The National Sheep Dog Trials were held last weekend in a small town near where I live. I’ve never managed to train a dog to do anything except be neurotic, so I went along to see if I could pick up some tips.
The first dog I saw – called, appropriately, ‘Whitie’ – was all white, which the commentator claimed was quite a new thing. ‘In the old days, white pups used to be got rid of,’ he told us, ‘but now we’re beginning to realise how useful a white dog can be.’
The commentator was a new addition to proceedings as well, from what I remember of earlier years, and the man at the microphone did a wonderful job. He had a slow, easygoing manner, a lot of knowledge, and strong views, particularly on the subject of sheep.
‘The sheep have been very testing sheep for these trials,’ he observed, as Whitie struggled with the ones he’d been given to deal with, ‘and when you get a leader - like Whitie’s got - with a difficult mind set, it makes life very, very tough.’
In the next trial, as a dog called Trish crept round her allotted mob, watching them intently, never letting her gaze drop for an instant, the commentator described what exactly she was doing: ‘Trish is sizing up which are the cooperative sheep and which are the uncooperative ones,’ he explained, ‘- and if she ever finds a cooperative sheep, I’ll let you know.'
Trish did well, despite some sticky moments: ‘ Trish thinks the sheep are going to break out from the top, but Greg knows that that lower edge is the needle case of the penning task,’ we were informed mysteriously at one point. Whatever that meant, she eventually bowed to her master’s superior knowledge and soon the animals were safely put away.
Next came Charlie. His father and his father’s brother were both ‘excellent sheepdog workers’ apparently. His dog’s name was Rain, possibly an ironic reference to the drought into which she had been born. Unfortunately for Charlie and Rain the mob of sheep they were given were the kind that made you want to shout, ‘Come on, you stupid, bloody sheep,’ - and, anyway, as the commentator pointed out, ‘Sheep like some dogs and they don’t like others’ (and was it coincidence that these particular sheep as they left the ring, having defeated poor Rain, did not only jump an imaginary barrier, as sheep often will, but seemed to actually click their heels together in the air to celebrate their victory?)
Finally, Ray appeared, entering the arena along with his master, whose name was Stevo. Stevo was on crutches because he’d had an accident down the mine at Cobar – ‘Stevo, like many young people on the land is maximising the financial possibilities of mine work, because these days you need a lot of capitalisation if you want to get started on the land,' said the commentator, which I think means Stevo is saving up to buy his own farm.
Once again the sheep that came out of the yards were a recalcitrant bunch. ‘It’s very hard to judge whether you’re in command with sheep in this mental set,’ the commentator warned as Ray’s trial began to get under way. He needn’t have worried. Ray, it turned out, was a prince among dogs, ‘Here, Ray, come here, come out of it, mate, get over, Ray, get behind,’ his master told him, but he hardly needed to. Ray was thinking it all out for himself. His every movement seemed to epitomise keenness and his relationship with his master was practically telepathic. He got the sheep through the race in no time – ‘That’s the sort of race you like to dream about,’ mused the commentator, ‘ - or at least I like to dream about.’ He got them over the bridge and then, within seconds, they were round the field and neatly penned.
‘What you have been privileged to see there,’ the commentator announced as Ray escorted the sheep from the field, triumphant, ‘is a dog of genius. Before our very eyes Ray has turned sheep that were cranky and recalcitrant into sheep that have an inclination to cooperate.’
It was a beautiful thing to behold.
(Some earlier winners: http://www.nationalsheepdogs.webone.com.au/Pictures_2006_1.htm)