Jack at the shed. Photo courtesy of Beth Murray.
When Jack arrived from Texas last summer, I never envisioned qualifying him for the USBCHA National Sheepdog Finals. Instead, I was hoping to have a nice open dog for competition and a dog that would help me improve my handling skills.
We traveled to trials in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Wisconsin and Virginia. We had sheep escape during the fetch; we missed drive panels; we were disqualified during a shed; and we timed out at the pen. Sometimes we completed the course, and sometimes we didn't. Over time though, we got better, and every once in a while, we were able to pull all the elements together and place. By this summer's end, we'd earned enough points to qualify for the National Finals in Virginia.
One hundred and fifty dogs from across the United States and Canada are accepted into the Finals--and the handlers' list reads like a Who's Who of the sheepdog world. They returned to the Finals year after year. I was a rookie, making my first appearance.
Running on the last day of the four-day preliminary round gave me lots of time to think about this. Over the first three days, I saw sheep escapes from the course, missed drive panels, disqualifications at the shed and timing out at the pen. I also witnessed dogs and handlers working together to move the four sheep skillfully around the course.
A friend and I made two visits to the practice field to take the edge off me and my dog. During the second work, she told me to fetch the sheep and then whistle Jack counter-clockwise around the sheep.
"You're going to need that," she said. During the fetch, many groups wanted to run toward the exhaust--and most handlers were giving quick "away-to-me" commands to stop them. It did little to settle my nerves.
The crowds didn't help. At most dog trials, the only spectators are the other handlers and a few friends. At the Nationals, hundreds of people attend and watch. Sunny September weather brought them out in droves.
Self-doubt set in. Would I be able to keep the sheep on course? Would I make a rookie mistake on the field? As my turn approached, I went to the car to get my dog, whistles and crook. Jack, a 9-year-old who'd run in many big trials, went into pre-run warm-ups: rolling in the grass, whining and sidling up to me. He was ready.
Like that, I forgot about the crowds and that this was the National Finals. Taking a few deep breaths, I petted him and reminded myself that this was just another dog trial. A sense of calm overtook me, and we walked to the post. As Jack swung out into an arc, it became just me, my dog and four sheep who were bolting toward the exhaust.
I gave my away whistle. Jack swung around to stop them. Usually that's enough to change their minds, but these sheep were determined to escape. I was determined to keep them on course. Pretty lines went to the wayside. Jack moved like a cutting horse, zigging and zagging to hold them onto the course. Somehow we got the sheep around the post and through the first drive panel. I was slow to give a flank in front of the second drive panel, and the sheep dipped low, missing the panel.
As Jack moved the sheep to the shedding ring, I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes had passed, and we had three minutes left to split two from the group, re-gather and put them in the pen.
Still inexperienced at shedding, I take time to position myself in the ring and set up the shed. We split the two and I send Jack to re-gather the group.
I have one minute to pen--and complete confidence in my dog.
With steady movement and a few flanks, we guide the sheep into the pen, and I shut the gate.
We'd done it. It wasn't pretty, and the 114 score wouldn't be high enough to move onto the next round, but we'd completed the course at the National Finals--and I was ready to try that again.
After my preliminary run was over, I had time to really watch and enjoy the
Finals--and take photos.