Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Big Show

(photo by Michelle Dobbs)
The 2013 National Sheepdog Finals have come and gone, and what a memorable Finals it was. Sweet and bittersweet, highs and more highs, no real lows, even with copious amounts of rain and mud trying to dampen our spirits. Maybe everything we owned was dampened, but I think most everyone in attendance was happy and having a good time. The local Finals committee was stupendous, absolutely phenomenal, and even with the major hiccups tossed their way by the weather, pulled off a tremendously successful Finals from the viewpoint of those of us running in it.

On our way up to the Finals, the dogs and I stopped off at the Montpelier SDT, a perennial favorite of mine. I have so many special memories from this trial over the years. It's a small course but always fun. This year, relatively fresh katahdin yearlings were brought in for the weekend. They proved to be very even and manageable. I was running Bill and Zac (Zeke is still injured). Both did well in the first round, placing 3rd and 5th. In the second round, I had some trouble getting the shed with Zac, and Bill decided to bite a ewe that was trying to stall out on him on the first leg of the drive. I didn't actually mind that, was glad to see him wanting to make sheep move, with the Finals sheep waiting on us.

(photo by Michelle Dobbs)
We arrived at Belle Grove plantation Sunday evening, carrying along a nice collection of stinkbugs in the camper from Montpelier. The forecast was for torrential rain on Monday while we set up the Open and Nursery courses, then perfect fall weather for the rest of the week. I remember thinking that wouldn't be so bad, one day of rain in exchange for a stretch of good days. It did indeed pour Monday morning, but cleared off in the afternoon and we had good weather on Tuesday. I ran Wednesday morning with Bill and it was starting to rain then. And it never really stopped again. I don't know how many inches fell, but the inches of mud were easy enough to measure - up above our ankles in most areas. It was so bad that I never even saw the stinkbugs that I'd brought along wake up.

(photo by Michelle Dobbs)
While the weather was really terrible, I don't think it ended up defining this Finals. The organizing committee did just an amazing job. The sheep were very good, a wily bunch that tested and sorted the dogs very effectively. The field was nice, good for viewing, with testing features of its own such as the ditch that would be crossed on both the fetch and drive. And the quality of dog work and handling was just plain outstanding this year. There was little room for error if you wanted to move on to the semifinals and finals, you were out of the running just like that.

Bill was my first dog up, early on Wednesday morning. We drew up a cooperative group of sheep and Bill laid down a beautiful run, marching them around like they were old friends. I mucked up our single at the end, calling Bill in on one I shouldn't have for a miss, but that was the only low spot. Final score was 187 (out of 220), good for 6th place in the first  round of 150 dogs. (Thank you to Lora Withnell of Sheepdog Training Courses for video of my guys, so grateful to have these!)

Zac ran early on Friday morning, and did a fantastic job with a tricky draw. He ran as well as he's ever run before, and it was hard to even tell he had a difficult ewe in his group before we got to the pen. The run came to a screeching halt at the pen, as we tried to oh-so-carefully convince that ewe she should go in with her friends. I could see Zac getting more and more frustrated with her, so handled him very carefully there, trying to not let the sheep bolt out of the mouth of the pen, and also keeping Zac from taking a bite and earning us the disqualification. Finally, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they marched in and I closed the gate - about 2 seconds too late, with time called and no pen points. I'd actually found myself tearing up a bit when Zac and I walked onto the field before his run, as I realized this would be his last Finals. But it was nothing compared to the waterworks a few minutes after we left the field and his score was posted. 150 with no pen and no single, still good enough to qualify for the semifinals, in 36th place.

(video courtesy of Lora Withnell of Sheepdog Training Courses, thanks Lora!)

Bill and I drew up first for the Saturday semifinals. I hate having to run first, it's just never been a very good draw for me. For some reason, Bill stopped on his outrun before he'd even gone halfway out and had to be given a whistle to go on. Maybe he heard something? He landed a bit short at the top end but the sheep came off pretty good, and we got around the course pretty nicely, with good lines and turns.
(photo by Michelle Dobbs)
We were to do a marked shed (3 plain, 2 collars), pulling off 2 unmarked sheep. The split came pretty easily but Bill let one of the sheep go. I think I needed to be more firm about it, in hindsight. Unfortunately, it was our undoing. It took a bit of time to get the split set up again but we got it fine with me being more positive about my instructions. Moved on to the pen and the sheep marched straight in on Bill's direction. But a short time limit on the run meant we did not have enough time to get the sheep out and get the single. Final score was 155, landing Bill in 24th position with 17 dogs going on to the Final (cut off was 160). Zac ran in the 32nd spot, and run he did. He worked even better than he had in the first round, doing every little thing I asked and mastering the sheep like the old pro he is. He was tight on his outrun, more so than I'd have liked. Over the last year, he's starting giving me an "old dog outrun", not wasting any energy by bending out and giving the sheep plenty of room at the top. That hurt our score but what really knocked us out was my own big error - I managed to pull the sheep back through the first drive gates, only by a few feet and then corrected, but still, that did it for our score. Otherwise, around the course was very pretty. The in bye work was fantastic, Zac was just wonderful there. I haven't seen the breakdown yet, but I'd be very surprised if a single point was lost on the marked split/pen/single. It was as smooth as could be with Zac being calm and cool and in charge. Final score was 158, good for 21st place.

So that was our Finals for this year. As I sat and watched the 30 minute double lift runs on Sunday, I realized it was just as well that Zac didn't make it through to the Final. I could see at the end of his semifinal run that his mind and heart would never let him do less than 120%, and his body still isn't completely recovered from his whatever-it-was scare at the beginning of September. I couldn't help but think that he might have hurt himself trying because he'd sure never give up. It was a bittersweet end to our Finals trip, but I couldn't be any more proud of the job my guys did.

Now we rest up for a few days, scrape the mud out of the camper, and head off next week to the Quiet Acres SDT and then on to the Edgeworth Open. After that, the young guns get my attention for the rest of the fall and winter, with some fun training opportunities coming up. And...puppies on the way. Plans are in the works for Zac to sire a couple of litters very soon. That'll be very fun and exciting (contact me for more info if you're interested in one). I'd sure like to have another little Zac running around!
(photo by Debra Deis)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Okay, I know I'm not very good at keeping the blog updated, especially seeing that i haven't posted since July!  Quick catchup - went to the trials in Kingston in August. The dogs ran pretty well, all 3 placed at least once. Had some unfortunate luck in the first round at Kingston with both Bill and Zac so only mediocre scores to go along with nice ones in the second round, and no double lift for either of them. We also went to the Fetch Gate Farm trials in NY in July, our first trip to that one. I ran Bill and Zeke there and both ran very well. Bill ended up 3rd in the first round and Zeke came oh-so-close to placing 3rd in the second round. He had a beautiful run but it was during a stretch where no one was getting the shed, including us. We had one quick shot at it but just couldn't get it. It was unfortunate especially since I was trying to get him qualified for the Finals and that one shed cost us that. Funny how often it can come down to one tiny thing like that. Zac wasn't able to run because he was recovering from a neck injury that he suffered in early June - it ended up being a bulging disk in his neck, but was pretty mysterious to pin down. He did run in Kingston and seemed fine there and after.

Since returning from the Canada trip, it seems like I've been just trying to hold the dogs together. Devin has been recovering nicely from his July 1st OCD surgery, and hopefully will be ready to resume his training after the Finals. Zeke injured himself in mid-August training at the farm. It appears to be a bad muscle strain but it's still not healed up, so we're working on figuring out what is going on with him. It doesn't look like he's going to be able to run this fall at all. Bill is nursing an old injury to a rear leg, and as of yesterday Spot is now gimpy on a front toe. In late August, Zac came up weak and wobbly in his rear end suddenly. After trying every diagnostic available (MRI, spinal tap, etc., etc.), we have no concrete answers on what it is/was. It's possible it was an FCE, but we have no way of knowing for sure. He's mostly recovered though still has an odd gait in the rear at a walk, which hopefully will go away with more time. It was horribly scary and i was really afraid i was going to lose him or he'd never walk again. But Zac's just kept going - I swear he'd drag himself around the sheep field with just his front legs rather than give up. I can hardly express my admiration for the heart he's shown during this (and always has shown).

So, other than trying to keep everyone up and on their feet, and doing lots of doggy physical therapy, most of August and September has been about conditioning and training for the upcoming National Finals and the fall trial season.  Bill seems pretty fit right now. Zac could be more so, but at least he's going to be able to run i believe. It's still a day-to-day thing with him but he's been doing a good bit of work and ran well at the Longshot Farm trial that we went to this past weekend.  I'm tweaking some diet stuff with both competing dogs and just trying to hold everyone together for the big show next week at the Finals. We're heading out on Friday to compete at the Montpelier Fiber Festival trial. It's a small course and should be a nice relaxed kind of weekend. I want the dogs to rest their little bodies up so they're fresh for the Finals, and I think this little course won't be all that taxing on them. It'll be good for sharpening myself up a bit I hope. We'll move over to Belle Grove on Sunday night or Monday morning, and on Monday I get to help set up the course for the trials. I'm lucky enough to be on the Handler's Association trial committee again this year, a job I really enjoy. Bill will run on Wednesday morning, and Zac runs on Friday. I'm really looking forward to the whole week, seeing some great dogs run, visiting with lots of friends from far and wide, and seeing how my guys do on the big course. I feel like I've already won, just having the chance to be there and run my boys!

Here's another wonderful video production by Michelle Dobbs for the Finals --