Monday, August 9, 2010

Island Crossing trial

On Friday, I drove down to Arlington to the farm of Joe and Heather Haynes, who are hosting the Island Crossing trial. I met Joe in passing, and I spoke to a friend of his who told me that Joe went to high school in Bellingham before going off to college and moving to Arlington.

I didn’t enter Rodeo because the trial only had Pro-Novice and Open categories, and while we’re knocking on the door of Pro-Novice, we weren’t there in time to sign up for this one. Instead, we came as spectators.

As usual, Rodeo was engrossed by the proceedings. One bystander said ‘he looks like he’s judging.’

Pro-Novice is an interesting category, and it reflects the unique partnership at the heart of the sport: the handler and the dog. As its name suggests, a Pro Novice team consists of one pro member – that is, a member who has run in the most advanced category of Open – and one ‘novice’ member who hasn’t reached that level of competition.

You might expect that the ‘pro’ is the handler and the dog is the one working its way up the ranks, and in fact that’s often the case. But sometimes the Pro is the dog, often on lend from an experienced handler to a student or an inexperienced friend. Then there are the teams like Rodeo and me, both of us newcomers, but in PN because it’s the next logical step in our progression. The only combination disallowed in PN is a handler and dog that have both competed in Open.

The field was deceptively simple. When I first looked at it, I thought ‘yeah, we could do this.’ But the more I watched the less certain I became. It was basically a square roughly 200 yards to a side. The handler’s post was in one corner of the square, while the sheep were set out in the opposite corner, along one of the square’s diagonals.

The single biggest complicating factor was a long trench that ran along the opposite diagonal, so that the line of sight between the handler and the sheep formed one leg of an ‘x’ drawn through the middle of the field, while the trench formed the other leg.


During the outrun, the dog had to run down into the trench, temporarily losing sight of the sheep before they popped back into view on the other side. This confuses dogs and a lot of them popped out of the trench and stopped to look back at the handler, unsure of what to do next. Most of the time, a redirect command was enough to get them going in the right direction again.

At the post, handlers had a difficult decision choice whether to send the dog to the left (come by) or right (away). On the one hand, it made sense to send the dog to the left, because the sheep were set out from a holding pen on the left. The sheep wanted to go back to the holding pen, and by sending the dog left, it would come between them and the pen, preventing them from moving to the holding pen

But it wasn’t that simple. The field was narrowed somewhat by a horse pen that jutted out from the upper left corner. Dogs sent to the left would have to pass the pen, ignore the horse, and then kick out again to the left, past the holdout pen and around the sheep. That terrain added to the dogs’ confusion.

To the right, the terrain was easier, with no such obstacles, and the dog could complete a nice, wide outrun with no disruptions other than the trench. In the Pro-Novice runs on Friday, many of the handlers chose that direction. After I’d watched several runs, I found myself standing next to Brian and an open handler named Jim Cooper, who expounded on the choice of left vs. right. “It’s suicide,” Jim said of sending the dog to the right. “The pressure is to the left, towards the holding pen.”

I started paying closer attention. The next 3 or 4 handlers sent the dog right, and sure enough the sheep drifted towards the holding pen each time, forcing the dog to go farther and throwing the fetch off line. A couple had to retire because the sheep made it to the holding pen and the dog couldn’t complete the fetch. Over the course of the day, a few handlers had success going to the right, but only if the dog was really wide in its outrun, because as soon as the dog made contact with the sheep, they would drift.

Still, more P-N handlers went right than left, perhaps because they didn’t think their dog could handle the horse pen. On Saturday, when we returned to watch the Open runs, I saw that the majority of handlers sent these more experienced dogs to the left.

The trench provided a further challenge during the cross-drive. After the outrun, the dog brought the sheep to the handler, around the handler’s post, and then to a pair of drive panels halfway down the field. Once through the panels, the sheep were to be turned to the right to begin the cross-drive to the second set of drive panels. The problem was that the course ran along the edge of the trench. The sheep remained on the near side of the trench, and if all went well, the dog could drive them to the second gate panels.

But if the sheep started to drift, as sheep often do, the handler had to flank the dog in order to get them back on line. If the sheep drifted towards the trench, the dog would have to go into the trench to push them back in line. But as soon as the dog entered the trench it could no longer see the sheep, and that made it very hard for them. The handler couldn’t see the dog either, so couldn’t provide any help.

On the other hand, if the sheep drifted towards the handler (and away from the trench), the dog would be called towards the handler to push them back. But if the move wasn’t pulled off with finesse, the sheep would overcompensate and turn too far, winding up in the trench, with the same results as if they had gone that way in the first place.

All in all, it was quite an education. Diane Pagel indicated that Joe and Heather are planning to run a couple of more trials this winter, and I really look forward to coming back and competing in them. 

1 comment:

  1. It was great seeing you this weekend. You are a joy to talk to!!