The sheepdog trials

We’ve just returned from a few days break in Cobram, a small town in northern Victoria located on the Murray River. As well as being a great spot to visit with kids (the place we stayed had jumping pillows, indoor and outdoor pools, table tennis, bikes for hire, peddle carts – I could go on, but you get the picture), we found there were sheep dog trials taking place just out of town.



Have you been to see any dog trials before? I’m pretty much a novice – I’ve only seen the large event held in the Dargo Highplains during Easter (which is a fantastic experience), and, of course, Babe (which is lovely, but a ‘touch’ unrealistic) – based on these two ‘experiences’, we were all pretty keen to watch.

We arrived and found we were the ones with no farming background (not to mention, the only ones under about 70 years of age), so we stood out. After we’d seated ourselves, a self described ‘retired gentleman farmer’ provided us with an overview of the event, and then gave us a few pointers of what to look out for with the dogs.

The ‘best dogs’ he said, had a few things in common:

  • They stayed focused on the task – they know the course and the need to steer the sheep through it, and they remain focused on three things: the course, the sheep, and their trainer. They block out other things.
  • They work as a team – trainer and dog – and respect the sheep they are guiding. As we were told, sheep are not as stupid as we often think. A good sheep dog knows this. At the same time, s/he is not overawed either.
  • They don’t make things too complicated – they know they have a job to do, navigating the course, and they concentrate on getting through the steps. They don’t over-think it (which made me think of what our our terrier might do, by contrast – she would be fussing around smelling out scents of what other dogs had done, possibly adjusting her approach as a result, and forgetting the game plan. Or am I attributing my motivations to my dog? Hmm … overanalysing again!)
  • They know they have a certain amount of time, and so they don’t need to rush. No added points  for speed, but points lost for rushing and going off task.
  • Once the job is done, they rest. As the ‘retired gentleman’ said, ‘they don’t get caught up trying to fit too many things into their day’. They’ve done their job – they can then have some down time.

My husband commented that ‘my wife could learn a bit from these dogs’. Point taken. We settled into watch.

And the best performing dogs were quite notable:

  • They took a few moments to size up the sheep, rather than rushing to muster them. Respect those you are guiding – equally, respect the challenge.
  • They left some space between the sheep and themselves – otherwise the sheep became too flustered (great example of the value of not being too hands on).
  • They were constantly focused on the sheep and guiding them along the course (where they wanted to go) rather than closing off areas (and therefore drawing the sheep’s attention to options to go off course).
  • They were using all their senses – ears constantly moving to catch messages and signals – eyes focused, bodies low to the ground, tails generally straight out or slightly down. These dogs had a job to do, and they would do that job. But they were alert to the calls or whistles from their trainer and responded instantly.

I have been writing about wanting to ‘take the next step’ in a range of areas, and reading about a range of techniques. And I’ve been learning the importance of more clearly articulating goals, so I can work out which activities are actually is important and what can be left behind (as well as giving purpose to life), plus implementing systems to achieve these.

But I hadn’t anticipated how well these things I have been grappling with would be demonstrated at a sheep dog trial. Lesson there – never underestimate where, and who, can teach us!


How about you? Have you ever had a great lesson in surprising circumstances? 


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