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
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
As we disassembled the crates, the Pakistani taxi driver showed me a photo of his Doberman. “Stella is my everything.”
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.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Phone lines were busy. “An American has won the South Wales. And he’d never run it before. And he worked the sheep with his hat! He hadn’t a crook.”
The president of the South Wales Sheepdog Society awarded my trophy. Although he wore a tweed suit, dress shirt and tie, his thick fingers and handshake were a farmer’s who’d worked all his days.
His niece said, “In the 102 years of the Hafod Bridge trial, no American has ever entered. And an American has defeated the Welsh.” She paused for a beat. “Do you not use crooks? In America, I mean.”
It had been a rough week for the dogs. They’d been 12 hours with an airline, in the back of a cramped car four more and in the belly of an ocean ferry for three, and next morning they’d traveled from Dover to Wales. Whether training or trialing, they’d risen at daybreak and, oft as not, had eaten in the car. Walked mornings and evenings by flashlight and, since they were wet and muddy, they slept in crates in a stall. They’d had no Dog Time—without requirements, commands or leashes, just dogs alive in the world, sniffing their sniffs, investigating, going where they would.
So we went to the beach. Evidently dune sniffs are different from farm sniffs, because June and Luke’s snouts were glued to the sand. On the beach, they rolled and rolled, tongues lolling, being just as silly as they wanted to be. Grinning, June suggested to Luke that they might “play,” but that stick-in-the-mud wasn’t interested. They dashed, they rolled, they ran like the wind, they had a big time. Like tired children, they slept all the way home.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10
The drum major bellowed and the bass drum thumped and, in a rag-tag, intensely doggie fashion, we paraded alphabetically—Australia, then Austria, through to the United States and Wales. Clots of handlers and sheepdogs paraded through the narrow streets. More television, more cameras. Llandeilo is a small village, but there were thousands of cheering spectators.
School children waved paper flags they’d made in class, and Boy Scouts saluted. An ambulance corps in bright lime-green uniforms gave us a cheer.
The United States team was applauded, but moments later, the crowd roared when the Welsh team appeared.
My dogs hated it.
Buses brought spectators. We handlers got in before the turf was broken.
Luke and I ran on qualifying field number two, the 14th runner.
These were Welsh Mountain Sheep from one flock, brought off the hill three days previous, and they were extremely skittish. In the first 13 runs, only one dog settled them. Sheep spotters stationed a man and dog between the sheep and the fetch panels to hold them until the competing dog could get behind.
It was Luke’s kind of course—outrun 500 yards, 300 to the drive panels, 400 crossdrive.
Two judges watched from a portable tower as the announcer said, “Donald is from Williamsville, Virginia, in the States. Williamsville has a population of 16, presently 15 now Donald’s in Wales.”
Before Luke reached them, the sheep bolted and overran the spotter and his dog. In 30 seconds, we were toast. Luke never did control them, and when he brought them into the shedding ring, his eyes were hot and furious. What had been an ugly run was about to become uglier, so I tipped my hat to the judge and Luke and I retired. We were applauded for knowing when to quit.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
We couldn’t press these sheep—June must be well behind.
The crossdrive was dangerous. The sheep had to scramble down a steep bank, which started them running. Five speeding Welsh Mountain Sheep are hard to steer, and most handlers missed the crossdrive panel, usually low.
The next hazard was the split. Handlers had trouble sorting the two (of three) uncollared sheep from the two collared ones, and June isn’t a particularly good shedder.
Qualifying runs were in the high 190s of a possible 220.
“Ms. Fiona Robertson from Quebec, Canada, will be our next competitor. Will Donald McCaig from Williamsville, Virginia, please stand by.”
As we walked to the handler’s post, June said she knew where the sheep were, and we exchanged good wishes. I sent her and clicked my timer: 15 minutes.
June made a fine outrun, absolutely nothing wrong, and I whistled her down when she was behind her sheep.
June brought the sheep quietly. I downed June again—and again. These sheep liked to be worked at a brisk walk, nothing faster.
Five Welsh Mountain Sheep approached the fetch panels a little quicker than I liked, but when I downed June, they veered, so I kept her on her feet. The lead ewe had a mind of her own. She intended to escape and end this sheepdog-trial nonsense. I turned the sheep behind me in stages: “Away June/Down!” “Away/Down!” “Away/Down!” The turn wasn’t tight (two points off per judge) but it served. En route to the drive panels, we had a bobble (one point per judge) but I downed June, held my breath that the sheep had passed through the panels, and flanked my dog for a perfect turn. June flanked too tight, and the sheep picked up the pace. Three dark green rushes marked the proper crossdrive line, and June’s sheep were a little high, but not much (one point per judge); then they broke into a run. HANDLER ERROR: I’d seen a dozen runs here, and if the sheep started running at this spot, they kept running, but I downed June (briefly), hoping they’d slow. When I regained my senses: JUNE TO THE LAST-MOMENT RESCUE. June’s always been fast, and she caught them right below the crossdrive panels.
A rescue turn often sends the sheep shooting across the panels to miss on the high side. But at the nanosecond June turned them, I whistled and she bent them properly through. A little awkward (three points per judge), but we were still in the running.
We had 11 minutes left for the split, pen, single—a month. June is an uninspired shedder, and I’d never done the “two unmarked sheep” shed before. June on one side, me on the other. Sheep hate crooks pointed at them, and I used my (borrowed) cane to rearrange them. I had my two, but a collared sheep joined them at the last second. Since they didn’t leave the ring and I didn’t ask June to shed, it’s a small error (two? per judge).
And immediately, we’ve two unmarkeds perfectly willing to split, and June marches them off.
I get the pen gate open, its rope in my hand. But as the sheep approach, with eons of time and thus far a qualifying score, I get stupid and forget that ewe with a wandering eye. These sheep are man-shy, and the dog has to do most of the work at the pen. June can do it; she’s biddable. I can flank her by inches.
Instead, I attempt a strategy that hasn’t worked for any of the 50 runs I’ve watched over the past two days. I decide to put pressure on the sheep, wag my cane and then, like good little sheepies, they’ll go in.
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
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?
Richard Millichap and Cap were in trouble. The draw had drifted over a rise where the last uncollared sheep couldn’t see them. His magnet was gone. Worse, Richard had shed that single off once: She’d gone 50 yards before galloping back to the collared ewes, leaping over Cap in the process. That uncollared ewe was frightened and determined; she knew exactly what Richard intended and wanted no part of it.
Ten minutes left, a fine run to this point, but Richard and Cap’s sheep clung tighter than a chastity belt. Richard worked quietly, Cap patiently maybe eight of those 10 minutes when, suddenly, as if by magic, that single popped out of the others and ambled up the hill, staring at 20,000 people as if asking, “You’ve come here just to meet little old me?”
Richard and Cap penned to tremendous applause.
No, they didn’t win. Welshman Aled Owen and Roy took the solid-gold shepherd’s whistle, the World Trial trophy and the check for £3,000, but Richard and Cap didn’t exactly lose either.
An ancient, hunchbacked shepherd had been at all the trials, and a Dutch handler had told me, “That fellow was sitting in the top row of the grandstand at the International, his chin on his hands on his crook, fast asleep. His crook slipped, and if someone hadn’t grabbed him, he would have rolled right down the stairs.”
On the trial field, the next sheepdog was running swift and soft as light.
The old shepherd’s eyes shone as clear and innocent as a boy’s. “They are brilliant, aren’t they?” he said. “Absolutely brilliant. The dogs.”