What Kind Of Handler Are You?
I am a lazy handler I guess. I don't like drilling. I don't like micromanaging. I want to get a job done, either at home or at a trial, with a minimum of fuss.
What is your perfect dog?
The one that does exactly what I need it to do, all the time!
Do you like a dog that is really on the muscle?
I can't stand this phrase and I think it's overused, and certainly interpreted differently by different people, at least as far as I can tell. To me, a dog that's on the muscle is being too pushy and not listening. I don't mind a pushy dog but combined with not listening is not something I'd want to deal with all the time. There's a time and place for it, but it's not every time nor every place. And generally it's not on the fetch at a trial. Dogs are supposed to help us with low-stress, efficient management of stock. A dog on the muscle most of the time is unlikely to be doing that.
Do you like a dog that needs a steady stream of whistles?
I abhor a dog that needs a steady stream of whistles, but I think the operative word here is *need.* The only time a steady stream of whistles is likely needed is if you're trying to win an open trial and your lines need to be on the order of "millimeter tolerance," to quote a well-known big hat. I still don't like to hear it on the fetch, though, and to me a silent or near-silent gather is golden.
Are you a maximal or minimal whistler?
That depends (see above). I tend to whistle very little on the gather. One reason I got into this habit is that my first open trial dog that I trained myself doesn't like a lot of commands. Since I know that more commands are necessary on the drive, I compromised by leaving her alone on the fetch. Well, that, and the two biggest bobbles I ever made on the fetch (once at the Bluegrass and once at the National Finals--hey, if you're gonna do it, may as well do it big!) were because I decided she was a bit offline and insisted she "fix' it. And you guessed it: Both times she was right and I was wrong, and my intervention caused a missed fetch panel. Score two for me! I did learn my lesson, though. I think.
Do you like a natural dog that feels the sheep and just needs a little direction here and there?
Yes, I like a dog that can read the sheep and respond appropriately, with or without me. There are times, especially at home, where I have to send the dog for sheep that are out of my sight. Other times when a student's dog has sent the sheep to the back of beyond and I don't want to walk all that way to get them, etc. I have to trust that my dog can go out blind, find the sheep, deal with whatever is presented in a fair and efficient manner, and bring them back, all on her own. It's nice to have that quality and to know that your dog really is saving you time, worry, and work. On the trial field, I know a lot of folks prefer a loose-eyed dog they can put anywhere, but then you get back to that pesky constant commanding thing, which I don't like. I want my dog working as a partner with me, especially at the shed and pen, and let's face it, a natural dog is going to read and react to the sheep a lot faster than I can read them and then tell a dog what to do....
Do you like a dog that prefers certain type of sheep?
No. My dogs need to work whatever is presented to them. The first time I went to the finals, Twist had never worked range ewes. We had one practice on the practice field, and off we went. She handled the range sheep just fine. I like a dog who can learn from new sheep how to handle them. That means if you're trialing, then you might not be successful the first time you encounter sheep that are new and different, but a good (natural) dog will figure out how to work unfamiliar stock so that the next time out on that same type of stock the dog will have figured out how to handle them (and the handler will also perhaps adjust handling to accommodate the differences in the stock).
Do you like a dog that wants to partner up and be a really good team player?
Yes, taking care of my livestock (especially) and trialing shouldn't make me unhappy, and if I rely on my dogs to help me with both of those endeavors then they need to partner up with me. I don't want to have to fight a dog to get a job done, at home or at a trial. I don't want to have to beat a dog into submission (or any variation of that), nor do I want to have to constantly nag a dog or be ever vigilant so that the dog doesn't take a mile every chance it gets. Not for me. The dog's job is to make my work easier, period.
Do you like a dog that really knows what s/he wants and you, as a handler really has to manage?
No. See the above. Working livestock isn't about what the dog wants. It's about the efficient and humane handling of stock. That's what I want, and therefore the dog needs to want to make me happy, generally speaking.
Do you want push?
I want push when it's needed, but I don't want to be constantly riding the brakes. When I want things to be hurried along, I expect the dog to push away. When I want slow, calm work, I don't want to have to constantly remind the dog to slow up. This ties in with the dog that can read stock and react appropriately and also partner up with the human to get the job done.
Do you want a good listener?
Within reason. I want a dog that thinks for itself but is willing to take my input, right or wrong. It's okay if the dog gives me a dirty look when I screw up, but ultimately if I insist on something I expect the dog to comply, and if I was wrong, then I'll take the blame (while the poor dog is fixing my mess). I know my dogs well enough that if one refuses a command, I'll take into account that the dog may have a reason and may adjust my plans accordingly. It's that partnership thing. But I also don't want to have a long, loud discussion about it if I really want the dog to take a command.
Do you want try? (Not tri.)
Definitely. Nothing is worse (especially in a tough work situation) than a dog that has to be coaxed to work. I'd rather have the dog trying and screwing up than not doing anything at all or being perfect but very hesitant. A dog with heart who will give everything it's got to you when the going gets tough. That said, my first trial dog was one I had to give a lot of encouragement to. He lacked confidence. He was also very kind to his sheep and could settle the most bug-eyed scaredy sheep that had been molested by the previous dog. He taught me to *handle* because it was my handling and force of will that got us around trial courses. The best compliment I ever got from a judge was after a run in which things fell apart for a while through no real fault of my dog (different dog). We got it back together. I don't remember if we placed that day (this was in a eastern pro-novice class I think). As I came off the field, the judge said to me that he was very impressed with my calm quiet handling of the situation. That's what I learned from that first dog who needed to be coaxed (calm and quiet was the only way to work him), and it has served me well at home and at trials ever since.
Do you like a dog who gets the job done, no matter the sheep, but it’s a big job to get that dog listening?
There are times, especially at home (say, loading a trailer) or when setting sheep for a trial (for the latter mainly when moving the whole flock up into the pens, etc., where they don't want to go) that I really want the dog to get the job done. That doesn't mean, however, that he's allowed dirty grips, hanging on, etc., but I will pretty much just give a "Get 'em up!" command and let him figure out how to make that happen. When I do that, though, I recognize that some yeehaw! type behavior (not tail-up-in-the-air silly stuff, but rather rougher work than what I might accept under normal circumstances) might ensue. I still don't want to fight the dog to get it to listen. I think it's entirely possible for a dog to get the job done and still listen. The work just may not be as pretty.
Do you want it all?
Of course. But there are things I'll compromise on; that is, there are some things I definitely want more than others.
Can you have it all? Since I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know, what do you want? What do you like?
I don't think you can have it all. There is no perfect dog. That's what I meant about compromise. If the dog has most of what I want, then I'll work with or around the parts I don't like. To me the most important qualities are a natural and thinking dog who wants to do the right thing and is willing to partner. I like a speedy dog, but one of my best work and trial dogs was not particularly fast. I want a dog with confidence, but also self restraint. A dog that will protect itself (and me) when needed, but can also finesse difficult stock without resorting to teeth as the only tool in the toolbox. For example, the same dog should be willing to take the ram head on if he's being an ass, but should show restraint around a ewe with a newborn lamb, even if the ewe is also being something of an ass, and of course it should be even more careful with little lambs. A dog that can respond appropriately most of the time to all the different situations it might encounter on the farm or at a trial is probably about as close to perfect as you're going to get.