It has been over 20 years since I have done a field trial and I’m pretty sure it ended about the same as this one did.
Sheep everywhere and there was a grip.
I thought I had done everything right. I had a nice training pen and field setup with lots of obstacles for Mykel and Wendy. I read books, watched YouTube videos, ordered training DVDs, read some more books. And we practiced. A lot. I knew this was not going to be a stellar performance, but rather a learning experience for all three of us.
In other words, my expectations were low.
So up to Dawson Creek we went, happy to get out of Quesnel after 2 years trapped by a pandemic. The weather was hot and welcome after months of rain. The smell of freshly cut hay floated in the air through my rolled down windows (I hate vehicle air conditioning). Life was good.
So on Friday, July 22, I went with my dogs to watch the Dawson Creek Stock Dog Trial and wait for our Novice-Novice class at the end of the day.
The sheep were Cheviots and Suffolks. Tough sheep. They fought the setup dogs and fought the trial dogs all day long, especially as the heat settled in and they figured out where the exhaust barn was. Many handers retired their dogs as it was such a battle to get the sheep from one end of the field to the other. I raise Blackbellies and they looked easy to herd compared to these sheep. The courses were doable though, as proved by many competitors. It was hard earned points though.
At the end of the day, me and two other Novice competitors nervously attended the handlers meeting with the judge and then waited for the sheep to be set. We knew our dogs weren’t as polished or as seasoned as the rest of the handlers, but we were all game to try our hand at this trialing thing.
It was an easy course of Fetch panels, a drive through another set of panels and then into a pen. 5 minutes was the time limit. The outrun was longer than I had practiced for, but was doable. My daily collection of sheep from my pasture had a longer outrun with added obstacles of trailers and groves of willow trees everywhere. We could do this.
The first Novice-Novice handler had a commendable run before he retired his dog. The sheep simply were not going to cooperate at the drive panels, but his dog tried its best and was listening well.
Next was Mykel and me.
We waited at the handlers post. As I tried to get Mykel’s attention of where the sheep were being set, I tried to visualize the perfect run.
The sheep looked sort of settled.
Okay. I sent Mykel on his GO BYE, his favorite side that he takes so beautifully at home.
He went straight in to them, tail over his back, and tried to balance to the setup person……and her dog……and the overgrown field next the fetch panels……and the fetch panels.
I was dumbfounded.
Then he did what he never does at home unless cornered by a jackass ewe (Yes, Granny. I’m thinking of you).
Mykel, my beautiful fetch dog, who needs so much encouragement to get in close to a sheep (actually, he prefers if I go in for the grip), tried to take one of the sheep down. Did he think that he was going to drag it back to me? Was he sick of bacon and wanted some mutton instead?
I called to him. COME, MYKEL! That’s when he ran…….
Across the hayfield……
And towards the main flock of sheep hidden in the shady trees.
I went running, trying to call him back. Where was he?
I could hear sheep baaing. Oh, crap. This isn’t good.
I kept going.
That’s when I say him. Bouncing up in the tall grass like a puppy. He spotted me and came running towards me this time, tongue lolling out of his mouth and eyes sparkling, as if to say “Where have you been? Did you know there are sheep back there? We should go get them”.
I snapped the leash on his collar and tried to cheerfully say “Good boy, Mykel. Good come.” I secretly wanted to scream “What the F#@k is wrong with you?!”
Sheepishly, I went back up the hill towards the audience. “Good try” someone called out. “I had the same thing happen on me the first run out” someone else said.
Reminding myself that this trial was only for me to learn on, there really was no harm, no foul. The sheep lived. Mykel lived. I was too sunburned for anyone to notice my blush of embarrassment. And the $1000 I spent for 3 days in Dawson Creek was only one overtime shift, so not really it wasn’t the end of the world.
The third Novice-Novice competitor made it all the way to the pen. I was so proud of her, a complete stranger, but a comrade of arms in that I learned just as much from her run as hopefully she didn’t learn from mine.
Up next was Wendy and me.
She’s experienced and is my right-hand dog. She would do me proud.
I sent her on her AWAY command, her favorite side.
And she tried to drag a sheep into the pond. Guess she thought it need a bath?
And so, I sit here at the edge of my training arena in the early morning, sheep grazing before me, my horses standing along the fence line watching me type, a puppy busy eating sheep shit at my feet, and I ask myself? What did I learn from this adventure?
1.A pop-up gazebo is a worthwhile investment. So is sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, bottled water that you froze prior to leaving home so it stays cold, a couple camp chairs, and most importantly, aloe vera gel with lidocaine (as my sunburn can attest to being wonderful)
2. Remember the KISS method. Keep It Simple Stupid. I brough some of my lightweight sheep panels to keep Mykel and Wendy in a safe environment with a couple tarps to help with shade. They preferred laying underneath the truck.
Don’t ask me why.
I asked them and they just peed on the tires. I think they were trying to tell me in a not-so-subtle way that the sheep panels were for sheep only and the truck was for dogs and their humans.
Just remember to keep your vehicle in gear and in park when you do this and to tie the dogs to the driver’s side mirror or close to it so you don’t accidentally drive away with your dogs still tied to the vehicle. Personally, I would rather replace my mirror than try to deal with the mental agony of knowing I dragged my dogs down the road under the truck.
3. It’s always the sheep’s fault. It is never your dog’s fault for your run or you’re training that prevented those woolly bastards from making a straight line through the fetch panels, but sure as hell made a straight line over top of the judge and into the audience. It is always the sheep’s fault.
4. Be happy with the wins of the day, no matter how small. Did Mykel rattlesnake bite another dog? No. So that’s a win. Did Mykel bite a sheep and try to drag to the ground? Yes, but this could be considered a win depending on how you felt about that particular asshole sheep. That’s up to you.
5. Listen to the handlers around you as they leave the field after a run. There are a hundred little tidbits of advice and stockman’s’ logic going on around you. You just have to listen. I’m naturally pretty quiet, so I like to plant my chair right in the middle of an audience and just absorb. Some people are disappointed, some people are angry, some are ecstatic.
One particular run I watched and was so excited to witness at the end was in my Novice-Novice class. After my train wreck, Jodie went out with her dog, Bo, and got the sheep all the way into the pen. That wasn’t the best part (though it was exciting to see a fellow newbie close that pen gate). It was when her kids came running out onto the field, yelling “You did it! You did it!”. As she hugged the kids, she said “I can’t believe I did it either.” That moment was truly priceless.
6. I’m not a fussy traveler, but I do have a preference for hotels over camping. I like the air conditioning. I like that the dogs have their own bed (always get a room with two queens). I like the housekeeping services. I like trying to figure out the TV channels that are never the same even though I live in the same province and it’s the same channels with different numbers and codes. Why is that?
And I especially like a hot breakfast that starts early and tells me that I can’t take food back to my room. Wanna guess how many pieces of bacon and sausages I can get into my purse to take back to my dogs in the hotel room? Let’s just say that I didn’t need to bring dog food. A definite recommendation is the Days Inn by Wyndham. Pet friendly, good prices, and great bacon
7. Take good care of your dogs. You are asking a lot of them in trialing. They are in a strange environment, with strange noises and smells, asked to herd strange sheep while there are other dogs and people milling about. You’re stressed and tired. They are stressed and tired. Yet your stock dog will still try his best for you (sometimes this is debatable).
I scratched my entries on the second day for several reasons. 1. It was going to be another disaster as Mykel and Wendy simply were not as prepared as I thought. 2. It was going to be an even hotter day and I was not into adding to my painful sunburns. 3. It’s a six-seven hour drive home in hot weather and I’m always concerned about breaking down somewhere where there is no cell service or blistering heat with animals I’m responsible for.
8. The DOWN command is great brakes on your dog, but can be seriously overused. I saw this in all classes. The handler would send the dog out and then lay it down about 50 feet away and then send it again only to lay it back down again. When you have a 150-300 yard outrun, this takes forever and looks like a weird game of leapfrog. It also pisses your dog off. They eventually just did whatever they wanted and ignored the handler.
I do use this training technique of DOWN and then take a command (GO-BYE, AWAY, WALK-UP) in the training pen when I’m trying to sharpen up a dog, but I use this sparingly. It’s exhausting for me and for the dog.
One remedy to this is videoing yourself as you work your dogs. More often than not, we have developed bad habits and don’t even realize that we are doing something. I videoed myself once to send a clip to Wendy’s breeder and realized that I said GOOD GIRL about every 10 seconds. No wonder Wendy ignored me. My voice was relegated to background noise to her.
A good exercise to try is not saying anything to your dog when you are out in the training pen. Just shove your hands in your pockets, keep you mouth closed (do use facial expressions as these change your body language, but don’t speak) and talk to your dog through body language. Just do some simple circling, outruns, or wandering through barrel obstacles. This is similar in how you train a horse. Use your body to speak.
Also, trust your dog. More often than not, my dogs are smarter than me and already know where I wanted them to go. As I’m a little dyslexic, I fumble a lot on my side commands, but my dogs compensate for my right/left challenges. Mostly…..well, almost mostly…….okay, maybe only sometimes.
9. You will meet some great people at these events. Everyone was supportive and more than willing to share their disaster stories.
It's a badge of honor to talk about their starts on the field, everything from one dog found a creek on it’s outrun and decided that it was too hot to go retrieve its sheep, to another dog hyperventilating at the post until it fainted, to yet another dog grabbed a sheep by its wool and was “hanged & dragged” across the field by the sheep to the exhaust gate (score WIN for the sheep).
No one starts at the top of the game and we all must start somewhere. I’m not about to let this discourage me. I just simply need to go back to the books and videos and the training pen. Maybe some clinics might be useful too.
10. Remember that these trials are just a day or two out the entire 365-day year. Does your dog work for you at home? Do you enjoy spending time with your dog and their quirky ways?
My dogs are my best friends and my best employees. I would never give up on my dogs because they’re currently an embarrassment on the trial field. If I did, I would miss out on Wendy loving up the bottle lambs and Mykel chewing down trees in an effort to catch his imaginary squirrel. I enjoy going out the training pen and playing with my dogs and sheep.
And above all, I enjoy starting my pups on stock, watching them grow and learn as I grow and learn along with them. And really, isn’t that what doing doggy stuff is all about? It’s not about trophies and ribbons, I have to dust (some money is nice to pay the fuel bill, but I digress). It’s about trying new things, learning new things, and enjoying what life has to offer.
So in conclusion, would I do this again?
Mykel and Wendy are simply not trained to the caliber of they need to be yet. Mykel’s run was 38 seconds of sheep rodeo and Wendy was 43 seconds of disaster. We were just not as ready as I thought we were. That’s okay. We are just going to go back to the training pen and try again.
One of the Novice-Novice competitors I was talking to made a valid point that has been bagging at me on the drive home. As he pointed out, trials such as the Dawson Creek Trial are geared more towards the Open, Nursery, and Pro-Novice competitors. The sheep are tough. The courses are tough. And the handlers and dogs are well-seasoned and polished and still struggling at times.
For newbies like me, this is can be discouraging, especially as there was only one Novice-Novice class offered in BC for 2022.
He pointed out that in Alberta, trial organizers are coming up against the same problem. The Open, Nursery, and Pro-Novice classes are bulging with so many entrants that there is just no time for Novice-Novice classes. A simple solution has been started in that dedicated Novice-Novice and Pro-Novice only trial weekends are being done so handlers and dogs can get the experience that we so desperately need.
That brings me to my final thought on the matter (yes, I’m one of those long-winded quiet people). One of the pitfalls of being in such large provinces is that we are so spaced out from each other. This means the expense of time and fuel to learn this new hobby. As a nurse, I have to book my holidays a year in advance so I have to try to guess what organizers are planning before they have thought about planning.
Another pitfall to trials (and this has been a problem since I did arena trials back in the 1990s), is that there is no feedback as to what went right and what went wrong (my wrongs were pretty obvious though). There is simply isn’t enough time for that.
So, what if here in BC we borrow an Alberta solution and put our own spin on this? Consider it a newbie uprising.
Anybody up to helping me organize a Novice-Novice trial that includes a clinic day with the trial judge the following day?