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Monday, January 26, 2009

The Herding Test that wasn't

A little over two months ago, I had seen a post on one of the sheltie message boards I belong to about a "Canine Fun Day" up at AMK9C in Amherst. They were going to be offering quite a bit of services including TDI testing, microchipping and tattooing, and lots of activities as well. I was planning on going anyways, just because it looked to be a good time, but then I saw something that REALLY caught my attention. HERDING INSTINCT TESTING!! I've been wanting to have my girls tested on sheep for a long time, but was hard pressed to find it offered anywhere in the area. (The closest place was about a two hour drive to Maine). I IMMEDIATELY made a copy of the post and sent it to my friends, all with herding dogs, all who I knew would probably want to try it. Predictably, they all responded with HELL YES answers!
So we sent in our applications and checks and waited for the word on whether or not we got in. It took a little time, and one of my friends was originally wait listed, but by the time the date came around, we were all good to go!
I'm one of those people who likes to make lists and be really prepared for doing my doggy activities, like going to shows or going camping. I will usually start planning about when I'm going to have the girls groomed (i.e. when I'm taking about 4 hours out of my day to make the drive and groom them MY SELF), when I'm going to clean out and re-pack my car with all of our doggy essentials (which, depending on what were doing can go really quickly in the event of a one day trial, or take much longer if we're going camping for a week!). So as my plans worked into my schedule, I would be grooming the girls and then cleaning/packing the car on the day before the test, which was a Friday. I took the girls up to be groomed (which actually happened to be at AMK9C), spent a few hours there getting the girls all brushed out, bathed, and fluffed back up, then came home to empty my car of the various things I'd been collecting on my trips to and from walks and work. I made sure we had all of our important dog necessities were re-packed (leashes, water, bowls, blankets, treats, clickers etc.) and then went inside. I rechecked my confirmation email and made sure to set my alarm to give me enough time to get up, get ready and have the girls fed and ready to go. I planned on leaving about 8:00. I was really excited at the aspect of my girls blowing the judge away with their amazing herding instinct and style, and then being able to say that they were completely green. I went to sleep with dreams of sheep herding grandeur in my mind...
The next morning started smoothly enough. I got up on time, got ready and had the girls all set to go. Then, I realized, I had forgotten something. I had wanted to bring my video camera with DVD's for each dog so that my friends and I could all have our dogs first time on sheep on video so that we could enjoy it for years to come. Also, so that we could send it to our dogs breeders and show how amazing our little fur children were. BUT I had forgotten to get the DVD pack at the store the day before. No problem, I thought. Id just make a quick detour to Wal-Mart, run in and out to pick them up, and then just jump on the highway. But I went to leave, and I could not find my keys. I looked EVERYWHERE in the house, and was making myself progressively more late. All of a sudden, a shadow of a thought crept into my mind. I immediately did a face palm. I had been listening to my car stereo the day before while I had been cleaning/packing it. I bet the keys were still in the ignition! The good news was I found my keys. They very BAD news was, my battery was dead. I had left my radio on all night, and it killed my car. I had to call my mom at work and ask her to come home to give me a jump. The good thing was that she works not far from where we live, and was on her way out anyway. But again, now I was even later. And I still had to go to Wal-Mart.
When my mom came home, and we jumped my car, I realized I was going to be even later because I did not have enough gas to get to Amherst! So I FINALLY left, went to Wal-Mart, went to the gas station and THEN got on the road. My friends were calling me wondering where the hell I was, because for something that I was this excited about, it was definitely not like me not to be early. I told them frantically I was on my way and to please let the people in charge of checking in HIT teams that I was still coming!
We finally got there and met up with my friends. I left the girls in the car, and went to find out where the test was actually being done. That's when I ran into out next little problem. The field that was holding the Jumpers class of agility at one end, and the sheep pen at the other was a HUGE pit of mud. Literally. The whole field was somewhere between a mucky pond and a sticky mud mess. Well, there goes the three hours of grooming I did yesterday! I wasn't that upset, as I thought it would be totally worth sacrificing their good looks for seeing them move the sheep around the pen like they had been doing it every day for their entire lives. I watched some of the other dogs run (there were a variety of breeds including more shelties, BC's, a few aussies, 2 samoyeds, a belgian and of course my friends rottie.) I watched and videoed my friends dogs run, and then got the call that it would be my turn after lunch. I anxiously went to get my girls and get them ready for their big debut.
We sopped through the mucky mud and made our way to the sheep pen. Heidi was up first. I knew that the judge was wonderful as I had seen her skill with some of the other dogs. She asked me a few questions about Heidi (her age, experience, her temperament etc) and then we were at the gate to the pen. I took off her regular leash, and attached the long line. There were about 6-8 sheep in the pen, and I swear I could hear them whisper to each other "we're going to eat this little fluffy dog for lunch". Heidi started moving around the pen (she was definitely more interested in the stuff on the ground than she was in the sheep!) but eventually noticed the wooly white beings sharing the small space with her. She ended up being more curious than anything, and barked at them a few times, but...didn't really show any hard instinct. She had a good time, and was covered in mud, and I was proud of her for trying. She seemed a little sore from being stuck in the mud up to her elbows, and I think the constant sticking and suction from the mud aggravated her shoulder. So, I retired her for the day, and then got Shelby.
Shelby, I thought, was very promising. She has always been the much more athletic and showed more of a herding play style. She can run extremely fast, turn all four feet on a dime to change direction completely and loved to chase other dogs doing the zoomies at the park. The starting routine was the same. The instructor asked me a few questions, I took off her lead, and put on the long line. I got her into the pen and was extremely....disappointed!
Not disappointed in my girl, of course, as she didn't do anything wrong, but just disappointed that this girl that I had touted as my BC' in sheltie clothes was not only not herding the sheep, but was deliberately ignoring and avoiding them! I could hear her little voice saying "don't look at the sheep, those are leave-its! Don't look at the sheep, those are leave-its!" Shelby was just too well trained, as the instructor put it.
As we left the pen, she thought that both girls should try sheep again, as some dogs (especially who have a strong obedience background) take a few times out to really tell if there is any instinct or not. I thanked her again for her time and the amazing opportunity for my girls to try doing what they were bred to do. We left with a lot to think about, a lot to be grateful for, and a lot to clean!
I think most true dog people who own purebreds are attracted to their breed not only in the obvious ways that that certain breed fits into their daily lives, or touches their soul with their attitude and temperaments, but also for a love of their history. History has always been my favorite subject in school, and it has made a huge impact on how I view the amazing breed that I have chosen to share my life with. I think it is fascinating that everything that my girls do on a daily basis is because of what they were BRED to do centuries ago. They are so vocal, and bark so often because as an all purpose farm and herding dog they needed to bark to keep birds of prey away from lambs, and to let the crofters know of intruders, and to move the flock. They leave their little furry tumbleweeds all over my house because they needed that thick, double coat to protect them from the very harsh weather of the remote Shetland Islands. And they are so biddable, intelligent, and sensitive because they needed to be that all purpose, multi tasking farm dog. To do whatever the crofter needed. To herd. To keep vermin and predators away. To move and gather the flock. To be a companion when your closest neighbor might be miles, or an island away.
Although I joke that my girls have no instinct, and that they flunked their test, I of course know that it is a lot to ask of my girls to be everything all the time. Sure, it may be part of their breed that they can do it all, but just like with anything else, time and practice make perfect.

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