Sunday, September 26, 2010

Four Legs, Not Two

Had  a great day at the National Sheepdog finals. 

I took Gideon, who met a few Border Collies (he liked them), and I re-fought the Civil War with Don McCaig (he won). 

I met Heather Houlihan of the Raised by Wolves blog in person, along with her charming little-man English Shepherd, Cole, a happy and much loved survivor from the Great Montana English Shepherd Rescue of a few years back. 

I also ran into Mark Billadeau whose Pipe Dream Farm I once hunted (my memory being what it is, I at first wondered if I knew him from the Lindsay Lohan Rehab or the Eastern State Laughing Academy). 

Mark's got 10 or 11 Border Collies and a Maremma guard dog to keep coyotes off of his woollies, and the Maremma is apparently knocking off quite a few groundhogs too.  Excellent!

The sheep and the dogs at the trial were spectacular.  This was the last day of the finals, which is to say only the best of the best were left. 

The dogs had to do a very long outrun to the upper left, lift 10 sheep, and drive them down to a center gate area. 

Then the dogs had to do another long outrun to the upper right, lift another 10 sheep, and drive them down to the same area. 

Of course, by then the first 10 sheep had broken hard to the left, going off-course, and now the dog had to gather the two groups together, and then drive them, as a group, through two gates before getting them to a shedding ring, where the dog had to split the 15 uncollared sheep from the five collared sheep that had be driven into a pen, with the gate closed firmly behind them.  A hard day's work, and all of it done on a clock.

The nice part here, as in hunting with terriers, is that there is no "judging up the leash," as there is no leash.   The sheep are the final judge.   Theory hits the floor pretty fast in a Virginia pasture!

The dogs are roughly-guided free-thinkers for most of the outurn, lift, and drive.  The human enters into tight formation with the dog at the gates, and by the time they get to the shedding ring, it's a very tight partnership of pressure that is given, and released, by human and dog alike.

The dogs put on the pressure, and then release it to let the sheep re-sort within the flock.  When there are a sufficient number of the uncollared sheep together, the dog searches for the smallest natural crack to develop in the flock, and then, with a bit more pressure (perhaps a bit of it provided by the human on one side of the flock), the unwanted sheep split off and are allowed to leave the shedding ring.  

Antwerp diamond-cutters could learn a few things from these dogs!

Of course, as in any sensibly-run business, it's all about the work, and so there's a great deal of diversity in looks.   

Yes, there are lots of very traditional-looking black-and-white Border Collies, but there are Slicks too, and a few merle and brown dogs, and a lot of variation in size. 

One dog I saw was enormous -- 70 pounds if an ounce, while a few of the smaller bitches might have tallied at 35 pounds.

It is this diversity in form that the Kennel Club rails against, and so they have produced a "standard" for a "Barbie Collie" with the idea that, like a Barbie-doll, the dog should be injection-molded, and put in a nice box with promising packaging (Career Barbie Now Comes With Hair Extensions!).

But what is the standard for a working sheep dog?  Not so very different from that of the working terrier.
  • Legs?  Prefer four
  • Eyes?  Prefer two, but may be willing to negotiate.
  • Tail?  It would be nice, but we are not finicky.
  • Nose?  Definitely a nice feature.  Prefer on the front of the muzzle.
  • Coat Color?  Any color.  It's a come-as-you-are party.
  • Brains?  Yes, please.
  • Grit and drive?  Of course.

And that's it.   

After that, "the standard" is found in the field, and it's found in the work, and the judge has four legs, not two.   

Four legs not two.

The Kennel Club folks do not even know what that means.


Seahorse said...

Wow, sounds like a wonderful day! I've only seen these trials on the tube, but even there they are fascinating. Thanks for the great first-hand account.

Good to hear about the Maremma, too. I think that's the breed I've settled on for my needs.


Viatecio said...

Great description of a wonderful day. I mentioned on Heather's blog that I couldn't believe how easy some of the teams made it look, and then there were situations in which the dog just couldn't get a handle on the sheep. I've never actually watched a sheepdog trial before until I signed up for the webcast. That is some serious teamwork and I'm glad I was able to watch it, especially that winning run by Pat and Riggs!

The Dog House said...

Also glad to hear another first hand report of a Maremma. We have plans to move to the country, and this is the breed I have been leaning towards to guard the stock animals and the property.

The Border Collie was always my favourite example talking about "standards." A very talented BC trainer once told me "If it has four legs and herds sheep, I'd register it as a border collie".

Her point was clear - the WORK came first. She's what attracted me to the herding breeds in the first place, although she also assured me that I was right - a border collie was not the right choice. The level of drive in these dogs is unlike anything I've ever seen (perhaps aside from working terriers!!).

Since then, we've adopted three cattle dog mixes. They are healthy, well behaved, calm when I ask, and work their hearts out when I ask them. They're smart, they're HEALTHY (the oldest is 5, the youngest is 1) and we haven't been to the vet for anything but a checkup and the rare vaccine.

My point is, I'm frustrated that activities like this don't get more play time. Dog lovers will watch Crufts and Westminster and advertisers will pay major bucks to be a part of it - this has lead to the idea that dogs are fashion accessories. What other idea is one supposed to get while watching the "parade of freaks?"

There's no reason that this couldn't have been reduced into a few hours showing the best of the best - and there would have been viewers. It's time that people understand just what these dogs are for - what is in their GENES to do. And that diversity is part of nature, not the cookie cutter freaks paraded around rings.

Ok, rant over. ;O)

Seahorse said...

I read the breed standard for the Jack Russell on the JRTCA site the other night, and was struck by the vagueness of it. Since I've been force-fed, and swallowed, the AKC-type breed standards for years, it took me aback. Despite what I know about defects in dogs, etc., old thought patterns die hard. Upon reflection, and in mentioning it the breeder I bought my puppy from, the "A-ha" kicked in and I began the re-groove of my brain. Amazing how often I have to stop automatic thinking despite what I know! I guess what ultimately matters is what I DO, and I feel I've done all I can to educate myself and act accordingly.


Laura L. said...

Lucky you getting to go to the Finals. I went one year out when it was in Sturgis and would love to do it again.

I also have a Maremma (working bred) and 2 Pyr x Kommondor crosses who also hunt their pastures. They supplement their kibble with groundhogs, gophers, mice and I think grasshoppers right now.

Anyone who has not been to a real dog trial (not AKC but an ISDS style one) should go if they're interested in Border Collies. The USBCHA website has trials listed all over the US and Canada.

Robin French said...

Nice article, thank you!!

PBurns said...

Thanks Robin -- Can't believe you found your way to this little blog. If memory serves me correctly, I watched your young dog do two perfect outruns, two perfect lifts, and a wonderfully efficient gather and drive through the gates. You were lovely to watch and dog was a true wonder. No hesitation at the outrun or drive. That dog doing some real thinking at the shed. In the end, the shed was the only problem and that was only because you had a set of hard-headed sheep and a seemingly fast clock (time is relative, as Einstein observed). I asked the person I was with about you (or rather the dog as it is always the dog that I watch). A fine animal, and you had a real admirer here I assure you! The best is yet to come, I am sure!



Jenny Glen said...

I wish I had seen you there! I read your blog to my husband tonight (who is the person in your picture with his bitch Maid) and when I read the part about you talking to Donald he said, "I saw him!" He overheard your conversation but didn't realize who you were. I have often read your posts to my husband. It would have been nice to meet you.

PBurns said...

You married a handsome and dapper man there Jenny Glen! I liked watching him and Maid at work -- well done. I am no sheep dog man, but even I cam see good form.

Some truly amazing dogs with wonderful demeanors at that trial. These were dogs who knew who they were, and that they were made for the world in which they lived.

We should all be so lucky.


Robin French said...

Patrick - you have lots of fans in the sheepdog world. Keep it up!