A Useful Dog


A dog is ready for a sheepdog trial when it has as many years as legs, so the old shepherds say. They also say it takes ten years to make a sheepdog handler. Alas, I am not precocious. I've been trialing 11 years, the lifetime of Pip, my first good dog, and today, when I walk onto the trial field with my bitch Gael, canny spectators will grab their chance to visit the hamburger stand or line up for the PortaPotti. The entry fee for the Science Diet Blue Ridge Open Sheep Dog Trial is $60, and I won't see that money again. In previous years, with scores in the fifties and sixties out of 100, I've been lucky to get out of the basement; once I tied for dead last.

The British livestock men who designed the sheepdog trial, 120 years ago, weren't seeking friendly, pretty, aristocratic, or even competitive dogs. They needed dogs that would make it possible for a man on foot to handle a thousand sheep on mountainous, unfenced ground, dogs that could extract amorous rams from amongst willing ewes, drive the sheep to fresh pasture, fetch them into the farmstead, pen them for shearing, and catch and hold an agonized ewe having lambing difficulties. They needed dogs that could work on their own, take whistled instructions from over a mile away, and travel a hundred miles a day in the foulest weather without complaint. That's what trials are for: to choose the sires and dams of the next generation of sheepdogs. They are an exact model of the dogs' daily work, made more difficult.

Trials are rarely canceled because of bad weather. I've run in ice storms and 100 degree heat. One year at the Oatlands trial outside Leesburg, Virginia, lightning lit up a tree at the end of the course just as Candace Terry was bringing her dog Tip across to the crossdrive gate. The dog lifted straight into the air, six feet, maybe. "Tip," Candace said, not shouted, and Tip eyed her, took hold of himself, and--pad, pad, pad--was back on his sheep as sheets of rain sluiced across the field.

The shepherd cannot always choose his work. He needs a useful dog.

I'm drinking coffee in Amanda Milliken's motor home on the second morning of the two-day Blue Ridge Open trial held outside White Post, Virginia. It's mid-May, the light is clear, dogwood is blooming. Faint whistles drift from the bowl-shaped trial field, where another dog is making its try. Amanda's dog Hazel is a black-and-white smooth-coated Border collie. She is rather musical and will sing along with "Oklahoma!" but her favorite tune is k.d. lang's song about the old coyote, especially the chorus, where she gets to howl.

"That's enough, Hazel," Amanda says, and the dog abandons her musicale. Border collies rarely bark, and though there are more than a hundred dogs on these trial grounds--in crates and trailers, tied under campers and motor homes--the place is quiet. Barking dogs are useless; they make sheep nervous. Fawning or fighting dogs are no better. From where I sit, I can see a dozen dogs, just come off the field or waiting their turn. None is on a leash.

"When do you run?" Amanda asks.

"One, 1:30," I say. I pull a face, then get up and stretch. "Thanks for the coffee."

The Blue Ridge Open is the first event in the Virginia Triple Crown, the most important trial series on the East Coast. The trial is what it says: open. Any dog, any age, any ownership, registered or unregistered, no papers required.

I don't suppose half the trialists are farmers or ranchers. Nathan Mooney's a machinist, Jim Lacy's a locksmith, Candace Terry works for a vet, and Sandy Dempewolf does something with satellite ground control. At two years old, Stu Ligon's Chip is the youngest dog running, Bill Berhow's Jen is ten. The top three dogs from last year's national finals--Tommy Wilson's Roy, Berhow's Jen, and Hubert Bailey's Rex--will compete against Gene Sheninger's four-year-old Meg, from Boonton, New Jersey, who is running her very first open trial.

When handlers aren't on the trial course, they're watching the other dogs. They set lawn chairs under awnings and critique each run. Sometimes the spectators know the dogs better than they know the handlers. "That Pennsylvania fella with the June dog," they say, or "the woman with the dog out of Roy Johnson's Rosco. That woman. Curly-headed."

You cannot buy a Border collie puppy at the Blue Ridge Open; it's in the rules. Border collies are animal athletes--powerful, brainy workaholics--and most pet owners have no use for one. After a few months of euphoria ("I've never seen a pup learn so fast"), disillusionment sets in and the dog goes to the pound. Having a well-bred full-grown Border collie as a pet is like keeping Michael Milken in your basement: "I'm going out to the store, Mikey. While I'm gone, please don't do anything."

Whoever wins today's trial will take home $800. Most of the 62 competitors won't win gas money. Lyle Boyer trials for the sheer complexity of it: "There's you, the dog, the sheep, the course, the weather, the time of day . . . it's so hard to control all the variables to lay down a good run."

"In Yorkshire, we call it dogitis," says the English trial judge, Allan Heaton. "It's said to be incurable."

On our sheep farm in western Virginia, the dogs are irreplaceable. Before I bought Pip, when we wanted to call in our ewes we went out with a grain bucket and implored them; the sheep came if they happened to feel that way. Pip changed the way we farmed. Instead of hauling feed and water to the stock, we brought the stock to the feed. When the sheep got loose onto the state road, it wasn't a desperate emergency, merely an annoyance.

Driven by complex instincts and skills, indifferent to most of the things I'd thought a dog wanted, Pip was more dog than I'd reckoned on. He was hardheaded, confident, and--uncommon for a Border collie--had a sense of humor. The lessons he taught me weren't lessons I wanted to learn. I'd hoped to discover that I was perceptive, ingenious, and quick-thinking. I learned instead that there is only one narrow, difficult way to do a job properly, and an infinite number of possible mistakes.

The evening before I took Pip to the vet for his final visit, he was hurting too badly to lie down. I had him out for a short walk, and he spotted ewes in a lot where they shouldn't have been. Moving awkwardly, unable to crouch, Pip put things right.

We work four dogs on the farm today, but only Gael and perhaps her son Harry are good enough to trial. I spent two months in Scotland searching for Gael and paid L1,100 ($1,700) for her. She's worth more than that now.

A six-year-old, 30-pound smooth-coat tricolor with prick ears, Gael is flirty, foxy, and hates to work in mud where she'll get her white paws dirty. But she'll stay with me through ice, rain, even mud, no matter how bitter or how late--unless I raise my voice to her. Then that's the end of it. Ladies, she believes, do not endure rough language. Once, a few years ago, I completely lost it with Gael; I lifted my hand to smack her, and she said, "Oh, dear." I stuck my crude paw back in my pocket, where it belonged.

"You canna abuse them. You canna," the shepherd who sold me Gael had said. "They will never forget it was you that abused them."

Gael enjoys the trials, though they do worry her. She likes motels, doesn't care for strangers fondling her (motel lobbies are hotbeds of dog fondlers), loathes elevators, air conditioners, and airplanes.

Although two-year-old Harry is not entered at the Blue Ridge, I've brought him along to accustom him to strange places, strange dogs, and hundreds of cars. Harry's OK as a farm dog but nowhere near ready to trial. He thought the trial's high point was last night, after the last dog had run and the handlers turned out all their dogs to scumber and play. Harry had never seen so many dogs at once, racing over the grassy landscape. Given his druthers, he would be a social butterfly. Harry hopes to get through life on charm.

Border collies move sheep by moral authority: They glower at the sheep and the sheep drift away. Sheep are brilliant at predator calculus--those that aren't don't live to breed. Standing at the top of the trial course, the sheep evaluate the dog as it runs toward them: "Is it a sane dog? Responsible? Skilled? Can we beat it?" If you sent your family mutt raving out there, the sheep would blow full tilt through the nearest fence and keep running for miles. Sheep are not helpless.

Sheep trust Gael (that's good), but they lack respect for her (that's bad). With flighty sheep, Gael's got an advantage; with stubborn sheep, she's more hesitant. She moves them, but too slowly, and we run out of time.

The sheep for this trial are Barbados black bellies, which look more like goats than sheep--brown and black, high-headed hairy things. Common in the Caribbean, Barbs are parasite- and heat-tolerant and will endure more dogging than conventional sheep before they tire. Each sheep that comes onto the course today will have run twice yesterday, but since they're randomly sorted, no group is a stable flock. You may draw a ewe and three lambs, or four lambs, or two ewes and two lambs like I did yesterday (with the ewes quarreling over who was the leader). On the crossdrive, one of my ewes kept butting the other--wham, wham--and Gael became slightly desperate. She looked across the field at me. "Boss, what do I do with these looney-tunes?" I whistled her on, but we didn't get them into the pen. We got 64 points, another mediocre run.

The trials work like this. When you walk onto the course, you and your dog have nine minutes and 100 points. Sitting in the horse trailer behind you, the judge subtracts points for every error. He can only subtract; he cannot add. Four sheep are put out on the top end of the course, 325 yards away. With a word, a whisper or a prayer, you send your dog. The outrun to the sheep is instinctual; any Border collie should be able to do it unaided, so each command you give means points off. The dog should make a wide swing behind the sheep, and approach them without alarming them. The moment the two species make contact is the lift. The dog says, "Look at me. Do exactly as I say and nothing awful will happen to you." If the sheep believe him, they will drift toward the handler. The dog then fetches the sheep straight to the handler, steers them around the handler, and drives them 125 yards through a pair of freestanding gates. Then across the field, perhaps 200 yards, through a crossdrive gate, and directly to the pen. For the first time you can leave the post without disqualification. At the six-by-nine-foot box pen you pick up the six-foot rope attached to the gate. Handler and dog then convince the sheep--against their better judgment--to walk into the pen. You cannot release the rope until the sheep are inside. After closing the gate, you turn the sheep out again and hurry into a ring outlined in sawdust for the shed, where the dog splits two sheep from their mates and marches them away.

Each task must be executed elegantly and quietly. At the shed, for example, the judge will deduct one point each time a sheep steps out of the ring, four points for every failed attempt to split the sheep, three points for each missed opportunity. And, of course, the clock is ticking away.

If you retire, that's zero. If your dog chases the sheep off course or freaks out, zero. If your dog bites a sheep, zero. Although no two groups of sheep behave the same and sheep run better or worse during the course of a day, the judge will take none of this into account. A shepherd cannot always choose his work.

The dog's commands are "away to me" (go around to the right), "come by" (around to the left), "this one" (shed this sheep), "stand," "lie down," "walk up" (toward your sheep), and "look back" (you've missed some sheep, leave the ones you have and go back out for the rest). Handlers can command by voice or whistle, but Gael prefers the whistle. Whistles are more precise than voices, and subtler at great distances. At half a mile, a shout is a shout.

The dogs' lives are too short. Bill Berhow's Nick was the 1991 Purina Herding Dog of the Year and was entered here, but on the way Nick got sick and Bill dropped him at the vet school. "Anything it takes," Bill said, "whatever it costs." Ralph Pulfer's Dan and Bruce Fogt's grand old bitch Hope died last year. My Pip died November 22. He always loved this trial. He'd climb into the front seat and whine and wag his tail as soon as we turned into these trial grounds.

On the course right now, Tommy Wilson's Ben has one sheep that won't go into the pen. Last year, on the David Letterman show, Tommy and his dogs marched sheep through the lobby of New York's Rockefeller Center into a waiting Checker cab. That was a snap compared to this: The ewe walks into the pen, but before her pals can follow, she panics, wheels, and bolts back out. The dog pushes, pushes, and the ewe goes in and zap, she pivots and leaps, and Tommy tries to catch her in the air but misses. The judge calls, "Time," and Tommy makes a rifle of his shepherd's crook and aims it at the victorious ewe, and everyone laughs.

The announcer says, "Jim Chandler, Meridian, Mississippi, at the post. George Conboy on deck. Donald McCaig in the hole." I am sick to my stomach. Why do I do this thing that makes me feel so bad?

At the car I say, "Not you, Harry, not this time," and I walk with Gael to the woven-wire fence that encloses the course so she can see the sheep. She sees them, you bet. Trembles ripple from snout to tail. I walk her away so she can relieve herself if she wishes--which she doesn't. Gael never eats a bite in the morning of a trial, and neither do I. Food would be a lump in my stomach.

I walk onto the course into a new world. It is hushed; I can't hear the crowd or the announcer, I can't hear cars leaving or arriving. It's like one of those small rooms in a funeral chapel--the same pressure in my ears.

I'm breathing fast and shallow, fearful that (a) Gael will come up short on her outrun (minus two) and I'll whistle her on (two more), or that (b) she'll lose confidence at the lift and the sheep won't move off for her (minus three to five), or that (c) they'll come so slowly we won't be able to get them through the drive (minus 50), or that (d) we won't finish the pen (minus 20) or the shed (minus ten).

Gael is at my side, cocked, all aquiver. Her eyes say, "Trust me."

I swallow. "Come by," I say.

Gael shoots off, somewhat tight, and the slope of the course draws her to the right. I put my whistle to my mouth but at the last minute she remembers where the sheep are and throws herself to the left and vanishes over the lip of the hill. I count one, two, and she's visible again along the ridgeline--Is she slowing? Will she stop?--but no, she is behind her sheep, and my first whistle command is "walk up." The sheep come off softly on line for the gates but a bit heavy to the left, so I whistle Gael around to that side to keep them coming straight. It's a little like billiards, except the balls are alive.

I've drawn four yearling ewes; none wants to be leader. They're tiptoeing toward me and the spectators behind me. "Walk up, Gael," I whistle. Walk up, walk up--WILL YOU WALK UP!

When the sheep come around me and put the crowd behind them, they are delirious with relief, and they fly away like bats, veering left, so I hurry Gael around to straighten them. Everything's happening lickety-split. "Away, Gael," I whistle. She whips right and turns them straight through the drive gates. "Awaay-to-meeee." She goes out wide to keep control, and then I'm whistling, "Walk up, walk up," and she's pushing them along the crossdrive.

As the sheep clamber up the slope toward the crossdrive gates, I have an out-of-body experience. I am not me, not the sheep, not the dog; I am the moving pressure-point, hundreds of yards out on that slope, exactly where Gael will need to be to get the sheep through those gates. "Gael!" I say, and she hooks right to stop an escape attempt by one of the ewes. They're through the gate now, and she's on their heels like a sneak thief; she whips behind them, and they turn nicely toward the pen.

Once I grab the gate rope I'm stuck, but the sheep don't know that. Penning sheep is a problem in the geometry of power. The sheep are more afraid of the pen than of me or Gael alone, but together we can pen them. The lead ewe swivels her head frantically, high-headed, on her toes, looking to bolt, and I give her all the room she needs to do what I want. The sheep are bunched at the pen gate, the rear sheep pressing the front ones and the lead sheep eyeing my rope, wondering, Can I jump that? I flick the rope so it's an ugly, snaky, sheep-hostile thing, and the ewe gives up and leads her three buddies into the pen. That quick I bang the gate shut.

When I open the gate, the sheep take off down the hill, and I jog ino the shedding ring, leaving Gael to catch the sheep. I have no idea how much time we have left--not much--but I take a moment to settle the sheep, since terrified sheep bunch up and you can't shed them. I want the four sheep lined up nose to tail so I can step between the two couples and call Gael through. In the tiny space I've made Gael will pivot and take two away. The damn sheep keep swirling, won't line up, and I see my chance but they break three/one instead of two/two, so I retreat and ask Gael to regroup them. She lines them up; again they break three/one. When I step back, they split two/two of their own accord, but I'm too slow to take advantage, and the judge calls, "Time."

We're done. My ears are ringing, and my legs are wobbly. Gael hops into the cool-off tub at the edge of the course and laps at the murky water.

Roy Johnson comes over, grinning. "Congratulations, partner. How do you feel?"

I say, "She's a pretty thing, isn't she?" I don't say I'm sick to my stomach and afraid I'll cry.

Barbara Ligon comes over and says how nice the run was. "Do you know what you got without the shed? Eighty-four points--without the shed!"

A friend from Arlington shakes his head. "Too bad about that shed."

I agree, yes, yes, my best run ever, it is too bad.

Later, on the very last run of the day, Lyle Boyer and Jock earn a blazing 97 points to win the trial. If Gael and I had got our shed, we'd have come third. As it is, we finish 20th.

Back at the car, I let Harry out and take him and Gael into the pasture, away from everybody. Harry has a grand romp; Gael is content to stay at my heels.

It's nearly three hours from the trial grounds to my farm, most of it by interstate. Harry rides in back, Gael on the passenger floorboard nestled against the transmission hump. I haven't eaten anything all day, but I'm not particularly hungry. I'm not thinking, but I'm not not thinking, either.

Like most people, I am generally distracted, baffled by life. Most of the time, a microphone placed in my head would record: Does she love me? Where's the money coming from? I miss you, Pip. Call 800-966-4637 if this driver is operating in an unsafe manner. . . .

But not today. Thank you, Gael. For nine minutes, out on that trial field, you made me whole.
Donald McCaig, Outside Magazine, May 1993

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