A Novice Handler, a Dog of Middling Talent, and a Sheepdog Trial (or, more than you ever wanted to know about Solo's first sheepdog trial)
Solo made his sheepdog trial debut today. While Solo is a brilliant dog, recalling in his looks, charisma, intellect, and psychoses the famous John Nash, he is not exactly a brilliant sheepdog. Where he 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. He is a dog who needs to be able to reason his way out of difficult situations, and in herding things happen so quickly and involve so many variables that where his lack of innate talent lands him in such situations, even a dog of his intellect 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 also a Nobel Prize winner).

In addition, he is at his absolute worst when he is on a field he has never seen and asked to work sheep he does not know.
But when the organizers of the trial I had Fly in this weekend said sure, they had space to pop him into the second run of Novice/Novice if I wanted, I said to myself, "What the hell. You only live once."
You may be wondering why it would be a big deal to run a dog once in Novice/Novice. The thing about USBCHA sheepdog trials is that for many dogs, even the entry-level class is prohibitively difficult. Most trials require that the dog be able to do an outrun of around 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. Oh, and with my workload lately, Solo's only seen sheep twice in the last two months. So basically, today anything could have happened. The reason I decided to take the plunge was that the novice outrun at this trial was quite short (I think less than 50 yards there is no real rule about this that is legislated by the United States Border Collie Handlers Association because all of the novice classes are only supposed to be practice for Open and there are no titles for people to get picky about) and the entire field was pretty small (if the sheep ran, they couldn't go too far).

And many of the dogs at the trial were VERY green, so no matter what Solo did, I figured he wouldn't look too bad.
It felt odd to be grabbing my crook and walking Solo, not Fly, to the gate. He was really calm, although I had expected him to be dragging me by the leash. He knew full well he was going to get to work sheep on the other side of the gate. I was nervous like I never am when I am walking to the post with Fly, but with Solo, my heart's dog, at my side, I was happy in a different way too.
I asked Solo to lie down at my left while my friend Julie, who was doing set-out, and her dog Boy got the sheep where they needed to be for Solo to go out and lift them. I took Solo's leash off. He looked up at me. It was a moment I'd dreamed of for years. I said to him, 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 in pinwheels. "Crazy red dog at twelve o'clock!" 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 is run even faster and then try to grab one. 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 assisted drive through the wear panels, which is probably the best thing we did today. (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.

Driving is harder for most dogs, but Solo likes to drive. 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 them 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.
I don't know when we're going to grace the trial field again. Solo and I don't really belong out there together, at least not the way we are now. 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, at least he didn't grab anything. Our official score was "RET" but I'll claim it as a "Personal Q."
THE END
Melanie, Solo the Red, Superfly, and Skeeter

Melanie Lee Chang > Form ever follows function. Departments of Anthropology and Biology >
University of Pennsylvania > Louis Sullivan (Email Removed) >
I took Solo's leash off. He looked up at me. It was a moment I'd dreamed of for years. I ... send him on a grand, sweeping outrun clockwise to the left. Solo ran straight up the middle of the field.

I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath until I read the above line and burst out laughing.
Glad you two had a great day. Sounds like you Q'ed to me.

Tara
A Novice Handler, a Dog of Middling Talent, and a Sheepdog Trial (or, more than you ever wanted to know about Solo's first sheepdog trial)

I love these stories.
Solo ran straight up the middle of the field.

I wish I could say that was a foreign experience to me - but you did a nice job of setting the scene.
The sheep took off in the opposite direction from the way they were supposed to come (i.e, to me), heels ... one. But where I thought he might be out of control on the trial field, instead, he was over cautious.

A nice kind of surprise.
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.

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.

True
I'm not sorry, though. It wasn't a glorious run, but no one can take that moment the one where ... Hey, at least he didn't grab anything. Our official score was "RET" but I'll claim it as a "Personal Q."

Great point - you can't possibly succeed at something without at least trying it. So trying beats dreaming in my book.

Diane Blackman
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