I promised to do a Finals wrap up blog, so here it is. I'll do it in two sections, one a more personal one and a second detailing some of the strategies i picked up and used since i do try to keep this blog at least somewhat educational (for myself and my poor memory as well as for others!).
First off, it was the most amazing week of dog trialing. I almost felt as if i should just stop right there, it'll never be topped. But you know that ain't happening, right?! My good friend Lauren was right there for most of the week and called it "fantasy week at the Finals" and it surely was. It was an amazing high. My dogs worked so well, i could not possibly have been more proud of the job they both did. They performed like the champs i've always known them to be, each winning their day in the qualifying rounds and not missing a single sheep through a single panel over 6 runs. I'm still awestruck by the job young Bill did and the trust he showed on the final day when i was asking him to perform so far above his training level. It's truly humbling what these sheepdogs are capable of.
The people at the Finals were absolutely amazing. I felt like i was riding a wave of good wishes and congratulations the whole time. I was just blown away by it. So many smiling happy faces who were genuinely happy to cheer us on and hanging in there on every whistle. Wow, it still gives me goosebumps. The level of competition was amazing and i have to say i learned an awful lot just being in amongst it and watching and studying. I try to remember that especially in this particular endeavor, "you don't know what you don't know until you know it". I think i know more now, or at least i'm aware of the more that's out there. All in all, it's been a surreal experience. The addition of the webcast and the Twitter feed added to the experience in ways i doubt anyone really expected. I've heard from people all over the country (and some overseas), both in and out of the sheepdog trial world, offering congratulations and telling me how much they enjoyed seeing both dogs run. Pretty mind blowing really.
Okay, so on to the trial strategies part. I have to give credit again to the competitors at the Finals. I was fortunate enough to draw up late enough in the Open that i could watch a lot of really good handling in both rounds, and formulate my own strategy based on what i was seeing work. Bill and i didn't have a real chance to do more than try to conquer the bad ewe he had in the Nursery, but i sure used things i picked up once we got to the Open.
Carla King ran very early in the first round of Open and went out and laid down a gorgeous, calm run to post a high score. The sheep responded extremely well to her quiet, gentle handling, especially at the shed, where she just calmly folded off her shed sheep. I hardly think they even noticed they'd been split! I tried very hard to emulate Carla's handling and quiet manner, easing the sheep around as gently as they would allow.
I noticed that one dog seemed to really settle his sheep and take a bit of the fight out of them by pushing them off a little hard to the right after lifting. It was almost as if he said "no breaking to the left, got it?" and they just bent to his will from that point. I decided to try that, giving up a point or so in hopes of keeping some others on the fetch. We had gorgeous online fetches the entire week, as well as very good drive lines, from the Nursery right up to the double lift and i think this was part of it.
I picked up my strategy for the very tricky turn at the post from watching a good friend compete. It seemed he was pushing the sheep offline to the right at bit so he could do a series of small turns/flanks rather than one large sweeping move around the post that would give the sheep a head of steam that the dog would have to try to stop. My dogs were happy to use this method and it seemed to help break the sheep from bolting. Once i had the sheep turned, i decided to have my dogs settle them a bit before letting them continue down the driveaway line. I'd stop the sheep and let my dogs eye them up a bit, trying to build some rapport and trust between them all, and also show the sheep that they weren't getting away from my guys. It didn't always work, i know Zac had some runners that hit that panel at a dead run, but it mostly did, and i think it also helped the dogs master the sheep when it was time to turn onto the crossdrive. They'd already explained to the sheep that they were in charge and there was no need to test them.
Another strategy i picked up watching a top competitor was to go through the panels a little deep rather than going for the tight turns we normally aim for. It's not worth risking the miss when you're trying to get to the next round. Another thing i picked up, and this was from my own mistake in Bill's nursery run, is to keep my fingers up so i can keep whistling when i need it. I'd dropped my hands to shout "lie down" before a panel with Bill, and when i needed a fast flank, he couldn't hear my voice command. Something to remember at trials with spectators, where there is applause on making panels.
The final strategy i picked up goes back to Carla's run, where she folded off her shed sheep so calmly. The sheep were bad for clumping up and not separating if they were pressured, so gentle handling was needed. I didn't manage to do it every time, but when i could, it did work very well.
I think that about covers the big stuff on strategies. It was quite the week, both as an experience to treasure and also for the education. Can't wait until next year in CO!