Wednesday, September 26, 2012
"Come bye" is part of the shepherd's vocabulary. It tells the dog to run around behind the sheep in the clockwise direction. "Away to me" is for the counterclockwise direction. The vocabulary is brief and concise. "Walk up", "take time", and the absolutely essential "lie down". "That will do" tells the dog to turn away from the sheep. These commands are translated into whistles, a unique whistle for each one. They are non-negotiable. Armed with this shared vocabulary, handler and dog should be able to move a flock of sheep safely and efficiently across a pasture, through gates, around obstacles and into a pen. A successful handler trusts her dog to use initiative when circumstances warrant. I am in Klamath Falls, OR at the United States Border Collie Handlers' Association National Sheepdog Finals. 150 of the best dogs and handlers are here. I am one of the many volunteers who make this trial possible. Each of these dogs has a heart of gold. It is hot. The field is dusty. The sheep have their own view of the best path to take. Sometimes the handler and dog achieve a perfect balance between pressure and release for the sheep, and things go smoothly. Sometimes not. Before the course is complete, the dog has run close to two miles, stopped hard, changed direction, walked cautiously forward and waited as the sheep developed the trust necessary to proceed. The handler has whistled, called, anticipated, and waited as the sheep developed the trust necessary to proceed. Those who score well know that success lasts only until the next time-up presents new sheep and new challenges. Those who don't score so well know there will be another chance with new sheep and new challenges. Many of those watching hope to walk out onto the field at a future National Finals. I am one of those whose life has been changed by these dogs, and who shares that hope.