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When competing at a sheepdog trial, certain circumstances arise during training or trialing that can make the handler unnecessarily sensitive to the pressures of competitive trialing.
 
As handlers, we are primarily focused on desensitizing our dogs. With Border Collies, which are highly sensitive to many stimuli, our main focus is them. It is rare for us to zero in on our human attitudes, which we should also take under serious consideration.
 
This was evident at my last trial. I had a good run going with my oldest dog. We had gotten through the outrun, lift, fetch, and had nice lines in the drive. In this trial, we were instructed to pen before the split (shed).
 
My dog calmly handled the group of sheep and they were settling at the mouth of the pen, when one ewe suddenly broke and backed away from the pen. My dogs are trained naturally, so they are expected to cover that ewe without my instructing them to do so. My dog did what was expected and took off to cover the escaping ewe. She jumped up toward the ewe's head to turn it back in the proper direction, but the judge apparently thought that she had gripped...and disqualified my run.
 
This often occurs while trialing. Later, I spoke with several handlers about what had happened. They hadn't seen a grip. So, just as I had thought...my dog had not gripped, but we were still disqualified.  Although irritated, I needed to accept the judge's decision. I had to maintain good sportsman like behavior. Little did I know that the incorrect call had caused my self confidence to plummet, resulting in my becoming over sensitive to the potential of her gripping.
 
Later that day, I had a run with another dog and that run went poorly due to a major error I made at the cross drive. This run had started off nicely also. I did have one ewe which did not want to leave the pile of hay when they were being lifted, but I had basically ignored that. During the cross drive, I needed to move my dog just a tiny bit to keep the line straight. I became flustered and couldn't remember what whistle, or verbal command that I was to use. I just stood there telling myself I needed to move her, but I couldn't think! After several seconds I gave a whistle, (of course it was the wrong one), and the sheep were heading off-line. The run continued to go badly from there and I ended up by retiring. At that moment, I didn't realize that my behavior was a result of being overly sensitive to my other dog's false gripping issue in trials and carrying over to a generalized feeling of diminished self confidence in my own trialing ability.
 
The next day was another trial with a different course and a different judge. I was hopeful that this course and this different group of sheep, would prove successful for me and my dogs.
 
My first run of the day was with the dog that had been disqualified for gripping the previous day. Due to the terrain, she had to start the outrun on her “bad” side. She came up short and stopped at about Three O'clock. I sharply whistled her over to 12 O'clock, then started the lift and fetch. We did fine, until we were turning the post and suddenly the sheep stopped. We worked and worked trying to get them to move again. The entire time I was telling my dog "NOT" to grip, by keeping her mind calm. Unfortunately, time was ticking and the longer the sheep stood there, the worse things got. One of the ewes was getting bolder and bolder and eventually, her head went down to charge my dog. Nailed on the nose, the sheep then decided to start moving again and we began our drive.
 
As we passed through the first panel and made the turn, there was an altercation between one of the sheep and my dog. I saw my dog's mouth open. I immediately turned toward the judge and thanked him and walked off.
 
My decision to retire was a mistake. I had become too sensitive to my dog gripping, or even the possibility of gripping, and couldn't take the pressure of it all. Due to that anxiety, I made the wrong choice...to retire.
 
I needed to tough it out! That's what I tell my close herding friends and students. I needed to take my own advice. I talked my trainer by phone and discussed the various issues, immediately following the run. I also spoke with a respected handler and with my husband. Both felt my decision to walk off was a poor one.
 
The strategy for my last run of the weekend was to tough it out, unless disqualified, of course! I needed desensitizing to trialing.
 
My next run started off nicely, with a big and deep outrun. I whistled to my dog to start the lift. I had to whistle many times, never having seen her so cautious. She must have sensed something different up there. Her lift seemed extremely tentative, none-the-less, there was a small scattering of sheep which were quickly brought under control.
 
I can't know exactly what my dog was feeling out there, but the run was quite chaotic for a time. It felt like I was trialing a young nursery dog and not an open dog, with all of the unnecessary running that was taking place and the displaced energy that I was feeling.
 
We ended up missing the fetch and both drive panels, but I toughed it out and got the sheep back to my feet. In this trial, we were instructed to shed the back two (split), then pen, then take a single ewe from the back.
 
The sheep appeared calm and in a few moments we had accomplished the shed. We moved them to the mouth of the pen where they, unfortunately, began thinking as individuals, not as a small flock. One was trying to duck between my dog and the pen, while another one was looking back toward the exhaust. I kept blocking the escape of the one trying to duck by my dog with the dog, while simultaneously attempting to block the other one. I moved my dog in just one step, waited, then one more step...waiting to let the sheep change their minds about refusing to go into the pen. While holding onto the rope, I would move in, then out, putting pressure on the sheep, then taking it off. I tried anything possible not to spook them with too much pressure, but just enough on so they would move into the pen. I blocked all options for the sheep, so the only option was the pen. Finally, after several minutes of precise tiny movements, one ewe decided that the pen was a safe haven and the others followed.
 
I quickly closed the gate and then immediately reopened it. Keeping them quiet, we got them back into the shedding ring and in a few moments I saw a small gap, sent my dog in and she stayed on it's head.
Finished! Phew!
 
I was quite pleased with the end of the run. Frankly, the first part was a mess, but the most important lesson was that I stayed in. I stayed in! I was determined to complete the course and I did. I am sure that this run has helped my confidence level grow. I needed to work on my mental attitude while trialing, and desensitize myself to competition stimuli and pressure. I took my own advice and it worked!
 
Stephanie Summers
www.SheepdogHerding.com
 
 

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