Sunday, December 14, 2008

So You Think You're a Cow Dog?

After a busy week where I got no dog working done, I crawled out of bed at the insanely early hour of 4 a.m. Saturday morning to head up to Breezy Hill Farm in Rustburg, VA, for a cattle trial. My dogs have worked cattle all of once since the last cattle trial back in May, so I wasn't expecting much, but just thought it would be fun because it is so different from sheep trialing. It's a way to let the dogs have a little more fun on a trial course where precision isn't quite so important (at least not between the obstacles), and that means you don't have to screw down so tight to ensure a good performance.

Last May Twist was not running well and I ended up pulling her from the trial and throwing Pip in instead. Poor Pip was not yet two and in over his head. I'll give him credit that he at least tried to get the calves down the field to me, but that's about all I can say about it. The other dog I ran in May was Lark. She really seemed to enjoy it, even if we didn't have stellar runs that weekend.

So fast forward to now, and I've decided to try them again. A few weeks ago, we went out to Laura's BF's place and worked his heifers. Pip got kicked in the face for hanging on to a hock, among other things. Lark, on the other hand, got out there and worked them like a pro. We had been working on getting her to settle in behind sheep and push straight in on the drive and she translated it right over to the heifers beautifully.

So on Saturday, I had entered Pip, Phoebe, and Lark, and I ran them in that order. The calves had been pastured overnight but apparently had bothered to drink water that morning and so fought the dogs to get to the pond and creek for a drink while out on the field. Pip got his calves and brought them up the field but then they decided to go for the pond and although he could get one or two of them moving, he couldn't get all three. The calves tended to have one lagger and two that would run (and this happened a lot), so if you could get two going, invariably as soon as you turned your dog on the lagger, the other two would try to make good their escape. Dog after dog fell to this problem. Anyway, when it became clear that we weren't going to get the three calves to stick together I left the post and went down to help him. Phoebe had similar luck. One calf bolted for the creek for a drink while the other two headed for the exhaust in the barn. I couldn't lose those two, so I sent Phoebe after them and left the third calf drinking, hoping it would eventually follow its mates. Phoebe did a great job preventing the two from getting to the barn and brought them on around the handler's post and past the time line. My plan was to push them over toward the pen on that side and then send Phoebe back for the lagger, who by this time had started coming on up the field to join the other two, having had its fill of water. I waited for it to get a little closer to the post, then turned Phoebe off the two and flanked her back for the one. The minute she came off the pressure on the two, one of them bolted down the field toward the set out. I flanked her out after that one, who was being followed by the second of the pair, but it pretty much just ran right over Phoebe despite all she was doing to stop it. At that point, I once again left the post to go help my poor dog....

Later it was Lark's turn. I sort of figured it would be more of the same, but Lark got behind the calves and marched them straight of the field and through the lift and fetch gates with almost no input from me. We made a nice turn around the post and I started thinking maybe we could do it. One calf tried to break back toward the barn at that point, but I flanked Lark around hard and she caught it on the face and stopped it. We started the drive away and I had to keep Lark hard to the right to keep them for bolting for the set out. But then they would turn just enough to look like they were going to miss the panels high, and so we zigged and zagged and in the end just missed making the panels. At this point, if you were in a sheep trial, you'd have to flank your dog around to the left to catch the sheep and turn them for the left hand drive. With cattle, because it doesn't matter if you cross your course, the smart thing to do was flank her on around to the right, since she was already on that side, letting her get to their heads more quickly and turn them for the cross drive. This I did, and even so, they still drifted pretty high, but we were able to catch them before the missed the cross drive panels and pushed them through on an angle, with Lark holding her side well and preventing them from getting to the stream, which flowed just past the panels. She brought them up to the Y chute, but since I forget that in a cattle trial you can move all around the chute, I wasn't able to effectively help her and so we missed the chute (if the calves break the plane of the exit of the chute, you've missed the obstacle and have to move on. That just left the pen. Again, my lack of experience with cattle trialing caught up with me, since with cattle you don't have to hold on to the rope on the gate but can move around the pen to help your dog. So I ended up making Lark do most of the work when I could have been helping her more. She paid me back though, because we got the cattle in the pen, and as I was shutting the gate I had taken my eyes off Lark and when next I looked for her, there she was behind the pen, which of course pushed the calves back out (don't I know better than to forget where my dog is when we're penning? Gah!) Anyway, Lark had gathered them back up and was proceeding to push them in a second time when time was called.

I didn't keep track of obstacles made or missed and figured we hadn't really done anything (although we were I think the only team to get the cattle in the pen--only to have Lark push them back out again!), so I was quite surprised when Roy told me he thought we had tied for first place. And sure enough we had. Lark and I lost the tie on time (that's how ties are broken in cattle trials--Roy and Chip got their calves across the time line at the turn around the post faster than Lark and I did), but still the placement in the top 20% qualified Lark for the nursery finals.

The second trial of the day was held in the arena. The arena is easier in many respects because without the wide open spaces and heavy draws in the field, the calves are a bit more inclined to stay together, making it easier to get them through the obstacles. The down side is of course that in a smaller space, if you are about to miss an obstacle, it's much more difficult to get your dog around and turn the calves in time to save it. Pip and Phoebe did pretty well in the arena--at least managing to complete the course and repen the cattle. Lark had a great run going until I had a moment of insanity at the Z chute and managed to let all three calves run past it, for no points for that obstacle. We finished the run beautifully, but that missed chute cost us the win. Instead, we tied for second and lost on time (again) to place third. That was still another point earned toward the open cattle finals. And I was just really proud of Lark. She clearly enjoys working cattle and she's so tiny that it's just fun to watch her move the behemoths around and do it easily and well.

Will we go to the cattle finals? I don't know. The sheep finals are all the way in Oregon, so even though Twist has plenty of open points to qualify and Pip is qualified in nursery (and Phoebe just needs one more top 20% placing to qualify), I just don't see myself being able to cover the time and expense to go. The cattle finals are in Nebraska, which still isn't all that close, but if I ran just in nursery, I could do the whole thing in a week (compared to three for the sheep finals). So we'll see. In practical terms, I don't keep cattle here and so my dogs rarely get to work them. I don't want to bring in cattle and feed them over the winter just so Lark has something to practice on. It might work that my neighbor just down the road would lease me some of his beef cattle, if he has a suitable place on his farm to keep them separated so I could work them. The main reason I quit cattle trialing (for the most part) is because it seemed a waste given how seldom my dogs work cattle. But if Lark is good at it, then maybe I should really try to give her the opportunity. We'll see. Tom Forrester's comment after Lark's run in the arena: "Needle Nose [his nickname for her] is hell on wheels!" Coming from Tom, that's a big compliment! (Lark is actually a granddaughter to his Pete, and although he'd never come straight out and admit it, he has a soft spot for her, even if she does have a needle nose!).

Lesson Day
Today Robin came down and gave lessons at my place. We had already scheduled lessons before the cattle trial was announced, which is why I just did the trial yesterday. We had some new folks out, who live west of here and for whom the drive to my place offered a real time savings. It's always great to meet new folks who have similar interests! Anyway, we worked on the fence and in the corner with the lamb flock to help Pip with his confidence issues coming in on sheep's heads. He loves to bit hocks (or tails), so while on the fence we mainly worked on walking up and then covering when a few sheep bolted in response to his pressure. In the corners, we had him walking up into their faces and gripping noses as needed and of course covering the sheep that broke due to the pressure. For Phoebe we worked on her lie downs. The idea is that I need to do more stop-and-go type work with her at this stage and age rather than insisting on pace--because we don't want to undermine her confidence by trying to force her to be less pushy. If I can get her comfortable stopping and nudging the sheep, then we can work on small flanks from behind and hopefully keep our drive lines straighter and have calmer work all around. As she matures, we can work on better flow, but the main thing right now is to not take her confidence away by insisting on pace. It's a lot to think about, and it will take some effort on my part, because it's not how I'm used to (or prefer to) running a dog, but it's what's best for Phoebe right now, so that's what's on our plate for the next couple of weeks. Robin will be back down for lessons in early January and we'll evaluate where we are then.

So it's been a long weekend. I had to pull up three lambs to go to the butcher tomorrow, and Mary and Tony sent two of theirs over as well. I've got them in the round pen, and I'll load them on the trailer tomorrow and then Jimmy will take them down to Chaudhry's for us. It's certainly helping to get my numbers down, which is a good thing, because if Mary and Tony decide to sell their tunis, I'll probably buy back the ewes I sold them earlier this year. They are too nice to go to slaughter and I have a better market for tunis lambs than karakul lambs so I want to try and keep equal numbers of each.

All the other critters are well, but I'm exhausted, so it's times to think about bed and work tomorrow, ugh.

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