Oh, me of little faith!

Or, if you're a sheepdog trainer, practice what you preach!

A lovely picture of sheep with the sun behind them on a summers day
It's difficult to update the blog regularly in summer because so much is happenening. (Click any image to enlarge it).

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and we've been very much aware recently that our regular readers will be wondering why no new blogs have appeared. For this I apologise. I've been intending to write a blog for several weeks now, but there's so much I want to write that the task has become ever more daunting as time's gone by - and consequently been put off (further compounding the problem).

Summer is always a very busy time of year anyway. With the longer, drier and warmer days, it's an excellent time to catch up with maintenance work. Although "catch up with" is perhaps a little ambitious. "Tackle the most desperate" maintenance work might have been more accurate. It's an ideal time for training sheepdogs too (something I'm doing far too little of recently). What with making new sheepdog training tutorials, running our sheepdog training days and countless other tasks I've somehow burdened myself with, time and energy seem to be in short supply at the moment.

I had resolved to keep you posted with our sheepdog trials exploits though - and this is where I now have so much news. I'll give you a taster of the situation as it is, and what's to come, and then try to keep up to date with future trials - beginning with Evesham on the ninth and tenth of August.

Anyone who's read my previous trials blogs this year will realise that the biggest problem throughout has been handler error (me). For their part, Carew and Kay have mostly shown great promise, but Kay seems to get tired before her run's over (especially on hot days) and Carew's presented me with all manner of problems with her outrun, and then with her general ability to push the sheep hard enough to keep them going round the course without stopping. I accept that my handling has been below par, but I'm working on it.

Tricolor sheepdog looking over its shoulder
Kay's not as young as she was. She gets tired on bigger trials grounds. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Kay's problem is probably age related (mine too, I suspect). She's on the wrong side of seven years old and clearly slowing down at home, even when she's out with the other dogs. She used to run for long periods, but more recently has taken herself off to lie down somewhere quiet to watch the action, rather than join in. I'm trying to get her fitter, but even that's not so easy during a heatwave like the one we're currently experiencing. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those who regards high humidity and temperatures as "glorious weather" - on the contrary, I find it an effort to do anything much during the day (he whined). For me, anything over about twenty-three degrees Celsius is oppressive.

Carew's lack of "push" at trials is very puzzling because at home, if faced with stubborn sheep, Carew's in her element. Given a little encouragement, if I'm not too far away she'll face even the most stubborn ewe with a lamb - and as I've said more than once already, Carew's the best sheepdog I've ever had. So what's going wrong?

Close up of a sheep's head in the foreground with a sheepdog in the long grass behind it.
Carew's work is outstanding when she's close to me. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Note that I said "if I'm not too far away". At the top of the field (sometimes several hundred yards away) Carew sticks. Often she'll stick towards the end of her outrun, and even if she doesn't it can take her an embarrassingly long time to "lift" her sheep once she gets to them, so she loses points. Once the sheep start to move down the fetch she's too willing to let them stop again (losing still more points). Sheep learn very quickly, and if they sense they can boss the dog they will. While I wouldn't say the sheep can boss her, Carew's sheep in trials seem more than willing to "give her the runaround."

At Clun Valley sheepdog trial in June, I set Carew up on my right (to indicate to her that she was to go in the "Away" direction) and I quietly told her to "look" for her sheep. Of course, I'd already attempted to get her to see her sheep in the runs immediately prior to her own so now, as she looked up the field, the moment she appeared to spot the sheep I gave the "Away" command.

To my astonishment, Carew shot to the left in front of me, running at full speed up the field in the "Come bye" direction. She'd crossed the course (a serious offence in sheepdog trials) the instant she set off. It was a few moments before I could believe my eyes, but then I desperately tried to correct her with "away" whistles and voice commands. For some reason she took this as an indication that I wanted her to run straight up the field, so she did. Straight as a die, through the fetch gates, before opening up just enough to go around the sheep.

I signalled to the judge that I was retiring, and began to walk towards the exhaust pen so that Carew could take her sheep off the course but, to my further acute embarrassment, she began one of her all-too-familiar sticking routines, once more taking what seemed an age to move the sheep at all. At last they began to walk and I decided to try to salvage at least some of my shattered pride by trying to get her to bring the sheep down the field tidily. Imagine my relief when Carew immediately rose to the occasion and brought the sheep quietly down through the fetch gates and then into the exhaust pen in an exemplary manner - it was one of the best fetches I saw all day!

Despite this late consolation I was crestfallen. I'd rather not run in sheepdog trials at all if this was going to happen regularly. A dog which fails so comprehensively is no fun! As I drove home, I confess the thought of giving up trialling altogether crossed my mind, but then I remembered a story my father used to tell.

Coming from a wealthy family, all my father wanted to do was farming and when he left school at a very early age, he was apprenticed to a well know gentleman farmer near Kidderminster. He recalled that on his first day at work, a cold damp winter's morning, he was allocated lime spreading as his first task.

A man riding a horse out through the front door of a stately home.
Always one for a dare, my father rode this horse into the house, up the stairs, down again and out through the front door! (Click any image to enlarge it).

Long before tractors were invented, in those days lime came as a very heavy, sticky, clay-like substance that was delivered to the farm and then distributed by horse and cart in regular piles across the whole field. At some later stage, men would come with forks and spades to dig the lime out of the heaps and spread it thinly on the ground.

It was a job to be avoided if you possibly could. Poor Dad was sent out to a huge field by himself, and spent the entire morning digging the hateful material out of the piles in which it had solidified. He then had to expend even more energy shaking and scraping every spadeful to part it from the spade or fork. Often it fell as a solid, sticky lump and had to be chopped into smaller lumps - sticking to the tools and his boots. It was the very devil of a job for anyone unfortunate enough to experience it, but for a young apprentice, barely more than a child, and working alone that way, it was a truly miserable experience.

Dad did his very best though. My father was a very strong man (later playing rugby for Kidderminster for seventeen years). He recalled that by lunchtime he was proud of both the quantity spread and the uniform quality of his spreading.

In those days it was customary for all the farm workers to sit down for lunch in the farmhouse. During the meal Mr Williamson would ask each worker in turn how they were progressing with their tasks, allocating new ones where appropriate.

When he asked "young Harry Nickless" for his report, Dad enthusiastically said he'd learned how to spread lime rather well - and wondered whether this afternoon he might learn something new.

"Oh yes, of course," replied the farmer. "Now that you've learned to make a good job of lime spreading, I'd like you to go back to the field and learn to stick at it!"

I'm very much aware that I urge others to believe in their dog and never give up with it. This story brought it home to me that just because I've had some embarrassing times with Carew on the trials field, it's no reason to give up on her trials career altogether. Once she has the sheep moving, as long as I can urge her to keep them going, her control of them is the best of any dog I've owned or worked.

After some consideration (and possibly just a tiny sulk) I decided that I must motivate Carew to keep her sheep moving when she's further away from me - but how was I going to do it?

In my next blog, I'll tell you how I went about it - and whether the method worked.

Footnote:
I mentioned that my father came from a wealthy family. Unfortunately, most of his share of the estate disappeared down the "gents" lavatory at the Button Oak pub near Bewdley and on Cheltenham and other race courses! (Ho-hum)!


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