Many of you will remember Mel as one of the great sheepdogs we've had the pleasure of living and working with. Sadly, Mel passed away in March of this year, but she's far from being forgotten.
Her daughter Carew may have been easier to control in a delicate situation, and indeed Mel was not an ideal trials dog because she was too "pushy", but when it came to common sense and getting practical work done with difficult sheep, Mel never failed.
This is Mel's final outing at Powick Sheepdog Trial in July 2011. It was a boiling hot day, and the ageing Mel was clearly exhausted by the time the awkward sheep reached the "Shed" stage, so I retired her from the competition. I don't regard this as a failure on Mel's part. I miscalculated the demands the heat and the sheep would put upon her.
It wasn't a great run by any means but as ever, Mel gave her very best.
I've looked forward to Penybont Sheepdog Trial for some months now. It's a delightful setting with a friendly atmosphere. The sheep are good, the field's reasonably straightforward, and once the sheep are in the exhaust pen, they're well out of sight for other competing dogs.
A slight complication is the outrun. If you send the dog left, unless it's too tight, it must run around behind a large mound where it's not only out of sight of the handler, but the dog loses sight of the sheep for a while too.
The sheep are brought to the holding pens along this route, so if you send the dog to the right, everything is well within sight, but the sheep occasionally wander away from the peg. Because they're trying to get away, they naturally want to go back the way they came, so from the post, the sheep are sometimes seen walking or trotting off to the left. With this in mind, sending the dog left to meet the sheep would seem a logical choice.
In Carew's case, however, she's shown a tendency to stop on her outrun - and being out of sight of the handler (me) is when she's most likely to do it. Because of this, I decided I'd send her in the "Away" direction.
Now, I like to think I'm fairly open minded. In fact one of my failings (if it is one) is that I'll change my plan at the last minute if unexpected circumstances crop up.
So what happened yesterday at Penybont? I walked up to the post full of confidence. Having watched the first four runs (we ran at number five) I was looking forward to watching Carew's superb handling of these particular sheep. They were flighty and difficult if the dog was fast or too close, but moved very well if the dog handled them with respect - just what I knew Carew would do.
As we arrived at the post, I called Carew to my right to show her that she'd be going right, but to my surprise, she dodged back to my left. I called her back to the right, and noticing that some of her sheep were walking to the left, I quickly sent her off.
She went off at high speed, but to my amazement, crossed over very quickly. I shouted and directed her right again, whereupon she set off to the right, but soon bent back to go left. I stopped her and re-sent her but once more she headed left. This time I redirected her without stopping her, and it worked. She went out beautifully but by now the sheep were something like sixty yards off line and I realised Carew would get virtually no points at all for her outrun.
Very cross and humiliated, I signalled to the judge that I was retiring. Carew and I took the sheep straight off the field and put them in the exhaust pen. Muttering discontentedly as we walked back to the car, I was at a loss to understand why Carew had crossed over again at a sheepdog trial. She'd done it earlier in the year at Clun.
Although the Penybont sheep would certainly have suited Carew, they were not the sort of sheep that Kay would have excelled with in a sheepdog trial. Kay can be difficult to stop and inclined to push her sheep too hard, so rather than risk another dreadful run, I decided to withdraw her from the trial.
I told the competitor who was due to run immediately after Kay and I, and then waited for one of the runs to finish. As the sheep were being taken off, I went to the Judge's car to tell him that I wouldn't be running Kay.
The judge on the day was John Thomas who's still respected as one of the top handlers in the world, despite no longer being in the first flush of youth as it were. I've known John for many years. He's highly knowledgeable, fair, and speaks his mind. As he saw me coming towards his open car window, his face lit up and he said: "That was your fault you know, don't blame the dog, she's a good dog."
I must have looked a little confused, because he added: "Your sheep were trotting off to the left and she saw them. She was only going to get them for you. Don't blame the dog, it was your fault!"
My immediate reaction was to agree with him. How foolish. I hadn't realised it, but Carew clearly saw the sheep going to the left, and she'd gone to get them.
By the time I'd walked back to the car though, I'd changed my mind. Surely, right or wrong, the dog should obey it's command. Carew should have outrun to the right wherever the sheep were, and whatever they were doing. If you start to let your dog ignore your commands, chaos will ensue.
I could see John's point though. It was comforting to think that Carew was just doing her job but it threw up lots of questions, not least of which was how I could stop her crossing over on her outrun in future trials?
As I drove home I relived those chaotic few moments in my mind time and again. Just as at Clun Valley Sheepdog Trial, Carew had indicated her intention of going left very clearly on the way to the post. If she'd stopped behind the mound on the left of the course, we'd have lost a point or two, but that's insignificant compared to the disastrous loss of points (or possible disqualification) we'd have suffered for the multiple crossing over episode.
I haven't mentioned the video have I?
Yes, there's video evidence. I placed a little camera near the windscreen of the car before Carew's run in the hope that I might be able to review it later. Looking through the windscreen as it was, it was only ever going to be of poor quality, and conditions on the trials field were quite misty too, but as long as I could make out the dog and the sheep I thought the footage might be of some use.
As I sat out in our field with the dogs and a glass of wine that evening, I remembered the video, but it wasn't until much later that I managed to motivate myself to watch it.
Everything looked fine as we walked out to the post, except that Carew seemed very keen to go left. I'd noticed one or two sheep slowly moving to the left but despite this I set her up on my right. While I was looking down at her, the whole bunch of sheep began trotting smartly to the left. I sent Carew off, but she crossed over. The evidence was incontrovertible. Whatever the sheep were doing, Carew should have obeyed me and gone "Away".
Watch the short video of Carew's outrun.
This morning, while I was out in the glorious sunshine with the dogs once more, my mind went over the events yet again. Surely this was covered in our "Close Work" sheepdog training tutorial. Words to the effect that if you give a command, the dog should obey it, but if that command proves wrong, a dog which has the sense to correct it should be commended.
I dismissed this because Carew had clearly gone the wrong way, but within seconds, I realised that she HAD obeyed me briefly. She'd clearly set off in the "Away" direction, and then crossed over. Of course, none of this is conclusive, but I feel I've misjudged Carew and yesterday's abortive run at Penybont opens up the old controversy of whether a good trials dog can make a good farm dog, and vice-versa.
Gill reminded me that if Carew had been gathering a flock of sheep in a farm situation and I'd erroneously sent her the wrong way, I'd have been delighted if she'd shown enough initiative to cross over and correct the situation, but crossing over at a sheepdog trial is seriously penalised. Some judges even disqualify the dog for it.
Carew certainly has the finesse required of a trials dog, and she doesn't lack power in a farm situation, so she seems to have the best of both worlds, but unless I can stop her crossing over on her outrun, we might as well forget sheepdog trials.
Let's face it though if I'd been concentrating, once I'd seen the sheep making their way from the peg I should have waited to see what happened. If I had, I like to think that I'd have changed my mind and sent Carew left under the circumstances, but arguably the "letters-out" should have kept the sheep on the peg. That's their job.
With the sheep trotting so far away, if I hadn't sent Carew off, it's likely the judge would have told me to wait until the sheep were back on the peg, or even awarded a re-run, but instead, I hastily committed to the run by sending Carew the way I'd previously decided would be best (completely ignoring the fresh evidence).
For the future, my conclusions from this are:
1. Don't make the final decision about the direction of the outrun until you reach the post and can see what the sheep are doing.
2. In Carew's case, unless there's a strong reason to send her one way or the other, if she shows a clear preference for one side, send her that way - she probably knows best!
3. Listen to John Thomas - what he doesn't know about sheepdog trials isn't worth knowing!
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