Monday, October 15, 2018

Another Day, Another Training Challenge

But mom, you said to keep the sheep out of the exhaust pen.


My tri-colored Border collie sees the world in black and white.

Niki is the most challenging, most affectionate, cutest and hardest working dog I own. But, she sees the world differently than my other dogs.

At the sheepdog competition this past weekend, I used her to exhaust sheep for the pro-novice class. The sheep weren't so sure they wanted to go into the exhaust, or holding pen, at the end of each competitor's run. The pen was unfamiliar, and sheep don't like unfamiliar.

Niki loved running out onto the field, collecting the sheep and directing them to the exhaust pen. She enthusiastically did her job time and time again.

On the second day of the trial, the sheep no longer saw the exhaust pen as an unfamiliar, scary place. Instead, it was a place where they could eat hay and get away from the dogs.

So Niki's job description changed.

Her job was to make sure the sheep did not get to the exhaust pen during each competitor's run. At the end of the run, though, she was to let the sheep into the pen.

And, that's where she got confused.

She was all into keeping them OUT of the pen at ALL times. That was great when the handlers were competing, but not when they were finished. She was not going to let those sheep into the exhaust pen EVER.

To get the job done, I resorted to keeping her on leash, opening the exhaust pen gate and keeping her out of the way so the sheep could get into the pen.

It's Monday now, and I'm pondering how to help Niki understand that her job description can change every five minutes.

The good news is that she wants to work with me. The bad news is that I've got to figure out her language.



Sunday, October 7, 2018

Traveling with Dogs: What we ask


When I loaded up the Subaru, the Border collies saw the open crates and hopped in, ready for the ride. They had no idea that we were traveling for 2,300 miles, or that the journey would take days.

Before departing for California, people asked if I were traveling alone.

"Nope, I have three dogs," I said, adding, "They're great traveling companions. They never ask how much longer, demand a different channel on the radio or complain about my singing."

While Border collies amaze me on the trial field, they really amaze me as travelers, and not just because they never ask me to change the channel.

During my travels, I ask them to ride in crates for hours. When we get out of the car, they may see zooming cars and strangers. Sometimes they work on strange fields on unfamiliar sheep. At night, they sometimes sleep in motel rooms where the voices of people and vehicles can be heard through the walls. Sometimes, they sleep in their crates in the car.

Rarely do they protest. They just adapt.

Oh, there was a 24-hour period when the young dog was miffed about the pottying situation. With no green grass in sight, I asked her to pee on gravel. She just looked at me. Ten minutes later, she decided that gravel was okay.

We aren't in the green fields of Ohio anymore. Gael, now a year old, adapted quickly.

By the time they're adults, most Border collies participating in sheepdog trials have traveled hundreds, often thousands of miles. Although too young to compete, they often travel with their owners and other Border collies, to trials.

I'm sure the socialization helps them adapt.

But the dogs also live in the here and now--and if they're with their human and their pack, then that is where they want to be.

Emma checks to make sure it is Jack underneath all that dirt.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Traveling with Dogs: The Stalker Cow

Traveling with dogs often means spending nights in cheap motels. But on those lucky occasions, I, along with other sheepdog competitors, rent a house.

The best houses are the ones that are within a 30-minute drive of the competition, are set a ways from the road and neighbors, and have an area for walking the dogs. They're also the ones hosted by people who don't blink when you mention that you and your friends are traveling with 12-15 Border collies.

If a home owner is willing to accept people traveling with lots of dogs, then I'm willing to accept to accept some eccentricities, whether it be banjo music, horses mating in the parking area or a stalker cow.

During my recent trip to northern California, our hostess asked us to close the gate after we pulled into the farm so that the cow did not get out.

As we pulled up the driveway, Jax, the cow, was awaiting us. (Jax, a housemate pointed out, is a steer, not a cow. But, for the sake of this story, I am calling him a cow).

"He's friendly," his owner said.


I gave him a wide berth. Fifty years on this earth has taught me to be wary of 1,000-pound animals that I do not know.

Jax watched as we unloaded luggage and dogs, and bellowed intermittently. To make his presence known, he defecated behind my friend's van.

In the morning, the cow was nowhere to be seen.

I walked the older dogs in the moonlight. Not seeing the cow, I got out the young dog and moseyed down the driveway. Jax appeared and followed us.

The dog and I sprinted back to the house. The cow followed and took up his usual spot near the garage.

As the week wore on, we got used to the stalker cow, always watching, often bellowing.

On our last morning at the house, he was not there to greet us in the morning.

"I kind of miss him," my friend said.

And, just like that, he appeared.



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Competing at the National Sheepdog Finals


Sheep at the National Finals.

I wish I could say that my run at the USBCHA National Sheepdog Finals went as I visualized.

But seven years of sheepdog trialing has taught me that things don't always go as planned. In this sport, no two fields are alike; no two groups of sheep are alike. Weather conditions change. The best handlers and dogs react and adapt to the changes, but even that doesn't guarantee success.

The open field at the National Finals.

In the smaller fields in the Midwest, the dog rarely loses sight of his sheep as he's running out to them. I have little experience with running on big fields, and it showed at the Finals.

Jack spotted his sheep, and kicked out wide to go get them. His path took him over a rise and out of sight. I thought I'd spot him as he neared the sheep.

I was wrong.

He went past his sheep, and we lost valuable time. Once he found his sheep, I gave a few too many commands, causing him to circle the sheep. While we got back on track during the drive, we ran out of time in the shedding ring.

While I was disappointed, I had no regrets about making the cross-country trek.

I've had the chance to compete on a challenging field with challenging sheep--and to see some of the best dogs and handlers in the country. And, once again, I've learned new lessons about sheepdog trialing.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Heading West Then

My first trip to the West was a quarter of a century ago.

It was summer, and my boyfriend, now husband, stuffed his Ford Bronco II with a leaky tent, foam mattress, cooler, AAA tour books and maps, and we drove. Our destination: the Badlands, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone.

The wide open spaces and hiking were spectacular.

The weather was not. It rained for days. In Cody, Wyoming, we awoke to an inch of water in our tent. In Yellowstone, we awoke to snow on top of the tent. We became experts at lingering in lodges, restaurants and laundromats.

At the end of the trip we were still talking to each other--and talking about plans to go back.

Two years later, we made the trek west again.

This time, we had a better tent and a Ford Ranger; we also traveled with 10 other people.

The highlight of that trip was spending several days horseback riding and camping along parts of the Oregon Trail near South Pass City, Wyoming.

That vacation was the last of our long car trip vacations. When given the choice between driving and flying, we opted to fly.

This fall, though, I am making a road trip west again. My destination, Alturas, California, is nearly 2,300 miles away.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Where the Road Leads...

Jack at the Land of Lincoln Sheepdog Trial in July.
 Photo by Patti Sumner.

Sometimes you plan your routes, and sometimes you go where the road takes you.

When Jack arrived on our farm, just over two years ago, my plan was to compete in some trials and become a better handler. At 8 years of age, he was an accomplished trial and farm dog; I had been an open handler for less than a year.

We struggled at first and were very inconsistent, but we had just enough magical moments to qualify for the National Sheepdog Finals in Virginia last year.

With Jack turning 10 and the National Sheepdog Finals in California this year, I planned to focus on consistency, to compete at little less, and to enjoy working Jack. I did those things--and along the way, Jack qualified for the finals.

"You should go," my husband said. "It's probably Jack's last year to compete."

It's a long way from Ohio to California.

But that's where the road is taking me.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Sounds of Late Summer

The oak tree shows no ill effects from the constant mowing in its youth.
As always, Niki is the photo-bombing dog.

As I sit on the back porch, writing about the day, I hear a thunk, silence, another thunk.

Acorns are falling from the oak tree,
planted by my mother some 20-plus years ago,
mowed over by tenants,
and then mowed over my me,
until one day,
when I'd neglected spring mowing for a week or two.

While mowing, I spotted a stem and four oak leaves.

I mowed around the little oak tree that day,
and for days and years after.
Twenty years later, that oak tree is almost as tall as the house,
and it provides shade,
and acorns that thunk and thunk as they fall to the ground.

We've had 90 degree days during this first week of September.
Are hot days encouraging the acorns to fall?
Or does that oak tree feel a fierce winter coming?
Maybe the tree just wants to announce its presence,
with a simple thunk, thunk, thunk on a late summer day.