Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whidbey Island Classic

We arrived at the trial on Sunday and watched some of the open runs, and then retired to the nearby South Whidbey Island State Park to camp. We set up the tent in the late afternoon, and then went for a short walk to see a 500-year old cedar tree. Afterwards I did a little botanizing before returning to the campsite, where we built a fire and relaxed around the campfire a bit.

A couple of hours later, I took Rodeo for a walk around the campground and immediately noticed a problem. He was stumbling over his back legs, staggering a bit almost like he was drunk. It looked bad, like he was half paralyzed. He would take a few steps and then stumble or skip over his left hind leg. He hadn’t been done any strenuous exercise, so there was no possibility of heat stroke.

A quick examination of his left hind foot revealed no stones or wounds that might cause him discomfort. I thought for sure we’d have to cancel our competition the next day and take him straight to the vet. I walked him back to the campsite and he gradually improved, though his gait was still off.

I mentioned it to Ivy and she said, ‘maybe his foot fell asleep.’ I decided to risk a ticket for having him off-leash in the campground, just so I could get a better view of his gait, and sure enough it had returned normal. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that his behavior was exactly what you’d expect if his leg had fallen asleep. He’s been fine since. Whew!

With all of the health problems that he has had, I’m sort of conditioned to expect the worst every time something doesn’t seem right with him. I’m glad it turned out to be nothing.

The next morning we woke up at 5:45 am and broke camp. Happily a nearby espresso stand was open, so I could get a hot Americano to go with the cinnamon raisin bagels we had packed. It was particularly welcome because it was a chilly morning with an intermittent, light drizzle. We arrived a few minutes before the handler’s meeting, which started at 7 am.

Sue MacDonald, who organized the trial, called on the handlers to follow her onto the field. Not knowing any better, I followed her with Rodeo in tow, but when we arrived at the field gate she noticed him and told me he couldn’t go out there since he was competing. So I jogged back to the car and put him in the backseat, then returned for the handler’s meeting. Ivy, who was biding time in the car, later reported that he sulked after that and hardly responded to her at all. That’s quite a switch because normally he loves being in the car above just about anything else. Did he think he was being punished? Hard to say.

There was some confusion about the run order in novice, so it was eventually abandoned and the handlers just lined up in whatever order we chose. We were about the middle of the pack. When I walked up to the judges’ truck to give our names, Fiona McMillan, the judge from Scotland, told me that they were out of sheep and I would have to wait for a few minutes.

We walked back and spoke with Julie Carter, a pro-novice handler who was there with her student France, and Julie gave me a few pointers on the pen, suggesting that I lay him down on the opposite side of the sheep from where I would stand at the pen gate, allowing us to cover both sides of them.

A fellow student of Brian’s, Jennie McInnis, volunteered to videotape my run. She stood near Julie and wound up capturing some commentary from Julie. Jennie posted the video to youtube. I had to use headphones to hear Julie’s comments.

When we returned and walked to the post, I saw that the setout team was having some trouble getting the sheep settled. I wasn’t surprised, given that it was a new group of sheep. It seemed likely that there might be more trouble than usual. That's the luck of the draw.

I thought the sheep had settled, so I sent Rodeo on a come by, but when he reached about 10 o’clock, I saw the sheep begin to move, so I gave him a lie down and re-direct. I realized later that the sheep had actually moved toward Rodeo, not away, so the problem had to be with the setout crew, not Rodeo’s outrun.

Soon after the redirect, they were going the opposite direction, away from him, and so I gave him another lay down and redirect. I think that the movement away from Rodeo was probably also due to the setout dog, or maybe because they were already unsettled, because Rodeo had faithfully cast out wider on the redirect. In any event, he completed the fetch pretty well, though we missed the fetch gates. We lost 6 points on the outrun, probably for the two redirect commands I had given.

We didn’t have much luck on the pen. The sheep settled pretty well, but they just wouldn’t come close to the pen. If I had Rodeo put much pressure on them, they would turn to the side rather than go to the pen. After some attempts at it, we timed out.

At Tuesday’s lesson (the following day), Brian had some comments about this run. He suggested I should not have laid Rodeo down on the outrun, because if there was a problem with the setout, the judge could not have taken any points off for the outrun no matter what happened, or I’d have gotten a re-run. Good advice, but I was satisfied just to learn that he would take a down command and a redirect during competition. He does it reliably during training, but I wanted to find out if he would do it during competition. After all, my tension level is a lot different and my voice might have been much different, but apparently it was close enough for him. I saw that as a good sign.

With regards to the pen, I was probably not being aggressive enough in covering my side of the sheep. When I was asking Rodeo to push up on them and they were deflecting to one side, it was probably because I wasn’t applying enough pressure to direct them towards the pen opening.

Later in the morning, we ran in the ranch category. I expected that we would retire during the driving portion, because I didn’t think he had a good enough handle on driving yet. We would get some more experience on the outrun and I would get some more experience in competition to learn how to calm my nerves and handle myself, and that would be plenty.

As it turned out, we exceeded my expectations. I sent him on a come by, into the pressure, and Rodeo ran into some trouble when he unexpectedly headed to the exhaust. He hadn’t had any problems during the novice run, but perhaps he had trouble seeing the sheep. A couple of corrections got him going in the right direction and he completed a nice outrun. But the sheep were off line and we missed the fetch panels, in part because he isn’t very strong with flank commands on the fetch. That’s something to work on. Afterwards, Sue MacDonald said it was the best outrun she had seen up to that point, which meant something because we were running number 24.

We lost quite a few points on the fetch. 8 for missing the panel and another 5 besides, but I’m not sure what they were for. Rodeo brought them to the post and I decided to take a shot at driving. I gave him an away command to move him into position to drive them towards the first panel, and then told him to walk up. To my surprise, he walked right into them and started driving them past me. He lost confidence though and slowed. I gave him some encouragement (“hyah! Hyah!”) and he moved more forcefully, but still petered out. The sheep drifted a bit, so I gave him some flanking commands and he took them well, and then we tried the walk up command again. Again he took the command but was hesitant, and the sheep moved a bit and then settled again. This repeated a couple of times, until finally the sheep drifted out past the first drive gates, and I decided to retire.

In retrospect I might have sent him on an away flank and then stopped him and given him a walk up command to attempt a cross drive to the second set of drive panels, but I guess I felt that we’d done enough. I was really pleased that he took the walk up command and never tried to turn it into a fetch. It was clear to me that he understands driving now, and that’s a big step. I think by the time we enter our next trial, we’ll have a chance at completing the ranch course.

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