER, EVER runs straight at the sheep! I could barely believe my eyes. I tried to re-direct her out wider, but it had little effect. Luckily she was just wide enough to go round the sheep, and they stayed in place as Kay stopped behind them nicely. She lifted them well too, but was very hard to stop on the Fetch, and we rather muddled the sheep through the Fetch Gates, rather than bringing them nicely.
In fact, muddled describes the rest of the run quite well. The lines were not straight and even though the sheep went through the gates it was more by luck than judgement. What a contrast with the silky-smooth Carew!
Kay failed to pen the sheep too. Kay's sheep behaved much as Carew's had, and by the time we reached the pen Kay was getting very tired. I had a little more control over Kay, but the sheep were having none of it and I was very relieved when we were timed out.
Kay has always been excitable, but at six years old you'd expect her to be more settled. It's one reason why I've been a little apprehensive about running her in trials, so this was only her second trial. I'm hoping that, as the novelty wears off, she'll behave herself better. It's interesting to compare her with Carew, who (like her mother, Mel) is super-cool around sheep. By the time they reached the pen Carew was in good shape, but Kay was exhausted because she'd wasted so much energy by being "hyped-up".
Neither dog managed to pen the sheep, but I'm not too worried about this. At another trial, on another day, both would have penned. Neither dog did anything drastically wrong, in fact, as I said earlier, Carew was excellent. She showed power (she couldn't have pushed any harder without gripping) but she showed patience, calm, accuracy and excellent control. Carew's sheep circled the pen once or twice, but mostly they remained calmly in front of the pen, trying to evade Carew or myself, but her control was admirable.
As I'm typing this I still haven't made my mind up about running in today's Open and Novice classes at Mathon. I'm keen to give Carew and Kay another run, but with record high temperatures today, and the addition of a shedding section in the run, unless the temperature cools very soon we probably won't go - but watch this blog!