Tuesday, May 29, 2007

a dog of middling talent

Solo fetches the sheep back to me, December 2006. Nikon D70s, 55-200mm AF-S DX kit lens.

This is the story of Solo’s first sheepdog trial, which took place in the fall of 2004.

While Solo is a brilliant dog, recalling in his looks, charisma, intellect, and psychoses the famous John Nash, he is not a brilliant sheepdog. Although he sometimes displays working genius, it tends to be highly situational. Unfortunately, many of these situations are not of the sort that are rewarded in sheepdog trials. Solo is a dog who needs to be able to reason his way out of difficult situations, and when working stock, things happen so quickly, and involve so many variables, that when his lack of innate talent lands him in such situations, even a dog of his mental abilities cannot think fast enough to succeed. (Imagine trying to think your way through a stadium jumping course if you’re a rider of middling abilities – it won’t be long before you’re breeches-up in the dirt, even if you’re a Nobel Prize winner.)

For many dogs, even the entry-level class of your typical sheepdog trial (and I mean real sheepdog trials, as in ISDS-style "Border Collie" trials) is prohibitively difficult. Most trials require that novice dogs be able to do an outrun of at least 100 yards while the handler remains at the post, and be under sufficient control to negotiate freestanding obstacles (unlike in some other venues, where you can wear around the perimeter of a pen in beginning levels and therefore always have a fence to guide you), including a freestanding pen. Solo has it in him to do all of these things, and he has done all these things, but we find it difficult to reliably replicate the performance in practice, never mind with a judge, timer, and audience. This is why for four years, whenever someone at a trial (where I’d be running Fly, my trained, imported, talented dog) asked me if I was “ever going to run that red dog” I’d merely laugh nervously and change the subject.

I decided to take the plunge on a beautiful fall weekend. The novice outrun at the trial I chose was less than 50 yards and the entire field was small enough so that if the sheep ran, they couldn’t go too far. And many of the other novice dogs at the trial were, er, quite green, so I figured no matter what Solo did, he would fit in. At least, I hoped so.

It felt odd to be grabbing my crook and walking Solo, not Fly, to the post. Solo was preternaturally calm. I, on the other hand, was nervous like I never am when I am walking to the post with Fly, but with Solo, my favorite dog, at my side, I was happy in a different way, too. We stood at the post. I asked Solo to lie down at my left while the sheep were set where they needed to be for him to go out and lift them. I took Solo’s leash off. He gazed up at me, eyes feral with excitement. It was the moment I’d dreamed of for years. I said to Solo, very quietly, “Come bye,” a command meant to send him on a grand, sweeping outrun clockwise to the left.

Solo ran straight up the middle of the field.

The sheep took off in the opposite direction from the way they were supposed to come (i.e., to me), heels kicking up and tails going around like pinwheels. Solo widened out, too late (instead of a pear, his outrun looked like a keyhole) and then stopped, and looked at me, and tilted his head.

“What do I do now?”

This surprised me, because what he normally does when sheep run from him is run even faster, and then try to grab one, and then spit the wool out from between his teeth, and look back at me, and say, “Oops.” But where I thought he might be out of control on the trial field, instead, he was over cautious.

So I did what they always tell novice handlers with novice dogs to do when their dogs are in trouble – I left the post and helped my dog.

Technically you retire if you leave the post early, but I figured we’d try to make something out of it anyway. We got the sheep collected up again and brought them down the field, turned two out of three of them around the post the correct way (the other one was floating around out there somewhere) and then did a pretty decent (relatively speaking) assisted drive through the wear panels. (A wear is when you proceed leading the way with the dog holding the sheep to you, a drive is when you and the dog are on the same side of the sheep and the dog takes the sheep away from you. An assisted drive is when you walk along behind the dog so that he is never too far from you even as he moves away.) We got the sheep through the panels and then lost them when we tried to turn them for the pen. That’s when I decided to quit while we were (figuratively speaking) ahead. We took the sheep back toward the exhaust, which was easy because it was where they wanted to go, and then Solo called off of them like a very good boy and we left the field.

Solo’s probably not cut out to be a trial dog. Maybe someday in the future, when we have more time and maybe our own sheep we’ll get to the point where I can send him from the post and he’ll run just like I imagined he could. Or maybe not. I might never learn to handle him and he might never be better than he is now. I do think he could have been a dog in the right hands. But all novice handlers say that about their first and favorite dogs.

I’m not sorry, though. It wasn’t a glorious run, but no one can take that moment – the one where I looked down at him, and he looked up at me, and I sent him – away from us. You know, the moment right before he ran straight up the middle of the field. Hey, it’s my memory, and I can edit it any way I want to. At least he didn’t grab anything.