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Donald McCaig

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Dear Doggers,


Kingston is my favorite sheepdog trial. In a big county park outside the city of 100,000, on the shore of the St Lawrence, you can watch the tugs, the pleasure boats or take a dip with your dog after a run. (There's a small handler's beach behind the exhaust).


Amanda Milliken's hospitality is warm and enthusiastic, prize money is outstanding and after a quarter century, the trial draws tens of thousands of spectators over the weekend and, this year, 137 open dogs.


Last year I cancelled Fly. It's a 12 hr drive and a week away from home and Fly hated sheepdog trialing. At the Cascade trial, the previous month, she'd quit on the drive - just gave up and fetched the sheep to my feet.


And she nipped somebody. If you've got to nip someone a sheepdog handler is least likely to take offense but, no; it's not a good idea.


Since then, as noted here, she's broken her 11 trial no-score streak and met several thousand people on a book tour. She's enjoying trials and isn't quitting when the going gets tough.


Last year, she wouldn't take any commands on the lift or fetch (she'd quit if I insisted). Oh yes, the sheep would end at my feet but that was all that could be said for a fetch that wandered pretty much wherever the sheep wanted. And she NEVER finished a drive. At the King's trial,last year, she gave up and held the sheep against the fence until I came after her on an ATV.


Remember (as I tried to) she had been a brilliant instrument, a trial dog who'd attracted some very very good handlers. FLY KNEW HOW TO DO IT and on the farm was the best sheepdog I've ever owned.


I'm too old to need to win sheepdog trials. (Too old for a lot of things). Although this year's National Finals is 2 hours from my farm, I knew that persisting with Fly meant I wouldn't compete this year.


But Fly interested me - and I like her; so I persisted when a wiser man would have bought another dog for trials and made Fly our chore dog.


For me, the real pleasure in sheepdog trialing is the meeting of three minds: handler,dog and stock. It is a quiet, lovely eternity amongst life's elbowings and befuddlements.


I am convinced the dog feels this too. Eternity is strong stuff and the dog is taking a big chance - "What if I fail? Will I be betrayed again?" Nobody -neither man nor sheepdog - can create beauty without trust. Trust can be lost in an instant and it takes a long time to pull it out of the woods and fetch it back.


Fly has been running - er - mediocre - this summer. She seemed to draw the toughest sheep or the runaway racers. (Nope; not bad luck: wrong dogs make wrong sheep). Good outrun, fair lift, lousy fetch, wrestling-match drive, excellent work inbye (pen and shed) where she drew confidence from my nearness. Scores in the 60's when good runs were in the 80's.


So, back home I took her out six days a week. We'd shed off a half dozen from a couple hundred and weave them through the walnut trees. She could take more pressure so I delivered it. I never let Fly get so lost in her work or so sheep pressure-reactive she couldn't hear me.


Kingston is a relatively short outrun - 400? yards - and the setout is close to the letout pens. It's a big tricky drive with pressure changing every thirty feet or so. The Kathadin (St Croix?) sheep come from an island on the St Lawrence and haven't been worked in small groups since last year's trial.


Tough pen, tough shed but the nasty bit is "Heartbreak Ridge". The judge's tent sits atop a low ridge behind and above the handler's post and twenty feet behind the tent is the exhaust where the sheep can relax, eat a little hay and tell dog jokes. They've been there before and they're as determined to get there as Baptists to Heaven.


If the sheep do get behind the tent and down the backslope, the handler can't see the dog (who will have his back against the exhaust.)


The wind had come up so hard I jammed my Stetson down over my ears. The sheep had got rank. Wind means they can't hear predators and makes sheep very, very nervous.


Runs had deteriorated. Sheep were breaking back to the top or escaping into the woods.


Judge Jim Cropper is one of the world's great sheepdoggers. It had been years since we last met and we shook hands before Fly and I stepped to the post. She was keen. I was nervy.


I set her up on the right. If she came up short on top, she'd be between the sheep and the letout.


Although there are times when you don't want a down when the dog gets behind her sheep, usually you do. After the long commandless outrun, it reestablished the handler/dog relationship. I haven't downed Fly at the top because - er - she wouldn't take it - and when a dog refuses a command, giving it weakens subsequent commands.


But I needed that stop. I needed to have a handle on her fetch from the getgo. I blew the down and since the sheep weren't moving, Fly must have taken it. She brought them down the fetch taking flanks and downs like a real sheepdog.


I was thrilled to my bones. This how it's supposed to be. Nearer, they considered bolting over the ridge to the left (wrong way round the post), so I flanked Fly and moved out from the post blocking that move with my crook. With the dog on the wrong side to prevent their right hand bolt, I expected them to seize their left hand escape and when they did I commanded Fly to get to their heads. She hesitated a split second because the natural/shortest way to block is dashing around the right but that was "Crossing the course" a serious trial flaw, so I re-commanded and Fly took it but the sheep were nearly atop the ridge and Fly (who didn't know Heartbreak Ridge) made a usually-correct wide flank and disappeared over the ridge behind the judge's tent while the sheep broke into a rank ewe on one side of the tent and three docile sheep on the other.


This is not good.


If Miss Rank breaks the dog, the Dociles will follow. But meantime, while Miss Rank is engaging the dog, the Dociles are free to wander. They may decide to wander down the ridge and find their own path to the exhaust.


Consequently, the dog must pay most of her attention to Miss Rank, while sometimes breaking off to keep the Dociles from straying but returning so quickly Miss Rank hasn't made her break.


I could see the sheep on the ridgetop but Fly was below them and I only knew what she was doing by the sheep.


The sheep are iron filings to a magnet. The closer they get, the stronger the attraction. If once Fly can push Miss Rank onto my side of the ridge and if the Dociles start toward the drive panel and if Fly can release Miss Rank to join them, we can break the stalemate. I am offering suggestions and Fly is taking those she thinks useful. (Joyce Geier who was at the exhaust told me afterwards, "She took your commands when you were right. When not, she'd drop one ear and take matters under advisement")


Fly fought those sheep for a very long time - five minutes? - before she got that tiny bit of advantage. Miss Rank decided she'd try a flanking maneuver - which reduced the magnetic pull just enough - and the Dociles trotted off and Fly turned Miss Rank to join them.


Now, I expected to lose Fly. After such a struggle, making all the hard decisions, why should she revert to Fly-accepting-tiny-whistle-flanks from Donald?


But she did. Flanks and downs just like Heartbreak Ridge hadn't happened. She hit the drive panels made a nice turn and her sheep were proceeding sensibly on line toward the crossdrive panel when Jim Cropper told me, "Donald, you're going to run out of time."

"Yes, thank you."

So Jim called time and no we didn't finish the drive and doubtless got an awful score.

But I was very, very happy. I had my Stradivarius back.


Donald McCaig

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Thank you so much for your heartwarming recount of Fly's triumph at Kingston!!! She is so fortunate to have you to help her through her issues and to celebrate her successes!!! Congratulations to you both!!!


Kindest regards,


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Dear Sheepdoggers:


The other shoe.


Her second run was 3 pm Saturday. Along the long narrow course, a huge crowd in bleachers, then a second crowd watching the dog dock diving and then the agility. 10K people, three different sound systems.


Fly was fine waiting to go out and set off resolutely though she came in a little too tight, the sheep weren't terribly bothered and came off nicely which was the last nicely.


The sheep drifted toward the crowds and though Fly was in contact she didn't take any flanks until she was inside the fetch panels. Things got better then and she recovered and didn't lose points on the turn. On the drive - toward the crowd - she seemed baffled and looked back so I cupped my hands to megaphone voice commands which she took. They turned before the post and I brought Fly around but then they simply drifted, split two and two and Fly lay down and did nothing.


I retired her and she exhausted them perfectly well.


I was upset and discouraged. Dick Williams, who came next also retired saying "My dog couldn't hear anything."


But other dogs had.


I've never seen dog behavior like that and it was nothing like her previous failures which could be summed up as "I tried many times, it didn't work and I didn't please you, I quit."


What the hell happened? Is she so emotionally unstable that she'll run brilliantly one day and horribly the next? Is there any point persisting?


And what the hell happened?


I - literally -woke up in the middle of the night with what might be the answer? What if - unlike dogs that had experienced Kingston before - she was unable to filter out the noise? There hadn't been any crowd or loudspeakers or cars coming and going when she ran brilliantly?


Or maybe she is partially deaf.


One or the other or a combination is my guess. I'll keep at it, see how she does in the fall trials and get her to a canine audiologist.


Fly's probably as glad to be going home as I am.


Donald McCaig

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What a disappointment and what a puzzle!


There are resources in northern VA and MD that do BAER tests. I could get some information for you if you'd like. I had Megan tested down that way a few years back.


Fly is very fortunate to be your dog.

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Those big crowds are hard on a dog that doesn't find that "motivating"!


Those sheep at Kingston come from an island with about 1500 ewes. The sheep are a composite of Dorset/Coopworth/NC/Rideau I think...no hair sheep, tough, savy and will measure up a dog! Fly did well in the first run without the giant crowd, but probably found it tough in the second go. At 80 acres, the sheep won more than the dogs!


Donald, did you leave your crook? One was left near where you had Mr. and Mrs Dog....I think Amanda may have it now



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Donald, I can't remember when you ran but if it was around the time i ran Bill, there was a stretch where dogs weren't hearing as they approached the driveaway gates. Bill was taking every little peep i gave going up that way, took a stop from me, and then just stood there not hearing me. He did recover but i saw other dogs around the same time frame not hearing handlers as well.

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Dear Doggers,




Years ago, Border Collie magazines sometimes published training diaries:

a top trainer would start with a pup and train them up: “Spot’s first time in the ring”, “Spot meets a tough ewe”, “Spot’s first trial” and so forth.


These diaries – all of them – came to a sudden stop – Spot dropped off the radar, no more articles - frustrating hapless readers like me. What the hell happened to Spot? What had changed?


I understood that the dog was no longer promising and might, in fact, have been sold or rehomed. Fair enough. But why?


I promised myself that if I ever wrote a training diary, I’d continue even if I quit on the dog; even if I rehomed him. I’d write about the discouragement and disappointments as well as the times that made me look like the all-knowing trainer with the perfect dog.


And I’d write about the weirdness:


Monday I drove 10 hours to Rochester for a coaching session with Derek Scrimageour, scheduled early Tuesday and since a Cornell vet does Baer tests and since Ithaca is two hours from Rochester and more-or-less on the way home, I phoned the Cornell Companion Animal Hospital “Oh, we don’t make Dr. B’s appointments”. When I emailed Dr B I’d be coming through Itaca noonish, he said, “Phone me when you get here.”


I meet with Derek first thing (I’ll come back to that), then drive to Cornell and their vet school which is at the tail end of a big campus, no parking spots so I pulled into the huge overflow lot. I phoned and Dr B says he’ll be right over. A man dressed like a maintenance worker walks to my car: Dr. B. I drive us to a low building out back which – he tells me – is where they used to quarantine poultry viruses. Each bird in its hermetically sealed room, the size of a walk in closet, no windows, big gaskets on the doors, negative air pressure. “We don’t use it for poultry anymore,” he informs me.


His Baer workshop is a windowless, cinderblock, hermetically sealed, cluttered room. Feng Shui don't want to know.


Dr B’s been doing Baer tests since “oh, the 1980’s” when the test required a room sized computer. Now he's got a laptop and some wires and electrodes which I’d bet he soldered himself. I sit on a metal chair beside his cluttered desk with Fly between my feet.


Fly is wide-eyed, “Is this the end???”


He reassures her, “Good girl!” too loud so Fly snaps as he attaches electrodes and probes to her skull. I take her head.


Five minutes later and it’s done. Fly’s hearing is normal. She has “The amplitude we look for” whatever that is. Thirty five bucks. Okay. It's an eight hour drive, two gas stops home.


More anon.


Donald McCaig

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When the solution becomes the problem


Dear Doggers,


As those who’ve suffered through these posts know, when I got Fly she wouldn’t work sheep for me and hated sheepdog trials.


She was unreliable around people, including my wife Anne and bit both of us. She wasn’t reliably housebroken, scratched herself raw, had titers for tick borne disease and, it later turned out, had breast cancer and had to be spayed.


No other sheepdogger would have wanted her and rehomed in a pet home she would have been put down.


We (Anne was a big part of this) were stuck with Fly.


She had been very good once and – after she decided to work for me – showed flashes of real brilliance was a useful chore dog and I liked the weird little quean.


In the broadest sense, the reason I’ve stuck with sheepdogging for thirty years - despite its utter cash and time devouring, life changing, friendship disrupting, disappointing, cold, wet, uncomfortable WACKINESS is: sheepdogging is interesting.


Interesting. When working a dog, now and again, truth is beauty, beauty truth and that’s all ye know and all ye need to know.


Fly is interesting.


So I tricked her into working with me and let her run out and gather the sheep pretty much how she wanted to. Successful trial dogs love sheepdog trials. They brush off the pressure – indeed, they enjoy it. They want to do well as much as their handler does.

Since she quit at trials I reduced the pressure to the bare minimum and walked when she showed signs of giving up. I took her into the public, introducing her to strange situations and strangers and a timid dog became more like every other sheepdog I’ve ever owned. She stopped biting.


We practiced stockwork: 6 mornings a week. She was brilliant inbye but useless lift and fetch.


Fly ran well the first day at Kingston and was a baffled puppy the second day. Jesus! Maybe she was deaf?


Joyce Geier had a last minute slot at her Derek Scrimageour clinic outside Rochester New York so I drove up Monday for an early slot with Derek Tuesday and a hearing test on the way home. I had a pleasant dinner with new handlers and old friends and you MUST ask Joyce to tell you “ Bubbas and the Burning Stock Trailer”.

I’ve brought problem dogs to Derek before and didn’t warn him about Fly . “She’s seven,” I said.

He warned me there wasn’t a lot we could do with a seven year old. She’ll be set in her ways.

“Yeah, I know. She was good once. And I like her.”


Anyway: Fly went out, came in tight, bumped them into running and she wouldn’t catch or control them on the fetch. I asked her to do a little driving which went better.

“What do you think of her?” I asked.

“Can I be rude?” Derek replied.

“Please do.” (Expecting him to say Fly was hopeless).

“Very well then. I saw a poor handler on the outwork and a good handler on the drive.”


Er – I thought we were talking about the dog,


“You didn’t redirect her when she started coming in tight, so she started them running on the lift. She’s seven years old – why should she catch them when they’re coming the proper direction?”


So: the sheep were spotted a second time, I sent Fly and when she started to come in I downed and redirected. She took the redirect nicely and came in properly, lifted nicely and they came straight on the fetch.


“If she lifts properly, and they’re walking, she’ll handle them .” He added, “I rather like her.”


Instruments don’t make music by themselves.


Donald McCaigpost-2366-0-25844800-1377251314_thumb.jpg


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Must be something in the air that's bothering my eyes.


My dogs are victims of my ignorance and lack of ability.


Thanks again for sharing - you need to compile all these writings into a little book, The Trials and Triumphs of Fly.

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Fly is fortunate IMO to have your handling and Derek's advice. You may have hit upon a way to fix his outrun and lift, and the exact reason she is doing better may not be very important. Although, I believe a good case can be made that running Fly in a free manner for a while allowed him to feel like a sheepdog again, and now it's time to use more commands and redirects. In any event, good job to all three of you. -- TEC

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