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The World Sheepdog Trial—2008

That lead ewe wouldn’t. And once she ran around the pen and ran around the pen and ran around the pen…. Twice, we penned four sheep, but four out of five doesn’t count.

That’s sheepdog trialing for you. I’d dreamed of getting into the semifinals and through to the finals. By definition, dreams are unlikely.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 14
The day of the finals was glorious; bad weather had lifted and the light was incandescent. Dinefwr Park had dried out, and when we arrived, cars were pouring in. The 400-seat restaurant would stay open until five o’clock, and trick riders, raptors, search and rescue teams, and celebrity chefs were doing demos.

A friend from the Hafod Bridge trial cried, “Ah, Donald. I have a crook for you. I went to the riverbank and cut it.” It was a thick stem with a thumb rest. I thanked him and asked could I buy a grandstand pass.

“Nay. Nay. Sold out weeks ago. Go ’round up the hill. You’ll see better from there anyway.” As I left, another Welshman hissed, “Donald, you don’t have a ticket? Here then. But don’t tell anyone I got it for you.”

The Reverend Canon W. Roger Hughes led the Sunday service. He announced the location so those who might wish to come, could; those who didn’t probably needed to. It was a theme service. Rev. Hughes described the lost sheep (my paraphrase from memory): “Everyone thinks of that sheep as a fluffy little lamb, but she’s not. She’s been in the briars and the thickets, she hasn’t been shorn, and she’s probably got manure tags. She’s smelly and unpleasant. Quite possibly the flock has cast her out, yet Christ the Shepherd seeks her—whether she wants him to or not…”

After the blessing, I sat in the grandstands beside David Rees. Roger Hughes came thundering, “You know, David, when I was talking about the lost sheep, I was talking about you!”

David replied, “I’m no’ the lost sheep. I’m the black sheep.” And everyone, including Roger, laughed.

The finals are a more difficult version of the National Trial. The handler must send his dog to the right to find, lift and fetch 10 sheep to a stake inside the fetch panels. Then the handler gives his dog the “Lookback” command, and the dog abandons these sheep and outruns again on the left for a second group. As the first sheep drift or graze, the dog brings the second group through the fetch panels to join them.

At the lookback, the dog has already worked hard to gather and fetch his sheep, and now the handler is saying: “Not these; some other sheep.” It’s a dog conceptual problem. Abandoning gathered sheep is a sheepdog nonstarter, but if the dog has total faith in the handler, he’ll do it.

Handler and dog then drive and crossdrive, with 20 sheep to squeeze through each set of panels, not five.

Next, sheep, handler and dog come into the shedding ring for the hard part—the International shed.

The American handler beside me said, “I really wanted to be out there, but right now, I’m glad I’m not.”

Here’s how you do the International shed. You’re on one side of the sheep, your dog’s on the other. Using the dog as a gate, you urge some sheep—four, five or six—to drift away from the others. These sheep will serve as the “draw,” the magnet to which sheep shed later will go.

You amble around, urging uncollared sheep toward the invisible gateway before you open the gate and a few more gallop off to the draw. You never, ever want to find yourself with one uncollared and five collared sheep. Should any collared sheep escape to the draw…oops…start over.

The first handler, John Wood (English), walks out with Moe. Moe, Spot, Tweed, Rock, Cap, Rob, Roy, Floss, Bill, Jim, Mirk, Recca, Sammie, Nell, Eira and Joe: The best sheepdogs in the world are working-class blokes.

There were seven Welsh finalists, five Brits, a Norwegian woman with a dog everybody was watching, a New Zealander (he’d been here three months practicing), a Dane and a Dutchman. Two Americans made the semifinals but didn’t get through to the finals.

Four judges pointed faults: Rushed lift? Bad line on the second fetch? Collared sheep stepped out of the shedding ring? Dog out of contact?

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