Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Peekay Watkinsville Herding Sunday Trial Results

This blog entry is going to look a little boring today. No picture. No videos. Just words. This article looks like a chapter from one of my electrical engineering text books. I was expecting to get the photos I ordered from the trial photographer this week. As of post-time, they have not arrived. When they do I'll post them.

I have to start this blog with an apology. I must apologize to the red sheep with the white face. In an earlier blog I gave him the unflattering name "A-hole". I want to take that back. Even though he is just a big dumb sheep, he deserves better. Of all the participants at a herding trial, the livestock have it the worst. The dogs, handlers, workers, judges, and spectators all choose to be there. The only creatures that really don't are the most important -- the sheep.

I appreciate the sheep. I know on the surface that sounds stupid, but let me explain. In the morning before the trial, the sheep are back in the pasture, standing around grazing or doing whatever else dopey sheep do when they are not on the clock. All seems peaceful, until a man opens a gate and lets in "THE DOG". The sheep immediately tense and gather. They are forced to march out of the pasture to an unknown fate. Once at the destination, they meet more people, and more dogs. They are sorted and subdivided into smaller groups. They are whittled down further until the once mighty herd, is partitioned into multiple groups of 3. Each little group is put in their own little 4x10 pen. Here they stand in the cold, rain, and mud waiting. People walk by and stare. Dogs come by and intimidate. After what must feel like an eternity, the metal gate to their little stall creaks open. A dog thunders in, and drives them out onto the runway. Another gate opens and the small group of 3 is thrust into the arena. They are lead to a small pan that has a few kernels of corn. Maybe they are able to wolf down a mouthful of food when they notice real trouble. Here they spot another dog, the trial dog, thundering down the arena on its outrun. Now the fun really begins.

I always giggle when I hear people of faith refer to themselves as being sheep in the Lord's flock. If they only really understood the life of a sheep, I think they would reconsider. Being a sheep really sucks. No matter where you are, it's never the right place. There is always a dog, who really despises you, ready to move you someplace else. Once you get there and settle in a bit, the dog moves you to a new place, then a another, and another, and another...

Trial sheep don't know how to read. They are not following a script. They have no rules to follow. They just reacting to their environment. Some are relaxed, some are a little jumpy, and some are scared out of their minds. When we step onto the field, it's Peekay's and my job to move the sheep through the course regardless. So the red sheep with the white face did nothing wrong. He was being himself.

And our friend was again himself on Sunday. For some reason I started Sunday with a quiet confidence. I just felt that we had unfinished business from Saturday. Maybe it was viewing the video of the day before. I felt far more relaxed. Peekay is always "sharp", but she too also seemed a little more relaxed.

I knew our run was going to be incredibly difficult the second the stock handler gate opened and the 3 sheep entered the field. Two of the sheep followed the stock handler like robots to the grain pan. The third, the red sheep with the white face, bolted across to the other side of the arena. It took the set out dog, a retired herding champion, a good minute to round him back up and bring him to the others. The entire time Peekay and I were 100 yds away at the other end of the arena waiting. Peekay laying at the #1 cone was intently watching that sheep's every move. Deep down I knew that my only hope of qualifying was if the judge ordered the stock handlers to give us another set of sheep. That order never came.

If you read this blog you know that besides sheep herding my other passion is cycling. There are times when you are in the saddle, you would rather be any place else, but on that bike. Your muscles ache, your knees hurt, your butt is raw. But you know, that you have no choice. You have to get home. You have to continue. You reach down deep and find things inside yourself that you thought you never had. You will yourself forward. You will yourself to drive on. Failure is not an option.

As I gave Peekay the stay command and stepped away to send her on her outrun, I had one of those moments. I told myself by God we may lose the war today, but we are not going to lose the battle. Come hell or high water the red sheep with the white face is not going to win today.

I sent Peekay on the outrun. She executed it perfectly. Before I new it, the sheep were thundering up the center of the course with Peekay at the helm, guiding them to me. It wasn't long before our old friend started acting up. Almost immediately the red sheep with the white face tried to retreat. We were both ready for him. Time and time again the red sheep with the white face tried to retreat. Each time Peekay and I correctly anticipated his move, and cut him off.

I have never been more proud of my dog's non-qualifying run then I was of Peekay's performance this day. Usually once a sheep tries to escape, and the dog has demonstrated that it's quick enough to cover, they typically give up and do what the dog wants. Not our friend. The red sheep with the white face never stopped trying.

Some point on this run it became personal. This was our version of Muhammad Ali vs Joe Fraiser at Madison Square Garden. I remember one incident vividly. It was just after we rounded the #3 corner, and were heading for the holding pen. As the group approached the pen, the red sheep with the white face suddenly broke into a run and started off down the arena. Peekay noticed it right away and immediately took off down the center of the arena right behind. She was able to turn on the jets, angle in and stop the sheep in his tracks at the cross drive. Peekay and the sheep locked up their brakes in unison. The grass was still wet from the prior days rain. Both animals slid to a stop, divets of grass flying in the air. The red sheep with the white face abandoned his retreat and trotted back to the rest. Peekay trotted behind him.

I have to thank our Judge. During all the retreats and all the battling with the red sheep with the white face, she was silent on the scoring stand. At no point did she issue us a warning. I also was calm and focus. I put my trust in Peekay not to hurt the livestock, and she was worthy of that trust. Peekay had no malicious intent. She was not creating havoc for havoc's sake. She was doing what a good herding dog does, gathering her flock.

The only words that came from the scoring stand were the words "2 minutes", telling me that I have used 8 of the 10 minutes allowed to complete the course by AKC rules. I wasn't going to get beaten by the clock. We passed on the cross drive and brought them to the pen. We weren't going to let these sheep just walk in. I placed Peekay at the mouth of the gate and opened it. The sheep started to move forward, but I wasn't ready to let them in. I commanded Peekay to take a couple steps forward and she responded. The sheep stopped. Peekay just gazed at them. I wanted to drive the point home to the red sheep with the white face that he was going to leave the arena on our terms, not his. For what seemed like a longer moment than it really was we all stood motionless with the gate wide open --- man, dog, and sheep. Peekay body puffed, tail out, and ears at 12 O'clock, standing like a stone wall, gazing at her sheep. Finally, I called her off as I swung the gate open wider. She obeyed and the sheep ran through to safety. As I closed the gate, spectators applauded. In all the years I have been participating in herding competitions, this was the only time an obvious non-qualify run earned applause. We didn't qualify, but I showed all that we belonged on that field. They all saw that Peekay is a true herding dog.

After I closed the gate, I gave Peekay the command "Green" which is her release command. She did what she always does after a job well done; run full steam around the arena, then charge me. We both left the arena full of adrenaline. I didn't feel like the right thing to do was to load her straight away in her crate and walk away. I wanted to live the moment a little longer. I walked her out the gate of the farm, down the side street. As we walked a spectator came up to us and told us how good we were. I swelled with pride as she described how nice Peekay worked, and how well we handled a very difficult, stubborn sheep.

We're still one qualifying run away from the HIA-s (Herding Intermediate A-Course, Sheep) title. I've entered Peekay in a 2 day trial in Hillard, FL February 21st and 22nd. Until then we'll both be back on the practice field working. As always speed is good, staying is better.

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