What’s She Thinking?

Regular readers of our blog were treated a few weeks back to the story of Fly, a seven-year-old sheepdog “owned” by Donald McCaig. McCaig, the author A Useful Dog and the soon-to-be-released Mrs. and Mrs. Dog: Our Trials, Travels, Adventures, and Epiphanies, continues the story of Fly in this new piece.

Noticing many sheepdog handlers wear shooting glasses to eliminate glare, a novice asked top handler Scott Glenn, what color glasses she should order. “Rose-colored,” Scott deadpanned.

I ask a lot of my dogs: I want an intimate working partnership. I want them to handle any breed of sheep on any terrain in blowing snow, scorching heat, or moonless night. I want them to be politely indifferent to other dogs and mannerly in airports, office buildings, packed elevators, other people’s homes, and public places. I can only ask this much if I can see my dogs; if I’ve put those rose-colored glasses aside. Seeing them is easier said than done.

I was making progress with Fly. She was getting around the trial course and she was more mannerly (not a high bar: she’d been a biting, hysterical, gyp who didn’t know where she lived or where she belonged, clinging desperately to a mistaken image of who she just might be). If she’d gone to a pet home she would have been put down.

Welshman Aled Owens won the World Trial I describe in Mr & Mrs Dog, and he would teach a sheepdog clinic in sunny Georgia. T’weren’t sunny. After hypothermia twice at dog trials, you’d think I’d have learned: PACK FOR THE WORST. It rained cold rain.

Aled trained in a 20-acre field. Novice dogs dragged parachute cord so they could be caught, but he and their handlers did lot of running until each young dog settled. At my age, I admire those who can run. At all.

At my turn, I told Aled, “She’s a seven-year-old open-trial dog who has soured. She’s come partway back but isn’t there yet. Tell me what you see.” At seven years old, trained sheepdogs are well settled into their method and by eight, you won’t be able to change it much. But Fly had had a method at one time. She’d won difficult trials. So I wasn’t so much teaching something new as I was summoning up and rephrasing old skills in a new context.

In our first month Fly wouldn’t work at all. When she started, tentatively, I sent her after the ewes every morning, wherever they were on 160 rumpled acres. No commands. I let Fly figure it out. Her pleasure in the work reawakened, I started adding commands. For nearly a year she’d take commands at home but when they came hot and heavy at a trial, she’d quit. She couldn’t take the pressure. Fly’s theory: I’ve done everything I can and it hasn’t been enough so why break my heart trying?

I had to build her up to take more pressure, while reducing pressure where practicable. Last fall, at the Virginia trials, I’d leave home in the morning, drive 3 hours, run Fly and drive three hours home so she’d be back in her own bed every night—just so that trialing would seem more like “doing a little farm work”. At trials, I gave as few commands as possible—if she was wildly off line for a panel, I didn’t use the deluge of hard commands she needed to hit it. If she was ready to quit, I retired while she was still trying. I set up panels at home and insisted she make them. If she quit at 200 yards, we tried again at 100. Six days a week.

I took her out into the big world of people, dogs, airports, unfamiliar scents, sights and sounds. I trusted her a little more
than I was comfortable with and she’s repaying me. The issue isn’t “can I control her?” but “Must I watch her every moment?”

When we returned to the farm after a week in Seattle, Fly jumped out of the car. I swear I could see her realization: “Oh, so this is my HOME! I will always come back HERE.” Can’t blame her for being slow to figure that out. This home is her sixth.

So I work her. Aled watches. “Do you see how she’s makes that little move, after she’s downed, to hold the pressure?” The sheep are heavy to the exhaust and Fly doesn’t want to go off balance (holding them to me). She trusts HER more than she trusts US. Aled says I’m putting too much energy in my DOWN, that I need to make it more neutral. That one’ll go in the brainbox for later consideration. Lifetime habit, different use of the down. But Aled Owens did win that World Trial and I sure as hell didn’t.

Getting the best out of what the sheepdog coach has to offer is hard because I (and perhaps you) ask our question with an answer already in mind.

I had expected magical advice about de-souring. “Hmmm, better train this gyp in the last quarter of the new moon”.

What I got was useful practical how-to’s. “Flank her around you, turning so you face her. . . . She’s reluctant to be pulled off balance on her comebye side. . . . She needs a better ‘down’. . . . She doesn’t like downing on the drive.” Practical observations from a Master. “Pick up the jacket. Drop the Jacket. Pick up the jacket…”

Advanced sheepdog clinics and dog trials are dog safe: the dogs are mannerly, handlers are dog-savvy. In thirty years I’ve never seen a dogfight at a sheepdog trial. When Fly came to me, she bit people, and if she was loose she’d flee back to the house or the familiar car. Today while I watched other instructions, Fly wandered around exploring until she got bored and came back to sit beside me.

Just like all the other ordinary sheepdogs. When we think about our dogs we picture their quirks, their endearing traits, and their exceptionalisms, both good and bad. No sheepdog can ever replace another; each is unique and uniquely beloved.

But in another sense, all good sheepdogs are the same. They get the work done. While not working, they are mannerly. Fly is becoming ordinary.

Mrs. and Mrs. Dog: Our Trials, Travels, Adventures, and Epiphanies will be published in late March and is available now for pre-order.