It is easier to bring a camel through the eye of a needle than two sheepdogs into Britain for the World Sheepdog Trial. I’d had great help from my vet, the USDA office and two friends who’d brought their dogs into the UK in the past. Despite all this, I fretted. At the previous World Trial, three American handlers hadn’t done things perfectly, and were turned away. This year, a New Zealand handler would go to Heathrow luggage to learn that his dog had been sent back to New Zealand.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 28
We boarded the plane at Washington/Dulles (after the TSA boobies body-searched my dogs), and 11 hours later, I was in the Charles de Gaulle rent-a-car lot pushing a luggage cart stacked with dog crates, and my duffle on top. Fifty kilometers later, Luke and June finally got out. We spent the afternoon in Calais.
It was very far from my parked car to the ferry terminal. I dragged a huge Vari Kennel and had June on a string lead; I crated her in the check-in area. A second huge crate, and Luke. When I turned to go for my duffle and carry-on, the ticket agent said, “You cannot leave your luggage unattended.”
“The dogs will guard it.”
Her supervisor inspected my papers, and a bus took us deep into the bowels of the huge car ferry echoing with tire rumble and engines. I left Luke, June, crates and duffle in a wire cage. Upstairs, the lounge was beeping, blinking gambling machines and hundreds of noisy tourists. The Channel was invisible in the drizzle. Next thing I knew, someone was shaking my shoulder.
Below again. Cars and lorries were filling the ferry, and I told a workman I didn’t want to go back to France. Another bus brought the crates past customs, but Luke, June and I had to walk.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 29
At 10 PM, the dogs and I passed through a dim, cavernous hall, me dragging 80 pounds of luggage. June greeted the British officials, who were so busy admiring her they didn’t ask for my passport.
As we disassembled the crates, the Pakistani taxi driver showed me a photo of his Doberman. “Stella is my everything.”
We passed through Dover’s medieval streets to my B&B, which was a fourth floor walkup. That night, the dogs slept like the dead.
I’ve been working, training and trialing sheepdogs (a.k.a. Border Collies) for 25 years. I’m a fair handler, and Luke and June are better than I am. June’s a reliable worker who schmoozes people mercilessly. Luke is brilliant and desperately anxious to please, but I wouldn’t trust him with toddlers. They are seven going on eight, in their prime, and I’m 68 (past mine). The tri-annual World Trial won’t be held again until 2011.
If not now, when?
Sheepdog trials are a genetic strategy to reward and produce useful farm and ranch dogs. Sheepdog trials don’t title people’s pets. Real trials are open to any dog, any age or sex, any registration or none. Easy to enter but extremely difficult to win.
The World Trial at Dinefwr Park in South Wales would be two days of qualifying dogs from 22 nations on three separate fields; 42 dogs competing in the Saturday semifinals would be winnowed to 16 for the finals on Sunday.
In the qualifying and semifinals, the dog must outrun 450 yards and get behind five sheep and lift them: “Omigawd,Martha. It’s a dog!” “Call me Shep, ladies. Move along now.”
The dog fetches the sheep through freestanding panels to the handler and turns them behind him. The dog drives the sheep through the drive panels, perhaps 200 yards away and across the field, 300 yards through the crossdrive panels before returning them to a 40- yard mowed ring. Now, the handler can help the dog. Two of the sheep wear bright red collars. Man and dog shed and control two uncollared sheep, and urge all of them into a 12-by-9- foot freestanding pen. They pen the sheep, then return to the shedding ring to single and control one of the collared sheep. 15-minute time limit.
A week before the trial, Luke, June and I booked into our farmhouse B&B.
I’d come early to acclimatize us to the new climate, topography, creature and plant smells, and dialect. It had rained all summer. Welsh roads were flooding; rivers were out of their banks; and I was in rain jacket, pants and rubber boots much of the time. Luke was a longhaired canine mud pie.