Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Working Setout

We worked as backup volunteer help at setout, on one of the days during the recent Hopland sheepdog trial. I wasn't sure what our role would be as there was someone assigned who was to be the main sheep spotter. I figured we would just fit in here and there and provide breaks for whoever needed it and try to help make it a good day for all. Mostly, Coal and I pushed the sheep away from the pens up to the main spotter. (Ryme did some of this too, but he had to stay on leash after he blew it and scattered the sheep all over when I gave him a chance to try. Ryme continues to be a challenge for me to find a suitable niche for him to work in, although he is learning to spot sheep for others on a more casual basis for practicing.)  Later in the day, Coal and I did the sheep spotting on the field, to give the main person and his dog a few breaks. It was hot out and difficult work to settle the groups by that time of day. We all tried our hardest to do a good job.

The scene at setout is always a different world than up at the trial field. You get into a flow of doing things to produce the sheep sets for each run. There are only a few minutes of downtime inbetween each run, so there is little margin for error (or for taking breaks). At most trials, you can't watch the runs, or you can only watch bits of them. You don't have time to watch the runs, and normally you are hidden in the background, on purpose, so that the competing dogs can't see all the sheep awaiting their turn. But when you see the scores, later, it all makes sense; those beautiful easy lifts turn into high overall scores, most of the time. The dogs who begin their contact with the sheep in a quiet and confident manner seem to best suited to carrying that mode forth throughout their run.

I helped a little bit at setout last year at Hopland, too, and have helped with other trials as well. Each trial has a different system, and the number of helpers can vary from just two people with their dogs doing everything, to what we had at Hopland, which was five or six people, at any one time. It's something that every sheepdog handler should take a turn at doing, though, if they are able to. Helping at setout provides a whole different perspective on many aspects of a sheepdog trial, and if you are lucky enough to be around real sheep people who are doing the work, you can learn a lot, as well. At Hopland there were several folks who work there at the University and they are very experienced at handling sheep and moving them around. Their method with the sheep could not have been quieter nor more efficient. It was like going to sheep school to watch them at work, in the pens. We had the easy job of coming in with our dogs and taking them off, and out to the field.

A couple of times in the past I have worked setout at Dunnigan, doing all of the pen work by myself with my two dogs. That is a much different setup but accomplishes the same task. I sorted off the groups of sheep for each run, got them out of the pens and if necessary, pushed them up to the spotter who escorted them out to the field. In rare cases we had an escort person and also a sheep spotter who just stayed on the field. One time we were really short handed and there were just two of us with our dogs and the spotter rode a four-wheeler back and forth from the pens out to the field, for each run. That was a true test of the dogs as they worked their hearts out and made this happen.

You learn a lot about the shape that you and your dog are in. You realize that you have to finish a job even though you are both tired. You feel a huge sense of accomplishment in making the trial happen, even though you have watched almost none of the actual runs. It is a good kind of tired, at the end of the day. Spotting the sheep on the trial field takes a very steady dog who will take command, yet work on his own when needed.

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