Dot's Sheep

Sue Ann Bowling. (All rights reserved)

(This is not fiction, but as accurate an account as I can write of Dot's first day performance at the 1995 Aussie Fling in Palmer.)

We walk into the arena, Dot and I. My goal is to complete Dot's Australian Shepherd Club open trial dog title on sheep. Hers is to control sheep. I look toward the gate where five sheep will enter the arena, and catch Dot's movement barely in time to stop her from starting her outrun even before she has a target. She tries twice more before we reach our starting point.

Stock handlers will push the sheep out of the take pen at one end of the arena. From there, Dot must drive them around three corners of the arena clockwise, into a free-standing pen in the center, then out of the pen and back through the gate at the starting end of the arena into the take pen. This last task is trivial. The sheep have been worked by one dog after another all afternoon, and know perfectly well that the end gate is the route to safety from dogs. The problem is keeping them from running back to the gate before they have completed the course. We have ten minutes to do this. A good, smooth run can be completed in three minutes.

I reach the point I want, halfway between the far side of the free-standing pen and the far fence, and wave at the stock handlers. The gate at the end of the area is cracked open, and five sheep are shoved out. Almost before the gate is closed behind them, their heads go down and they begin tearing at the neatly mowed but still lush grass. The judge nods at me.

"Dot, come by," I say, and my little black and white border collie explodes into motion, her body bunching and expanding as she runs in a wide arc to my left, ending up about halfway between the grazing sheep and the far side of the arena. There she stops, crouched low, her eyes locked onto the sheep. Technically, her outrun is short, but she is in a good position to control the stock. The sheep shift a few feet to the right and keep grazing.

Dot and I agree that sheep must be controlled, but we have some philosophical differences on the meaning of control. For me, control means moving the sheep where I want them to go. For Dot, control means not letting the sheep run away.

"Dot," I call, "walk up."

At this point, I am asking Dot to bring the sheep around the corner of the arena to me. Dot does not seriously object to this; she was bred to balance sheep against her handler. She acknowledges that I can occasionally assist her in her life's work of controlling sheep. She walks forward one step, then two. The sheep notice her and step away, never lifting their heads from the grass. Gradually, one or two steps at a time and with a great many "walk up" commands from me, she brings the sheep to the point where I am standing.

I am standing too close to the pen, I realize, and the sheep are trapped between me and the pen instead of moving along the fence. If I give Dot an "away" to push the sheep back to the left, she will have to head the sheep and likely turn them back toward the take pen at the end of the arena - exactly where they want to go. I tell her "Dot, away to me," anyway, because there is nothing else I can do to stop the sheep from circling the free standing pen. She squeezes between sheep and pen, and the sheep break back, their heads lifted briefly from the grass.

"Dot, come by - there!" We have lost about a quarter of the arena length, but Dot has turned the sheep back from their attempted break, and dog and sheep are positioned where I want them - the sheep on the arena fence facing to my right; the dog lying down about ten feet out from the fence, opposite their hips, her eyes boring holes in the sheep. Sheep heads lower, and grazing resumes.

"Dot, walk up." Dot is not so sure about this. She is no longer bringing the sheep to me, but past me and away. "WALK UP." Reluctantly she raises her body an inch or two and creeps forward half a step. The sheep step away, and she flattens herself into the grass. The sheep stop. Their heads have never come up from the grass.

We continue in this fashion to the first obstacle. This is a two-panel gate: a ten-foot long panel extending perpendicularly from the long wall of the arena, about ten feet from the far end, a ten foot gap, then another, free-standing panel in line with the first. The sheep must pass between the two panels and turn right beyond them, moving along the far end wall of the arena. Dot moves the sheep through the gap. On her own, she would probably turn them left, into the blind pocket between the panels. I give her a "come by, there," and she swings to the left of the sheep, driving them behind the free-standing panel. Once again motion ceases, sheep tearing busily at the grass, dog flattened in the grass.

The cross drive, which comes next, is deceptively simple. If Dot stays directly behind the sheep, they will break for the starting gate as soon as they are clear of the panel. If she gets ahead of the shoulder of a sheep, that sheep will probably turn back. I study the positions of dog and sheep. The sheep are on the fence, headed right; Dot is a few feet closer to me, behind the hip of the last sheep. "Dot, walk up."

Dot raises herself an inch and shifts her weight forward. The sheep roll their eyes and keep grazing.

"WALK UP!" This time Dot actually takes a crouching step toward the sheep. The sheep decide the grass looks even better a step down the fence, and Dot flattens herself again.

The judges said this morning that stock should be moved as if they were being driven to market - no running off valuable pounds. I do not think they meant that the stock should be gaining weight during the run, as these sheep certainly are.

Inch by inch, Dot moves the sheep along the fence, responding reluctantly to my commands: "Walk up. Walk up. Move 'em, Dot. Dot, WAKE UP!" If the sheep didn't each have one eye cocked toward the take pen, I would try flanking Dot, moving her back and forth behind the sheep to break her concentration. If I move her behind the sheep with a "come by," though, the sheep will probably break toward the take pen. I try an "away," and Dot moves ahead of the last sheep in line. That sheep promptly tries to break back toward the obstacle we just passed. Dot takes my "come by" promptly, putting the errant sheep back with the others. The sheep lift their heads briefly and go back to grazing.

Gradually the sheep approach the corner and the second obstacle, a single panel in line with the first two, ten feet out from the arena fence on the judge's side. Dot likes corners. They help control sheep even better than straight fences. She pushes the sheep into the corner. The sheep seem to find the grass in the corner particularly delicious. They show no more inclination to duck through the gap between panel and fence, where I want them to go, than Dot does to push them through the gap. Even when she finally moves in until she is almost touching the sheep, they merely bunch more tightly in the corner.

I am not sure how long we have been out here, but it seems far too long. It is time for desperation tactics. "Dot," I call, "that'll do. Come here. Here, Dot."

She looks at me in astonishment, takes a reluctant step toward me, then whirls back to be sure the sheep have not escaped. The sheep have not even noticed she has moved away.

"Dot, here. COME HERE! THAT'LL DO, Dot." Reluctantly, she obeys, turning every second or third step to make sure the sheep are still in the corner. When she is halfway back to me, I down her and tell her "come by."

She explodes away in an arc to the left. As I hoped when I set this up, the sheep are startled into motion by her rapid approach, see the gap between panel and fence and come trotting through it just as the judge calls "Three minutes."

I grab the gate of the free-standing pen and start wrestling it open. "Dot, come by, come by, there." She streaks between the sheep and the fence, peeling the sheep off the fence and across the arena. A little too sharply, though, the sheep are going past the open gate of the pen to the far side of the arena.

In penning, the sheep must be given the idea that there are dogs everywhere except in the pen. I can have Dot widen her come-by and meet the sheep head on on the far side of the pen, and with faster sheep or a slower dog, I would. But these sheep are merely trotting, and they are not particularly frightened of this dog. "Dot," I shout, "away to me."

She runs wide behind the sheep, catching up and swinging in to face them before they get more than a few steps between the pen and the fence. The sheep stop and turn back, lowering their heads to graze - has my luck finally changed? - in front of the open gate to the free-standing pen, perhaps twenty feet away.

"Dot," I say, praying that her movement will not startle the sheep into another attempted escape around the pen, "come by."

Dot approves of penning, which is after all the ultimate in control. She has learned that when I am standing holding a pen gate open, she is supposed to put the sheep into the pen. She arcs around the sheep, going just far enough to block any idea they may have about ducking around the other side of the pen, and flattens herself into the grass. The sheep shift toward the pen gate. Four are grazing within a few feet of the opening; the fifth has ducked back and is on the wrong side of the open gate, but only a foot or two from the end. Dot looks at the stray sheep. The sheep, a little black lamb, looks at the other sheep. It shifts nervously, then ducks around the end of the gate to rejoin the flock.

"Dot, walk up." She obeys, slower than I would like, but I give her credit for knowing how much pressure the sheep can take. Slowly the sheep drift into the pen, the black lamb stopping with his hindquarters still outside. "Walk up." The lamb takes the final step as Dot moves, and I swing the gate closed and hold it for a few seconds, letting the judge see that all five sheep are safely penned.

This is a large pen compared to the eight-foot square pens used in border collie trials. I have seen on earlier runs that a dog outside of the pen cannot always force the sheep back out of the pen, but I try it anyway, swinging the gate open as I give Dot a "come by" to send her to the far side of the pen. The sheep merely shift their grazing to the pen's center. How much time do I have left? I call Dot to me at the open mouth of the pen.

"Dot, away to me." She slips into the pen, going around the sheep to my right, then sees that the leading sheep is about to escape and runs back to block it.

"DOT, AWAY!" Dot has never had to take sheep out of a pen like this before, but she remembers how she brings the ducks out of the night pen. The sheep trot out of the pen, Dot at their heels.

The final seconds are ticking away, and as soon as I am sure the sheep are clear of the pen mouth, I turn and run for the gate in the end of the arena. "Dot," I call back as I run, "balance." This is not a standard command, but Dot knows that it means "keep moving the sheep toward me." Dot is very good at balance with sheep that want to move, so good that I do not even bother to look over my shoulder as I run. The sheep and I arrive at the take pen gate in a dead heat, sheep pressing against the outward-opening gate so hard I cannot pull it open.

"Dot, away." Dot swings a few steps counterclockwise, unhappily, resisting leaving the balance point. "Dot, walk up. Walk up." She moves up slowly, shifting the sheep laterally down the fence past the opening side of the gate. I pull the gate open as soon as the sheep clear it and say, "Dot, come by." The sheep pour into the take pen. There has been no call of "time" from the judge.

When the scores are handed out that evening, Dot has finished her title with a third place on open sheep, and a time of nine minutes and thirteen seconds. Over the next two days, she qualifies twice more on sheep, once with a fourth place and once with a first - the first place in spite of the fact that I gave her a disastrously wrong directional command on that run. She gave me an indignant look, but took the command. She is, say the judges, a nice little bitch, but sticky. I wish I could think of some kind of adhesive remover that would work on Dot's mind.

You are welcome to enjoy this page or link to it, but please do not copy or otherwise distribute it.