Stock Dog Partnership
In January of 2004 the terms arena or training a stock dog were totally unfamiliar because this San Diego City raised gal had not been exposed to 4H activities nor livestock till the age of 56. In contrast, dogs have been steady companions in my life since age five. By the age of 17 the Australian Shepherd became my breed of choice; aJI were well mannered, well traveled, one was a certified therapy dog, I helped train dogs to work with the deaf community, and therefore using simple whistles and hand signals was familiar to me.
In 2004 my 15 yr old Aussie passed and I set off on a road trip. In the town of Roundup, Montana I purchased an 8.5 week old red nose merle Aussie and named her River. Two weeks later I ran into her breeder in town and while chatting he wiggled a thick short rope on the ground in front of her nose and for the first time I heard the phrase "take a hold." River slightly tilted her head, rushed in and gripped the rope then released. After a few of these he asked if I was willing to trade her for her sister. With a smile I said no thanks, she was now my traveling companion. He stated "she will be a good stock dog" and that his dogs worked in the open range as well as close up, rounding up the cows and other stock. This was the first time I consciously thought I would look into what stock dog training might entail, with his words imprinting that there are no limitations as to what Aussies could do.
Two month later while driving through Utah I saw a banner for the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship trial. ft was a hot day and dogs not competing are not allowed in, so I left River in the camper van with the windows cracked and a cooling fan.
This was my first time watching border collies or any dogs working sheep. I watched a few runs and was moved by the poetic communication of the whistle from handler to the dog and the distinct impact the dog and sheep had on each other. Watching the dogs run out and up the hill, fetch the sheep, stay on a course, shed some off and then convince them all to enter what seemed like a very small pen, led me to wonder what other chores do these dogs perform in their every day life.
In my naivety while recalling River's breeder's words, l walked over to a vender's booth and asked "when will the Australian shepherds compete?" She diplomatically stated "Australian Shepherds are also good dogs but their working style is very different, so you will not see them in this venue." I thanked her and bought one of her whistles. Given how hot the day was, I decided to leave with one more glance back just as a dog ran out glided up the hill around a small wooden shack, and In the distance I heard whistles that for me in the future would become a most familiar form of communication. As I think back on that day I did not consciously wish to have a border collie, but rather that some day I would be part of a partnership that allowed for the skills and beauty I had just witnessed.
Fast forward, River was now about six month old and I took her to an Australian Shepherd trainer in Ramona for several lessons. I admired how his Aussies quietly took sheep out df pens, down an alley way into a round pen for our lessons then quietly returning them to their pens. This trainer stated River had some natural talent, was young and it would be best to take several month off and put some general obedience training on her, which I did.
When River was a little over one year old we started lessons with Terry Parrish. While in the arena I worked hard to learn the meaning of balance, stock behavior and differences between a dog's natural herding instinct versus shaping that instinct into useful ranch tasks. River worked on flanks, keeping distance from the stock, pacing, going behind the sheep while moving them off the fence, often to accomplish a cross drive through an obstacle to the other side of the arena and then hold them off of me prior to exhausting them into a pen. River's general obedience training certainly paid off as she had a very strong recall, a stop and would tether under a tree with out barking.
One day while in the arena some sheep escaped from the pens and were vulnerable to the traffic. Terry lifted River over the fence to fetch them and River did this task so naturally that we began including the open field for training. Mutual confidence was often tested, as on one day while grazing sheep in the open field on the hiU Terry had to run to town. As she drove off she said "don't let them go out onto the road." I was a bit anxious but created my first mantra to help visualize my role as a competent sheep herder:
Treat stock kindly for they are someones property and they have souls.
Do not let the dog or stock run off a cliff, thereby keeping every one safe and trust my dog.
Do not let the stock run over Aunt Betty's petunias, so keep them on the correct path.
I spent a lot of time at the ranch and appreciated Terry's dog Dustin always being on duty, roaming the grounds and checking on his stock, and I found comfort knowing he would step in on his own initiative if needed.
We were now competing in arena trials where my handler skills were nowhere close to the level needed to handle River's energy and natural instincts. Although she was not a dog that would charge in to maul sheep, she certainly wanted them to go where she wanted and often at too quick a pace. The arena was teaching me just how much the size of the area in which we worked impacted River, the stock and me.
While at a Del Mar Fair arena trial, run after run and particularly when there was a wreck, I noted Deb R. would climb over a fence while her border collie Jazz would slide under and calmly gather the sheep and exhaust them to the safety of the pens. I noted with such appreciation how Jazz clearly and methodically understood her job. Imprinted for me was that someday I would like to have a partnership such as this one.
A bit more about River then I will move on. Although she was beyond my intermediate skill level in the arena, we were a strong team in an open field. She was very kind to young lambs and one day a group escaped around the comer under some bushes and trees. I instinctively trusted River to gently fetch them back. I asked Terry where she wanted them, and she said "see if you can drive them through the panels." So we drove the sheep from quite a distance, through two panels and over to the exhaust gate. River and I often held sheep in large fields for the border collies and eventually I decided to send her out on her own long outrun to fetch the sheep, which she managed quite nicely. Her breeder's words about how his Aussies go out alone onto the range to fetch the cows echoed in my mind and I was grateful he had set the stage for me to have confidence in and not limit River's options.
Folks often commented that River was the type of dog an advanced handler would love to have. I understood this and wanted her to fully reach her potential and natural abilities. While I continued to train her, I asked two differently experienced handlers if they would help in achieving River's titles in the Australian Shepherd Club Asso., All Herding Breed Asso. and the American Kennel Club venues. Rich G. competed River and he effectively utilized her natural skills on cows; they earned High In Trial along with a silver buckle. Christy G. added more training and completed River's Australian Shepherd WfCH = Working Trial Championship. We continued to train on scent tracking which she greatly enjoyed. I will always be grateful to River for having brought us into a venue where folks and gifted dogs appreciated sound stock work. River retired to the life of a wonderful companion through the age of 15. Every day she is greatly missed.
Over the years while at Terry's ranch I had witness a couple of border collie litters grow up but had not thought of having one until Beau was born Feb 23, 2008. His mother Meg was boarding with Terry and I had so admired his father Dustin. I first saw Beau the morning he was born. For us, it started with me just fostering Beau until a young couple mentioned to Terry that they had an interest in having a pup just like Dustin. Terry sent me a simple email: "what do you want to do about Beau, he will make you a great pup." At that very moment he happened to be laying at my feet and as I looked at him a tear rolled down my face, I immediately called Terry to tell her that Beau wasn't going any where, he was now my forever partner. Shortly after that we began formal training and formed a solid stock dog partnership.
As a very young pup one of Beau's jobs was to help care for the small goats. As he fetched them down the dirt road he would be lifting his head trying to see over the them and adjusting his position while teaching me what it means to have natural balance. We also helped bring in the chickens and later ducks. To build mutual trust and confidence up close we worked on skills taking sheep out of the pens, arena work to include putting them off the fence and fetching them up out of the dry river bed. Beau has a lot of eye and style, is very methodical and although as a young dog he could be very fast he was generally correct, had an uncanny way of understanding te chore, reading the sheep and me, and was very biddable.
Certainly the few years spent training River and being around several seasoned handlers aided in my recognizing that I had to greatly improve my handling skills and stock knowledge to best meet Beau's natural abilities.
We entered many arena trials on other ranches on varied types of sheep, ducks and cows. Up close arena work allowed me to better observe and understand Beau's influence on the stock which may have escaped me if we had mainly worked at greater distances. When moving stock into a free standing pen Beau would often just slightly turn/tilt his head while keeping his eyes on the stock, which released just enough pressure and the stock would turn and move. Up close I could observe the subtle movements of the stocks' ears, seeing how even minimal pressure could move them and how my very presence impacted them. Folks often asked me why did I lay Beau down so much when in actuality he would self pace to give the sheep some space. Even as a young dog he could back sheep up for a great distance when needed.
By the time Beau was 2 yrs and 6 months old and ran in the USBCHA ( Border Collie Nursery) Nationals in Virginia, he had already competed in at least 45 arena trials to include two High In Trials (Hll) results. My second mantra surfaced very early with Beau and I used it through out his career. Every time we approached the handlers post I would glance at him and the voice in my mind and heart, which l knew he could sense, would say the mantra,
"come on Little Man, we paid our entry fee and what ever happens we will fix it together."
Beau could not read the score board and always gave his very best. Arena work led us to became seasoned travelers. We learned to deal with many distractions, people moving around attempting to get to their next run, the sounds of folks talking or yelling at their dogs, Beau hearing others' whistles but listening only to mine, my own excitement as we waited for our turn then shifting into a calm that came with knowing we had put in the training. While at a trial we often moved from one arena to another, while shifting our pace to include the ever so slow and subtle movements on ducks, to the quiet but stern movement needed to move the sheep through narrow Z shaped panels, while skillfully moving them off the fence to make the cross drive panel. Then on the same day moving cows through some of these same tasks to include fetching them from an open field into the arena, penning them in a free standing pen and often having to load them in a trailer.
He earned his first HIT on cows in February 2010, then he earned our first buckle in January 2013. He earned his Australian Shepherd Club's WTCH in May 2011 and we hit the road headed to Washington State to start his border collie Open I Advanced level career. We stopped at Fido's farm in Olympia, WA and were invited to another ASCA trial on sheep, ducks and cows. That same weekend he qualified for a Post Advanced course on a 12 acre field on cows. This proved to be one of my proudest moments with him. He placed first and received the judge's compliment that she "had goose bumps through the whole course." Other competitors fetched the cows -to the exhaust gates, Beau drove them down the field a good distance and held them till I got there to exhaust them. He was a bit over three years old and added to my pride was the feeling that we had so honored and continued the legacy of his father Blazin' Dustin, who was Terry's best cow dog ever. I respected Dustin's ranch work and he was clearly a large influence in my having Beau. I remember our first time on cows, a bunch had arrived at Terry's for an upcoming trial and she wanted them to just be walked around the arena. She told me to -take Beau in with the cows, I ask what do I do and she said "just stay out of the way and don't let him do anything stupid." Clearly his strong breeding surfaced and he would go on throughout the years to do highly competent cow work. An old timer from Texas told me one reason Beau is so good on cows is because he treats his cows as he does his sheep, calmly, polite and only as stern as needed.
When we reached the Oregon & Washington circuit we were on a waiting list for our first run and did not get in. Instead we volunteered to do exhaust pickup for hours. Some of those runs were on the Nursery dogs and there were several big messes to clean up. Beau was always appropriately stem with his stock and quickly cleared the field for the next runner thereby helping the trial move smoothly. He received many compliments which took me back to the time at the Del Mar Fair when I had watch Jazz, who was Beau's aunt (Dustin's sister) do such consistent, clean pick up work. The dream of having a partnership that I had seen with Jazz had come true, and through out his career Beau was often asked to be the exhaust dog, sometimes even requested by the judge. At the Hotchkiss trial in Colorado, when sheep would escape into the field where the cows were, Beau was requested to go in separate and retrieve the sheep from the cows. Again, solid practical ranch work. Early on in Beau's career, at a border collie trial in a large fenced-in field, there was a Y chute up close to the fence and Beau quietly went between the sheep and fence covering the far side of the Y chute convincing all the sheep to go through. He had done this type of close up fence work so many times in the arena venues. Folks commented on how steady and quiet he was as he just got down to business and got that job done.
Other close up activity included my being a fly fisher person, Beau quickly learned the task of spotting fish, I would cast where he was focused and he seemed pleased when I reeled in the fish he spotted. My fishing buddies were quiet Impressed. One more fishing story: Beau and I were in South Dakota on a wide but slow moving part of the river, and I was up to my knees in the river when I noticed Beau was intensely tracking something. I followed his gaze and realized that my wooden fishing net had come loose from the magnet that held it to my vest. Even with using a tree branch for leverage it was just out of my reach so we both made our way down the river bank and I asked Beau to jump in the water. As he was swimming I gave him a few verbal flanking commands to move him closer to the net which was now almost completely submerged. Although he couldn't see the net at eye level, as he swam closer I said "there, take it," and he grabbed it up and brought it back to me! Through my happy tears I knew he would do anything for me.
We had trained some on scent tracking and although Beau did well my general feeling is that for him it was just another job he would do for me. His skills were again put to task when a friend and l had finished training in a large field and had just put the dogs up when she realized she had lost her favorite crook in the high grass. She returned to her trailer while I had Beau smell something of hers and told him "go find." As he searched I followed and after a short time he alerted on the crook. We then proudly delivered it to our buddy. On another occasion, Beau was in my truck at a trial while a friend and I shopped the venders. I purchased a pair of wool gloves losing one on the way back to my truck. letting Beau smell the one new glove, I took a big risk by sending him through the crowd on a 'go find' mission with us right behind him. He weaved through the crowd and rather than his usually mature quiet manner he actually pick up the glove with a few wags of his tail, clearly indicating that he knew had found something very important to me.
We traveled across the United States competing to include several BC Nationals. We had clearly met the goals of my first sheep herder's mantra. Beau was known for treating his stock kindly, keeping them safe and the third part of that mantra,
"do not let the stock run over Aunt Betty's petunias by keeping them on the correct path,"
would truly play out in the following way: at the 2015 BC Nationals we earned a spot in the final round. Placing fifth was of course an honor but I was most proud that Beau had also earned the award for the Best Drive. This included picking up ten sheep from the left side of a large field, dropping them off, then heading back to the right side of the field for another ten. The first ten had drifted away some where off to my left side and out of sight. I had to depend on Beau to let me know where they were and after the completion of the trial a person that had been working the exhaust pens described for me what I could not see. Beau implemented those rudimentary skills used so many times up close in arena work which was to skillfully move those ten sheep off the fencing and around a piece of machinery that could have impeded his progress. Although I could not see this all four judges could as they were sitting higher on a platform. Beau next joined both sets then started the drive around the handler's post, down a hill and through a panel, across the field to another panel then back in my direction into a large shedding ring. I clearly recall wanting to give him a direction at the first panel but instead trusted him while he stood still off to one side covering the draw and patiently waiting. I witnessed him do what he had frequently done up close, which was to stand there with his head slightly turned away from the sheep releasing the pressure while keeping his eye on them. ft was as if he were counting them, and only after all 20 passed did I blow a whistle to turn them towards the next panel. With minimal guidance from me he clearly had been tucking them in with only as much sternness as needed, treating them kindly and by symbolically keeping them off of Aunt Betty's petunias he was driving that long distance on the correct path.
We had now come full circle and impart due to his strong placement at the above Nationals were invited to compete at the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship trial. On the way there Beau's hip was injured, my heart was broken for him and although we could not compete we did drive to the venue. With no other folks around Beau and I quietly stood at the bottom of the hill and for us I envisioned him running up the hill behind the small brown shack, with an occasion whistle, a clean shed and the penning of his sheep he skillfully completes the course. Most importantly I knew we have been blessed with a partnership based on deep mutual trust that has fostered those same skills and beauty I had first witnessed on this same field on that very hot day back in 2004.
Through our journey we have made a few forever friends and traveled onto ranches located in beautiful places. At almost 13, Beau is now retired and we have come to another full circle as he once again enjoys doing up close ranch and arena chores. He still cannot read the score board, but does his chores with the same exacting precision and wholeheartedly as always. As Beau quietly rest in the cool shade of a tree watching the sheep, one ear remains alertly turned toward me in case I might need him. There is the occasional passing visit from his brother Bryce and I sense in both of them the profound history of their father Dustin, their mother Meg's ancestors from Wales, all the faithful talented dogs that preceded them and those many more yet to become someone's forever gifted stock dog partner, and I know I have been blessed with mine.
Lasoya, Beau & River
Written: April 24, 2021