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Trial Dog versus Working Ranch Dog


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You are a rancher. One day you go watch a sheepdog trial. You hear a lot of whistling and shouting. You say: "no sir, don't want a 'trial dog'. Need a dog that can work on its own, doesn't need all those commands."

 

What you don't see is that same dog on Monday morning being sent to gather the flock without a word from the handler.

 

Apples and Oranges. Trial work is all about precision and teamwork. That requires a constant stream of instruction and dialog between handler and dog. Sometimes you need the dog to move an inch to hold precisely on the line. The dog has no concern about "line" as it pertains to a trial course. He will bring sheep the most efficient path for him and the sheep, but he'll do as you ask him as best he can.

 

Farm work is all about efficiency and teamwork. Sometimes that requires dog and hander to be doing two different jobs at the same time. Dog gathers sheep. Handler puts out feed. No conversation is required each knows their job. The sheep may not come dead straight but as long as they all get there, no worries.

 

Same dog. Same handler.

 

A great dog will do both superbly. A good dog might do one better than the other but will do either well. Some dogs will get around an easy trial course on easy sheep and even win trials but wilt in real work or big trial courses with tough sheep. Those just aren't great dogs. Others will do farm chores just fine but don't have the precision and concentration needed for trial work. Those aren't great dogs either.

 

It's a false dichotomy that keeps coming up over and over again, but from what I've seen in real life, good dogs can do either job well, average dogs may do one or the other, and biscuit eaters are good for keeping the truck seat warm for you.

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I think this eternal discussion results, in part anyway, from a myth that gets propagated sometimes at dog trials.

 

Announcer: "The trial course is meant to simulate real work... Blah, blah, blah."

 

Most people don't insist on holding on to the the pen gate throughout a "real world" penning situation.

 

Most of the trial rules are not so much meant to simulate real work as to provide a 10-15 minute test which reveals the proficiency of the dog (and handler) to do real work. Tests are rarely "real world". They're tests. Sometimes a test provides a good assessment of this or that skill, sometimes not. But, generally speaking, if there is a handler-dog team who is regularly placing in tough trials, I am pretty confident they can do the "real" work, too. And they will *generally* do it better. It's a generalization, of course. But there it is.

 

charlie

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What I was trying to say was that I guess it depends on the type of terrain and weather you are in?

I'm still not understanding, but I guess it's not important. Work is work, whether it's taking place on the manicured lawns of Balmoral Estate, the rugged borderlands of Scotland, the Australian Outback, or the American West, the English lowlands, or the American south. Location and weather shouldn't make a difference on the actual ability of a dog to work. I suppose number or necessity of commands could vary depending on the rougness of the terrain (i.e., you don't want your dog taking the stock off a cliff or down into a steep canyon), but if you're trying to make some other point, it's sailing right over my head.

 

J.

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I'm still not understanding, but I guess it's not important. Work is work, whether it's taking place on the manicured lawns of Balmoral Estate, the rugged borderlands of Scotland, the Australian Outback, or the American West, the English lowlands, or the American south. Location and weather shouldn't make a difference on the actual ability of a dog to work. I suppose number or necessity of commands could vary depending on the rougness of the terrain (i.e., you don't want your dog taking the stock off a cliff or down into a steep canyon), but if you're trying to make some other point, it's sailing right over my head.

 

J.

 

 

I guess what I am trying to say is that I have never seen a trial in "real Life" surroundings, such as arroyos, ravines, thornhedges and so on that the dog has to navigate the sheep through. Am I wrong in that? I am really trying to understand

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And Charlie makes a good point about trials and what they test. When I loaded the lambs on the trailer to take them to Robin's, I didn't park the trailer in the middle of the field and proceed to treat it like a pen at a trial. I put it on the fenceline so one side was protected from sheep going around and then the dog and I could work the other side to get the sheep loaded. But the fact that my dog(s) can pen sheep in a freestanding pen in the middle of a field means that they were more than well-enough equipped to load sheep on a trailer parked on a fenceline, even when the ramp was one of those open diamond-mesh things that sheep hate to step on.

 

Sometimes I'll shed sheep off in the middle of the field, but I'm just as likely to sort at a gate--whatever makes the most sense for what I'm trying to do at the time. Gate sorting is easier, but there are also times when you need to be able to separate a sheep out in the field. An example: I had gone out to dinner and came home to find that a first-time ewe had lambed twins. An older ewe was trying to steal the lambs. The actual mother was panicking and running around screaming for her lambs. I took my dog out and got her to separate the theiving ewe from the lambs and push her off back toward the flock. I then used her to bring the actual mom along while I carried the lambs. I couldn't have done that at a gate because they were in the middle of the pasture, and moving a mom and newborns is tricky enough with out adding in the chaos and excitement of another ewe trying to steal lambs and the new mom constantly turning back to where she had birthed them trying to find them. The most efficient way to take care of things was to separate the one ewe off and push her away using a dog. It wasn't the exact same shedding/singling situation you'd find at a trial, but the *skills* needed by the dog were the same.

 

Another example I've given before is that I will be taking my sheep to a new pasture, following a path (half a mile, 3/4? not sure) through the woods that comes out into a planted farm field that I will need to skirt (and keep the sheep out of) to get to the pasture gate. In the beginning the dogs will be pushing the sheep along the trail (driving) and keeping them from straying into the woods. A precise line isn't important; they just need to stay on the trail. In the field, the dogs will be working the sides to keep the sheep out of the planted areas. Going home (and later when the sheep know the routine and know where they're headed on the way to the pasture), they may spend a lot of time heading the sheep so they don't leave me in the dust and end up who knows where (coming or going). The dogs will be using skills that are tested in a trial, but certainly not in the exact same way they're tested in a trial. For some of these tasks I may need to do a lot of commanding until the dogs understand the actual job; for others, I can pretty much just let them work.

 

J.

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I guess what I am trying to say is that I have never seen a trial in "real Life" surroundings, such as arroyos, ravines, thornhedges and so on that the dog has to navigate the sheep through. Am I wrong in that? I am really trying to understand

I can't speak for trials out in your area, but I know at least some trials in the east have and do use natural terrain as part of the trial. That may mean bringing sheep over rock walls (the finals in PA). I never went to Ethel Conrad's trial in VA, but I think a portion of the drive involved taking the sheep across (up?) a rock face. Trials in the foothills of VA that I've attended require dogs and sheep to go out of sight into valleys between rolling hills. There was a trial that required dog and sheep to cross the dam to a pond (a dog-leg fetch across the dam to bring the sheep from where they were set). Most farms don't have perfect, flat, manicured fields. Even the flat fields in the eastern part of NC are crossed with drainage ditches--to move sheep across the field, sheep and dog have to cross those multiple ditches, which are often full of water. I've seen trials where sheep needed to be picked up out of the tree line. Plenty of trial hosts will use natural obstacles as part of the trial course. I imagine it's the same in the west.

 

J.

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You are a rancher. One day you go watch a sheepdog trial. You hear a lot of whistling and shouting. You say: "no sir, don't want a 'trial dog'. Need a dog that can work on its own, doesn't need all those commands."

 

What you don't see is that same dog on Monday morning being sent to gather the flock without a word from the handler.

 

Apples and Oranges. Trial work is all about precision and teamwork. That requires a constant stream of instruction and dialog between handler and dog. Sometimes you need the dog to move an inch to hold precisely on the line. The dog has no concern about "line" as it pertains to a trial course. He will bring sheep the most efficient path for him and the sheep, but he'll do as you ask him as best he can.

 

Farm work is all about efficiency and teamwork. Sometimes that requires dog and hander to be doing two different jobs at the same time. Dog gathers sheep. Handler puts out feed. No conversation is required each knows their job. The sheep may not come dead straight but as long as they all get there, no worries.

 

Same dog. Same handler.

 

A great dog will do both superbly. A good dog might do one better than the other but will do either well. Some dogs will get around an easy trial course on easy sheep and even win trials but wilt in real work or big trial courses with tough sheep. Those just aren't great dogs. Others will do farm chores just fine but don't have the precision and concentration needed for trial work. Those aren't great dogs either.

 

It's a false dichotomy that keeps coming up over and over again, but from what I've seen in real life, good dogs can do either job well, average dogs may do one or the other, and biscuit eaters are good for keeping the truck seat warm for you.

 

 

 

Pearse,

 

I hope all reading this thread read your post. I believe you have summed the whole subject up perfectly.

Thank you.

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At Ethel's, one set of "gates" was two rock outcrops and the other wash a rock wall, and the sheep had to be driven up the rock wall (it wasn't, of course, vertical - but it was steep and wasn't anything they would choose to go up on their own).

 

Seclusival sometimes had a dog-leg fetch across the pond dam. The dog had to figure out his/her outrun (usually across the dam) then bring the sheep down to the pond, turn to the handler's right, and then turn left across the dam. An occasional dog, sighting the sheep and not factoring in the dam, might swim across the pond.

 

Edgeworth has a number of natural terraces that suck a dog right in when sent to the right, and the dog who doesn't run out in a wide-casting outrun, winds up missing his sheep and crossing over - and since he's out of sight of the handler once in the dip, it's a blind outrun of sorts. Going the other way, the treeline tends to push a dog into the terraces from that side, although there is a roadway of sorts through the trees.

 

Challenges can be presented by natural features and by lack of natural features, I think. I do think that if you make breeding decisions virtually entirely on success on the trial field, with dogs not really proving themselves capable of dealing with real life challenges - mother and baby pairs, for instance, or working largely without commands on blind gathers - that you could be selecting for dogs that don't have the range of abilities needed for both practical work and the trial field.

 

Great discussion!

 

PS - I do think a lot has to do with the type of trial that dogs are successful at. Some trials are definite challenges and others may be more "handlers' trials", where it's the handling and not necessarily the quality of the dog that makes the difference. Or where the trial is simply not a real test of what the dog is capable of doing. Maybe something for another discussion?

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Well, I am not a trainer. But I use my dogs for practical work for hours every day. As I canniot feed my stock without my dogs.

 

 

 

A few things come to mind while I struggle with trialing and working.

 

 

 

Sorry for these weid gaps?

 

 

Anyway, the trialing helped immensely in learning how to catch undogged sheep for shearing.

 

 

 

It helped me understand pressure better.

 

 

 

At home my dogs work bigger flocks and work a variety of stock and work in close areas. Not all work equally well at any facility. (And I don't mean trial fields. I mean for shearing, rounding up loose stock for other folks and the slaughter unit.)

 

 

Of my dogs I have only one I feel even has a chance at Open. And we are having some problems. Partly because I have very little time to practice with a few sheep or money for lessons.....sigh. And I am new at this. What I Should do is not trial and just take lessons and practice at other places. But the dang triasls are very fun!

 

 

 

When I saw dogs work cattle when I was a kid, there were no commands. And the young dogs the cowmen really watched.

 

 

 

I myself must have dogs that must work out of my sight as I cannot ever see the back of the flock. I am in front on the horse watching for traffic coming at us down the trail or road. And I have loose eyed and eye dogs that are about the same at doing this work, although they do it differently.

 

 

I have been and participated in trials where the dog is so far away I cannot see how you can do very much. And I know of a trial in OR with a very tricky outrun through a gate.

 

 

 

 

And I am learning that there are trials where the weird pressure screws up a young dogs head and a green handlers ideas. (At Open, at least for me)

Those pressures don't happen at home. Only when we are working with netting with several flocks. And we move stock to new areas alot. I don't know if everyone does this?

 

 

At the last trial I was at a young farmer had come to watch with me and asked me a question. "What do you think that the trials do for us?"

 

 

 

Maybe I was the wrong person for her to ask. And I sent her to a pro to ask as well. But I did say this.

 

 

 

In the era of the vanishing farms and ranches the trials and the handlers have kept the dogs for us.

 

 

 

And I have heard alot from farmers and ranchers. Most I talk to have no opinion till they see the dog working in a practical way in a farm situation.

 

 

 

And I see dogs at trials that are owned by folks that own no stock that I would take

 

 

 

in a heartbeat.

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Here (in Iceland) we really need our dogs in a relatively short period of the year, and it is soon upon us, the "göngur", that is the yearly gathering of the ewes and lambs that spend the entire summer free range on the highland. This is open land; no gates or fences. Hills, moors, canyons, rivers, rocky planes. Looooong drives.

In my neck of the woods our longest trips are two days, we sleep in primitive cabins, oh yeah, most of us are on horseback, some on quads.

 

The discussion of what dog is best for this seems to revolve most around the degree of hardness of the dog. Can he manage those non dogged (and non "humaned") stubborn sheep? The farmers who are into dogs that I know generally prefer dogs that are way harder than I would be comfortable with.

 

There is also a strong bias against border collies in general among "the common farmer" ;), because of their tendency to head, which can be a real pita when the dog is poorly trained (which is often the case, not trained is actually a better word...)

 

I think I won´t dare taking my border collies with me on those longer trips this year, but I hope to be able to at least use Táta, maybe Gláma on gathering trips nearer to the farm, enough to do there, and better control of circumstances.

 

 

Long term goal is of course proving to the neighbours how useful these dogs can be in the hands of a skilled trainer (que ironic laughter... :lol: ).

There is not a lot of trialing going on here (next weekend "nationals" here btw), and hardly any people that are into herding without being a farmer also. So all those dogs are first and foremost ranch/farm dogs and additionally trial dogs. No dogs that are kept and trained exclusively to trial.

 

So in a way there is no trial dog versus working (ranch) dog, they are one and the same, as I think it should be. Seems to be an (almost?) consensus here on the forum.

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I have a dog that would have suited your sheep farmer(he is not for sale); he is a wash-out as a trial dog but thrives on routine. However he would probably be useless on ewes&lambs because he lacks confidence but that also means he is very kind to sheep & would never get into trouble. But once he knows his job, he can do it with few commands. He can move 100+ range sheep from the Open course to the P/N field at Lacamas but then fail to lift 4 grazing sheep in P/N a day later. I use him now for set out duty at trials. He was my first BC so a lot of his issues are my fault. His sire was strictly a farm dog & considered a tool. Get the job done or get out of the way; only had a couple commands and had to figure a lot out on his own.

My other three are trial dogs but at least two of them could probably do chores with minimal commands. Sadly for them, I do not have a farm or sheep so they rarely get the opportunity to do real work. However the line they come from provides dogs for ranchers on the Canadian prairies all the time - mostly cattle but sheep too. They live outside, work all day long & in rough country with cactus, heat in summer, snow, sub-zero in winter etc. They grow up in that climate so deal with it. They learn to flick or bite off when a cactus sticks to a paw. My dogs would be useless in that climate as they have grown up as house dogs in a very mild climate. When we visit, they go on 3 legs if stuck by a cactus and come to me to remove it. LOL

cheers Lani

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