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Climate Change and sheepdogs


Donald McCaig
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Dear Fellow Sheepdoggers,

 

It's hotter than it was and if we don't pay attention to that fact, we're going to kill some dogs. Twenty years ago, here in the mountains, a remarkable July day might touch 90 and our early frosts arrived in mid September. In 2011 at my Labor Day Trial the temps touched 90 and in 2012, they were 86.

 

Once a trial course is set, if it gets too hot to prudently run a dog, there's not much a trial host can do. Shrink the outrun? Eliminate tasks? Well, er, what about those who've already run?

 

I hope others who host trials will ask themselves if their long established trial weekend is getting too hot to run dogs. I hope they will adjust accordingly.

 

Donald McCaig

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Climate change or not, if it's too hot, something must be done to protect the dogs and the sheep. Cooling tanks that are checked to make sure the water is actually cooling is one option, and my personal opinion is that a minimum amount of time should be allotted to use them during a run without penalty or time being counted (at least for a reasonable time, like a minute or whatever it takes).

 

If that sort of weather is expected, maybe build in a one-minute (or half-minute, or whatever) "break" in every run - assuming that the trial host checks the forecast and plans accordingly for the day.

 

Or, if someone choses to retire due to heat stress, maybe they should be able to keep their points, but that's a little trickier because someone could take advantage of that to retire a dog that was getting close to gripping before it was able to disqualify itself. Still, it's an alternative to allow a score and protect the dog.

 

Fortunately, it seems that the fitter the dog, the better able to handle adverse conditions but any dog can get hurt by working too hard in the heat. I've seen Western and Great Plains dogs that could handle hot, dry conditions but that would wilt under warm and humid conditions in the East.

 

You were at Tullamore, maybe? The Irish, UK, and Northern European handlers and dogs were not accustomed to the warm conditions of the middle of the Final day. I remember that those handlers in mid-day who chose to retire their dogs after the outwork rather than risk them in the unaccustomed heat received a grateful and admiring round of applause from the galleries. They did the right thing for their dogs.

 

Thank you for bringing up an important topic.

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Dear Sheepdoggers,

 

I know nothing about Icelandic trials but in the US people will have traveled many hours - sometimes two days - to a fully booked trial which will have just enough time to run every dog if the trial starts promptly when there's light to see and runs without interruption until dark. Hosts want to give every dog supposed to run that day the chance to run that day and if the temperature spikes he can't simply shut things down.

 

When I was considering what to do at my trial, I decided that IN A HEAT EMERGENCY I'd eliminate shedding or penning when it was too hot and expunge the shedding/penning scores for those who competed when it was cooler. It'd reduce a fifteen minute course to maybe ten and there'd be complaints.

 

Once you start a trial there really isn't much short of immediate peril (lightning strikes, flood waters, forest fires) that can stop it. It would be very hard to tell someone who'd traveled five hundred miles and spent that many dollars that they couldn't run their dog.

 

That's not even considering the poor sheep. I've been at trials where they were hosed down between runs.

 

Donald McCaig

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The justification of running dogs under conditions that are (in your own words Donald) "too hot to prudently run a dog", just tells me that people have priorities. In this case trialing above dog/sheep welfare.

I think my country of residence has not a lot to do with it.

 

And from your post "It would be very hard to tell someone who'd traveled five hundred miles and spent that many dollars that they couldn't run their dog."

Well if it puts his dog or the sheep in danger of being seriously hurt it shouldn´t be. It is bad luck for the person involved, maybe the run could be postponed to later in the day, if not that´s it.

 

Maybe I am dense, but I really don´t see the complicated ethical problem here, pretty clear cut to me.

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What I think Donald is seeking is discussion on what can be done for a trial to go forward when conditions go south, so to speak. I like his idea of eliminating shedding or penning or some aspect of the runs, and removing those scores from runs that went before or go after the weather condition that's an issue.

 

Watching dogs run when conditions are hot and humid (big courses like the National Sheepdog Finals in September and Bluegrass in May, small-scope trials in summer), I have seen where fit dogs and fit sheep have done quite well with just a voluntary (sometimes should be mandatory) cooling tub break after the drive. I've also seen that the best handlers (the ones that put their animals first) do not hesitate to use the cooling tub for as long as it takes, or retire their dogs if need be - but that's rare because they have conditioned their dogs, the dogs don't waste energy or run the sheep all over the place (and therefore keep the sheep fresh), and they take advantage of the tub.

 

But there will always be those very few who either don't recognize the symptoms of distress in their dogs or the sheep, or who choose to (as you say) place their trial run before the animals' welfare - and that's when the course director, trial host, or judge needs to step in and call them off - no ifs, ands, or buts! I think this needs to be done more often and in various applicable circumstances.

 

And, yes, I would agree with you that if it's not prudent to run a dog *at all*, or have sheep worked *at all*, then the right answer is to not run either.

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I’m not a sheepdogger, so maybe this idea wouldn’t work; but how about this?

 

Instead of removing tasks like penning or shedding from the trial, what if each dog performed one part of the run at a time? Have each dog do an outrun/fetch. Then have each dog do a cross-drive, and so on. Perhaps two elements of a run could be executed at the same time. Maybe the fetch and the pen. Or the cross-drive and shed.

 

This would shorten the amount of time on the course for both dogs and sheep. It would be more work for the set-out and exhaust crews, but this could be offset by having those crews bring more dogs to work, and alternate their times on the field.

 

I can see a couple of advantages to doing it this way. One, it would mean less time working for the animals each time they went onto the course, and two, a dog which was poor at whatever part of the course – say, shedding – would not have the advantage that he would gain if that part of the run were cut.

 

If having the same sheep for each dog each time is a desiderata, then the sheep could be marked and pulled & penned separately before they were needed.

 

If one part of the run were more physically demanding, all the dogs could complete that task in the morning when it is cooler.

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If you split up a run like that you remove the flow. One of the most important elements to a run is the relationship between the sheep and the dog. Better to just make the course shorter.

 

I ran into the problem of heat last year. I lived in the mountains, so temps about 85F on a very hot summer day were unusual. At night it often dropped into 50s. In July I made the mistake of entering a trial much farther south and in the lowlands. My dogs ran first, so we were ok but still panting and hot at the end. I dropped them from their second run of the day because it was well over 115F with heat index. I've learned my lesson and now try to head north for trials, if at all possible.

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Stamina, heat tolerance, and ability to remain keenly focused for extended periods under difficult conditions are components of a good sheepdog. I believe handlers, through SDT's, wish to test those qualities and others. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to heat injury. I would think that temperature, humidity, available shade/water, length of course, terrain, and sheep temperament are a few important course considerations. Such things as handling style, dog's manner of work and coat length, dog's heat tolerance (all dog/handler specific matters) have to be factored in, as well.

 

So many variables are involved in each individual SDT course and in each run that dogs/sheep could be endangered if one or two items, such as temperature and available water, were the only guidelines. Perhaps course directors should have a written Weather and Heat/Cold Mitigation Plan, or some such title, prepared in advance (to eliminate possibility of ad hoc unfairness) that is tailored to the course and weather report. A plan would not remove the Judge's and CD's discretion if something unexpected developed, yet it would provide a base handlers know in advance and manage their runs toward. -- TEC

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Yes, you should breed for stamina, but dogs that live in cooler climates don't have a chance to adjust to heat. There simply isn't the opportunity. A marathon runner from FL is going to have a huge advantage over one from upstate NY on a hot day, even if there is no genetic difference. If trials have dogs entering from all over North America, they should have a plan for hot weather. Cold weather isn't nearly as big of a problem.

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...dogs that live in cooler climates don't have a chance to adjust to heat. There simply isn't the opportunity. A marathon runner from FL is going to have a huge advantage over one from upstate NY on a hot day, even if there is no genetic difference..

That is a good point. I agree. -- TEC

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Dear Sheepdoggers,

Tom's idea of an explicit heat mitigation plan is a good one. Last fall - one week before the National Finals at the Montpelier Trial it was not-quite-dangerously hot and there was considerable discussion whether a handler could ask permission of the judge and retire with his/her points. I've seen it both ways. If the Host had declared a policy before the first run: no dispute.

 

Donald McCaig

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Geonni,

The problem with your idea is that often sheep are run more than once at a trial, so it wouldn't be practical to use a set and then set them aside for the exclusive use of the same team later. Additionally, even assuming the numbers of sheep were unlimited, they still have to be gotten to the point where the next part of the run starts, so they will be spending more time (albeit in separate "sessions" on the field). Last, being able to sort/mark/separate sheep would require a much larger group of people working at the set out (e.g., at Donald's trial, currently two of us perform that work) and the farm owner would have to have a much more elaborate sorting/cull/pen system to accommodate all the held-aside groups.

 

The issue in the south as that folks are lambing in the spring, so summer, fall, and winter are the times when trials can be held. Summer is very tricky, but shorter courses, water on the course, hair sheep (who tolerate heat, in general, better than wool sheep) can allow a trial to go on. Booking fewer runs (less payback perhaps?) and maybe allowing for a break in the hot part of the day can help.

 

Unfortunately, we can have some very warm or hot days in spring or fall as well. The Bluegrass is in May, and the temps have known to be very summerlike on occasion.

 

I know from a management standpoint I try not to mess with my sheep in the heat of a summer day unless it's absolutely necessary.

 

As far as I can see, the solution is to make trials smaller so you can break for heat, if necessary, and for handlers to take responsibility for their dogs (and the sheep) and retire if the dog is in trouble. Dogs generally lose ground mentally before they ever show physical symptoms, so a handler that is tuned in to the dog and not too caught up in the need to complete the course ought to be able to make the right decision. (That is, handlers need to consider whether the dog is being disobedient or is just overheated and err on the side of caution on hot, humid days--that means giving the dog the benefit of the doubt, which certainly some handlers don't do.)

 

As Liz pointed out, handlers should consider beforehand what the weather could be like. I understand Donald's point about the time and cost involved in traveling to trials, but I suppose handlers can choose to go to trials in particular regions at particular times of the year knowing that the weather could have a significant impact on their run.

 

J.

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Thanks for the explanations. As I said, I'm not a sheepdogger, but I am interested in the working dogs and the sheep involved. My biggest fear about changing the format of the run was that it might start to devolve into a "Barbie course" like the AKC has.

 

I understand the disappointment of the competitor who has a substantial investment in time and money to get to a particular trial. But it seems that the best solution is to choose venues carefully, or scratch your dog if it's not up to working in the conditions.

 

Happens with race horses all the time, and those people are impacted too. But it isn't worth ruining a good animal because you want to run it in adverse conditions. I don't suppose a handler would hesitate to scratch a dog that pulled up lame. And the disappointment would be every bit as great. S**T happens...

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Then there are those situations where exceptionally hot temps would not have been predicted for the location at the time of year selected for the trial. A good example of this was the 2010 Virginia Finals at the end of September when VA had a heat wave. Who would have predicted a heat wave? How would we shorten the Final's courses? How would we not run dogs during the heat requiring extending the number of days for the finals?

 

In most regions there will be times of the year when temperatures can vary widely, late September in VA & MD is a good example. The average temp is about 70 but records of over of 100 have been set.

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