On Thursday December 18th Peekay, Lauda, and I were back in Watkinsville, GA for sheep herding practice. This would be Peekay's final practice session before the AKC sheep herding trial on December 27th and 28th. My plan this evening was to keep it short and simple. We were going to do simulated A-course, intermediate class runs. There were to be no drills, no special lessons. Tonight I wanted to establish where we where at. If we ran into problems we would deal with them as you would in a trial: the best way you can. We would keep the sheep flowing from station-to-station. I would physically positon myself on course only where the AKC rule book allowed.
Neither run went completely smooth. Peekay had trouble on her counter-clockwise outruns. She was coming in too fast, and tight. In this practice we didn't have the luxury of having a stock handler to spot the sheep for us. We had to pick them off the back fence. These sheep didn't want to leave the security of the fence. Each time they ran along the fence of the arena and directly into the Y-chute, instead of coming up the center of the field.
Peekay's outruns in the clockwise direction were much better. For whatever reason, they are slower and wider. The goal at the beginning of any run is to minimally stress the sheep. Just prior to coming into the field, the sheep are safe and secure in their holding pen. In a matter of seconds they are driven out by a stock dog and thrust into the arena. Before they know what has hit them, another dog comes hurtling down the field towards them. If there is going to be big trouble, it usually will occur withing these first 10 seconds of the run.
Unless I change my mind on the way to the trial tomorrow, for the first time I can recall ever in competition I plan on sending Peekay on the outrun in the clockwise direction. Just like people being either right or left-handed dogs are right or left-sided. Peekay favors her right-side (counter-clockwise), but through practice she has improved her left side outruns and flanks dramatically. Being the human in this dog/man partnership, it's my job to make these hard decisions.
On both runs, each time we exited the Z-chute and turned for the holding pen, the sheep attempted to escape down the arena. The would make the turn, and begin running. Both times Peekay was more than up for the challenge. On my command she ran down the center of the arena and cut off the retreat. In horse racing she has what is called tactical speed. She has slow speeds, fast speeds, and speeds in between. They can be called upon on command. This makes us a very formidable competitor.
On cross drives this night we were 50/50. Half the time Peekay hesitated a split second, and the sheep ran back to the gate. I think I discovered a technique to help correct the problem. Without getting too technical, I found if I am too close to the fence, Peekay doesn't want to come in between me and the fence. If I step away from the fence, it opens the door and she is more willing to shoot the gap.
I'm presently sitting at my breakfast nook table typing this blog. Both Peekay and Lauda are sleeping like babies at my feet. It is the night before the trial. In little more than 12 hours our first run will be history. I'm excited and confident, but certainly not cocky. I've been trialing long enough to know that there is no sure thing. Even with all the preparation, there are some variables you can not control. It just takes on wrong command; one moment of hesitation, and you're done. But I'm going into this trial feeling like I've prepared my little GSD well.
I started herding with her with the goal of reaching the Intermediate class. We are now on the threshold of our 4th AKC herding title. Unser was my first herding titled German Shepherd Dog. Lauda was my second. Unser crossed "The Rainbow Bridge" over 5 years now. While Lauda will be coming to the trial with us, it won't be long before he too makes the same journey. When "Peeks" and I walk on the field, I'll be thinking of both of them. Peekay is an extremely talented dog, but we have reached this moment in large part to the ground work laid by Peekay's predecessors . Because of them, I am a better trainer. They'll always have a special place in my heart. If we earn a title this weekend, a piece of it will belong to Unser and Lauda. Speed is good, belly rubs are better. Thank you Unser. Thank you Lauda. I love you both.