Trials and Tribulations

“Come bye, Jock.”

The sheep were in their position, a couple hundred yards away. I had walked Jock out to the shepherd’s post and set him up to run out on my left-hand side. I leaned over just a tad and gave him the command with just the right tone of encouragement, laced with a bit of urgency. It was, after all, the Bluegrass Classic, one of the biggest and most important trials of the year, and Jock and I had traveled over eight hours to get this chance to show our stuff.

And Jock did take off with a bit of a foot pounding rush.

But then he stopped. A little over halfway out he stopped.

Oh, well, a disappointment to be sure. Something he had done in the only other trial he had taken part in a couple weeks prior, but then with another command from me he had carried on and gathered the sheep with no big problem. And we had worked on that at home with outrun after outrun in practice. The thought had struck me that it was having a person spotting the sheep and that person’s dog out there that worried Jock, so we had practiced over and again with spotters and dogs, and out he went over and over, with no problem.

“Come bye, Jock!” I said it again, with more urgency.

Jock just stood there. He stood there and looked at me.

“Jock! Come bye! Come bye, Jock!”

“The Bluegrass!” I was thinking. “Here I am at the trial they call the Bluegrass CLASSIC because it is so big and important, and this happens to me! Could the earth just please open up and swallow Jock and me so we don’t have to face anyone?”

I turned to the judge to see if I should go out to Jock to help him bring the sheep down the trial field so that the next handler could have a fresh batch.

He said something,  I couldn’t understand.

I just wanted it all to be over, so I walked as briskly as I could toward Jock and the spotter and the sheep at the other end of the field. The judge hollered something else, but again I couldn’t understand. Then I saw the spotter wave me his way, so I picked up speed down the field.

When I got out further I could see that the spotter was none other than my good friend, John Wentz, replete with his trademark big yellow boots. I didn’t know whether to be comforted to see a friend, or extra humiliated to be recognized. John explained that, no, the policy was that handlers were not to go down the field to get their dogs, because it takes too much time.

“But I saw you waving me toward you, John.”

“That was because you had already started down and I needed to get you off the field as fast as I could. We’ve got a place to put these sheep off to the side up here.”

Now I was truly mortified. My dog hadn’t picked up the sheep and now I had broken a policy for the Bluegrass trial. I hung my head and told John, “Well, I think that’s it. Jock has two more runs to do here, but I’m going to pull him out. I just don’t think he’s ready.”

John said, “Naw, don’t do that. Now he knows where the sheep are and he’ll make it out here just fine.”

I made my way through the gate and around through the parked cars and campers, all the while trying to avoid eye contact with the other handlers. I would have been bolder to talk with others if my earlier run with my best dog, Abbie, had gone much better. While Jock at this time was only two years old and in the nursery class for very young and inexperienced dogs, Abbie, at three years of age, had been competing against the very best dogs in the nation for a full year. I had sent her out with much more confidence, but was shocked when she “crossed over.” One of the cardinal rules of sheep dog trials is that the dog flank around the sheep in the very direction you send it, and not cross that imaginary line between you and the sheep. I might have stopped Abbie from doing this if I had the whistle ready in my mouth to blast a stop command at her, but I was confident she would go as I sent her. By the time I grabbed the whistle, hanging by a string around my neck, and got it to my lips, this speedy little bitch had already lost me 19 of our 20 possible outrun points. She did then go back in the direction I wanted and brought the sheep away from the horse and rider that were spotting on this huge field for the open dogs. She did gather the very unruly sheep close to three hundred yards toward me. But then, each time I turned Abbie to keep the sheep on a straight line, they got more and more defiant, until they worked their way near the crowd of spectators. Once near enough the people, they became frightened and bolted, with one of the sheep even managing to jump a fence and high-tail it for the surrounding hills.

So, with Jock’s failure to make it out to the sheep, I had been doubly mortified. I felt like a man stripped bare of honor and worth as I made my way, with Jock in tow, back to our car.

While many of the competitors at our far flung North American sheep dog trials, travel in trailers so that a nap or two can be caught in those hours of inactivity that separate a given handler’s runs, I stay in motels. After Jock’s run I made my way to my own motel, which was many miles from the park where the competition was ongoing. I had booked a motel with a small refigerator and microwave so I could save money on meals, so on my way I stopped in a grocery to pick up a meal I could quickly zap and eat.

I entered the huge supermarket, made my way to the freezers, and stood there. And I stood there. I should admit something here—something I’m not proud of. Two days before this I had visited my physician. A few days before that I had had another rather disappointing weekend at another dog trial in which the dogs ran quite a bit better, but our scores would have been much, much better if I could have whistled worth a darn. It is nerves, you see. While a little bit of excitement in competition or performance can make one better, I have this major problem at dog trials where I have just enough anxiety to make the center of  my tongue like a tiny desert just for a moment. The problem is that that moment is the most critical one of all in working a dog: just when the dog has run out to the sheep and reaches the perfect place to stop so that it can then creep up on the sheep to bring them quietly and straight to the handler.

After that trial I was determined it wouldn’t happen to me again. So I asked my doctor and he recommended I stop taking antihistamines to help me sleep. Then, when I pressed him for something more, he prescribed an anti-anxiety pill that I could try.

Well, I decided to try that pill at the Bluegrass Classic. Why not, it was a BIG trial and I didn’t need BIG nerve problems. But, on top of the fatigue of the long car drive down to Kentucky, and getting up very early to make it to my run with Abbie from my sister’s house far across the state, and the tension of waiting for my two opportunities to flub up, that tranquilizing pill just about put me in a complete stupor.

So I stood there…and stood there in front of the grocery store freezers, waiting in vain for my brain to decide what my hands should grab so that we could all get some nourishment. All my brain could do was worry a bit more about what all these strangers would think as I turned and left the store empty handed.

So there I was, the very next morning, standing somewhere between my car and the nursery trial field, undecided whether I should have another go with Jock. With a restless night’s sleep I was able at least to decide not to stick it out another full night to run Abbie and perhaps Jock again the next day, and yet another full day again if I wanted to stay to the end of the trial and take pictures and do interviews for an article I promised a magazine. I had to get some real rest, so I had already checked out of the motel and was prepared to head home.

But should I try Jock one more time?

So I stood there. And I stood there.

That was when Scott Glen, a Canadian and one of the finest dog handlers in all of North America, happened by. “Nice hat,” was what he said. I know he wanted to say, “What in the world are you doing  just standing there like a refugee? Are you alright? You look like you just lost your mother!”

But he said, “Nice hat.”

In fact, I heard, but I didn’t understand, so I made him repeat it. I could tell he was puzzled by the way I looked, so I explained, “My boy wouldn’t go out for the sheep yesterday, so I’m afraid he isn’t ready. But John Wentz, who is setting the sheep, thinks my dog knows where the sheep are now and he will make it this time.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out.”

That is what he said, and he looked so relaxed when he said it. In fact, just about every one of the handlers who were there—and there were hundreds of them—looked confident and relaxed and like they really belonged there. I felt I was the only one in the world who didn’t.

So, there I was, finding out the only way I could, whether Jock would run out to gather his sheep. “Away to me,” I said to him, with as much hope and encouragement as I could muster in my voice. Jock ran out about 50 or 60 yards. Then he stopped. “Away,” I repeated. But he just stood there, looking at me.

I had over eight long hours in the car heading home with Jock and Abbie to think about what had happened. Standing there in front of all those shelves of microwave food and in the parking lot near the nursery field my world was very, very small and my energy had been drained away.

One of the cardinal rules of sheep dog handling is not to let your emotions spoil your clear communication with your partner—your dog. But how? How could I manage this if my brain was fried? This was a physiological problem with the desert in my tongue and my fatigue, but it was more than that. Mere sleeping pills or tranquilizers weren’t the answer. Indeed, I had also tried fruit pectin throat lozenges and a tube of mouth moisturizer from the pharmacy. They helped; but there is much more to it.

It is deep inside, not just a mere matter of a dry or moist tongue. Not blowing my whistle right is one symptom. Having no energy and thinking I am the only one in the world who doesn’t belong and  has a dog that stops on the way to the sheep or crosses over—those are other alarming symptoms.

On that long drive home I determined that I would not drug myself again for a dog trial. Instead I would make this thing a spiritual discipline. I would do the spiritual work that would free me from whatever it was that was shrinking my world and my energy.

The energy part first: I know I get plenty of energy from being with my dogs—to catch the blaze of their intense eyes, to feel their intense devotion to me, and to witness the grace of their movements as they move sheep around our farm. Could I not reconnect with that at a dog trial when dozens of the finest dogs around were striving and accomplishing amazing things—even the ones whose scores were not that impressive?

I could if I could keep my world from shrinking so. It’s good to think of others, but not so good to think of what others are thinking of me. They really are too concerned with their own dogs and their own handling and their own points to be forming bad opinions about me, aren’t they? And isn’t the whole reason we are out here to all be part of something? We know the stories of shepherds working to gather their flocks off the high hills of Scotland before the winter storms hit, and working teams of dogs in the heather of Wales. Our hearts beat faster when we see wise dogs outwit clever ewes and rock steady shepherds keep their heads when steering sheep around dangerous cliffs. Don’t our hearts bend and break a little when we consider what a pure privilege it is to be part of this rich tradition?

No, I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs reminders that it’s all about belonging to something good. So, we are here to keep it alive and to keep encouraging one another to not let this world of ours shrink any more by losing the legacy of the shepherds. Nothing is gained when we let it shrink by obsessing about mistakes that only serve to remind us that nothing good—nothing worth being part of—comes easy.

What a fitting spiritual discipline this is: appreciating more the gifts given, and thinking not about what others are thinking of us, but about how we all belong to something good. Something very good indeed, including doggie trials and tribulations.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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