Broadening the sheepdog’s horizons!

One of the important points I like to make when teaching people to train their dogs, is the value of taking your dog to work somewhere completely new.

A working sheepdog flanking round a group of herdwick sheep.
Kay showed good control of her Herdwick sheep - most of the time.

New sheep and a different training ground, offer excellent fresh challenges for the dog and broaden its experience dramatically.

On Wednesday, we seized the opportunity when a friend kindly offered to let us run Kay, Mo and Mel on their full sized hillside trials course in Gloucestershire. I have not competed seriously in sheepdog trials for some years now, and I must admit, at first sight, the course was daunting.

A view of the trials course we used for training Mo and Kay.
The picture doesn't show the steep banks but it gives a fair idea of the scale of the trials course. The right hand drive gates are just out of the picture.

The pictures don't show it well, but looking from the post, there's a fairly steep slope down to the fetch gates and then a sharp climb up the bank to the peg (where the sheep would normally await collection during a trial). If you click the picture to enlarge it, you may not be able to see it but the letting out pen is by the tiny tin shed on the horizon!

As Gill was fully occupied, shooting the event on video, there was nobody to actually let the sheep out and keep them near the peg, so we had to make the best of the situation we had.

The sheep were Herdwicks - which are currently favoured by many sheepdog trainers as they are free moving and easy on the dog. Unfortunately, they were not sympathetic to our cause. The eight herdwicks had placed themselves out of sight at the far right of the field (nowhere near the peg). Gill took Mo to bring them back to a more manageable position but by the time the pair arrived back at the post area, the sheep had found refuge in the shade of the tree in the far left corner of the field. Worse still, their dark brown wool proved to be perfect camouflage. They were invisible from the post.

Trainee sheepdog Mo's first outrun on this field
Mo sets off on her outrun with great enthusiasm but the sheep are hidden under the shady tree at the top left of the picture

Not being used to a long outrun (let alone one where there are apparently no sheep) Mo set off fast and wide as usual but her lack of experience quickly became apparent as she started to look around, obviously wondering what she was supposed to be gathering. I redirected her and even called her back and re-sent her but to no avail, so I took her up closer to the shady tree, sent her off to collect them, and we positioned them somewhere nearer the center of the course. Fortunately, the herdwicks stayed in place long enough for me to return to the post with Mo but with our backs to them, we didn't notice another nine sheep run across from wherever they'd been hiding and join the eight we'd put in place.

I sent Mo off again and this time, she had much more success but I don't know which of us was the more surprised to see that the bunch had doubled in size! Despite Mo's very wide outrun, as soon as they saw her, the sheep began to run towards the far right of the course. She's not the easiest dog to stop but she flanked really wide and gave them plenty of room to steady down and I was able to hold her back enough to allow the sheep to slip through the fetch gates - all seventeen of them!

Sheepdog Mo working hard to control her sheep.
Little Mo keeps the herdwick sheep on line as they set off towards the first drive gate.

I was really impressed with little Mo as she brought her sheep neatly around the post and set of towards the first drive gate at a brisk but controlled pace. As they climbed up the bank towards the gate, the sheep kept their line, and Mo's drive was still on maximum points when all seventeen herdwicks went through cleanly. I flanked Mo to the left, and she turned them neatly towards the second drive gate.

The crossdrive was a struggle as the sheep were trying hard to get up the hill and back to their original refuge. Mo responded very well but I had to keep her almost on the opposite side of the sheep to me, such was the sheep's determination to escape uphill.

Judging the second drive gates is never one of my strong points but this time Mo and I got it just right and the seventeen sheep went through cleanly. The lines may not have been perfect but we'd got all the sheep through all the gates!

It was at about this time that I realised I'd never done any shedding with Mo. I'd fallen into the trap of using Kay and Mel all the time because they are such naturals at it. I had intended Kay and Mo's runs to be 'dress rehearsals' for a proper trials run, so decided to try the shed and see what happened. Fortunately, the sheep parted immediately and when I called her through, Mo responded instantly and turned onto the shed sheep like an expert.

As you might imagine, by this time, I was delighted with Mo's run. It wasn't a trials winning performance by any means, but for a first attempt away from home, it was excellent. We now had a real challenge though. We had seventeen sheep and needed to complete our run by penning them. Unfortunately, this was where our luck ran out. The sheep knew their drill perfectly and whenever Mo brought them quietly to the pen, they walked towards the opening but at the last second, split - half going to the left, and half to the right. They seemed oblivious of my efforts to keep them back even when I left the pen to run out and block them! We eventually 'retired' gracefully.

Andy setting Kay up for her outrun with the herdwick sheep in the background.
Andy sets Kay up for her outrun. The herdwick sheep are on the bank beyond the fetch gates.

Kay had an easier task than Mo. The sheep were well in view, about fifty yards beyond the fetch gates. Even so, they ran off as Kay approached, even though she was very wide. Like the little trooper she is, Kay saw what was happening and flanked right out wide and fast to bring them back on line. Unfortunately, I made a complete hash of reading the sheep, stopping Kay far short of where she needed to be and as a result, two or three of the herdwicks slipped outside the gate.

Kay then brought the sheep up neatly around the post, before heading off for the drive. The approach to the first gate was shaky but somehow the little flock went through cleanly and Kay coped beautifully with their determined efforts to run away uphill on the crossdrive. All seventeen were posted successfully through the last drive gate and Kay brought them into the (imaginary) shedding ring.

Kay sheds the herdwick sheep with ease.
Kay sheds the herdwick sheep with ease.

The herdwicks once again parted quickly and Kay came through, controlling her subjects wonderfully before turning back and regrouping them for the pen, but just as with Mo's run, the sheep were too clever for us and we failed to pen them. We need to work on our penning!

Mel had a good run (as I would expect) but she's feeling her age now and not as fit as she might be, so when the sheep refused to part for her, rather than continue to run her around and around, we called it a day.

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