Candy Kennedy – Trials and Errors

Posts tagged “Trialing

For the love of the dogs


I can’t think of a greater compliment that can be said about someone in our “world” than “For the love of the dogs” This is going to be a hard one for me to write. I seriously thought about not writing anything  … partly because it’s so personal but more because it makes it real and I don’t want it to be real. Bill Slaven passed away and I can’t believe he’s gone.

For those of you that didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Bill you missed out on special man. He was special to his family, his friends, his community and especially to our herding dog world. To me he was like my adoptive father. I’ve known the Slaven’s for over 30 years and have enjoyed working dogs and spending time with them anytime I could get up North. They are what ranch/farm families are about … hard work, respect of the land, and open arms for friends.

I met Bill at a trial where he had provided the sheep. He was “first and foremost” a shepherd but did he ever love watching and working these dogs. He had such an appreciation of our sport while knowing that he needed these dogs to get his job done. I think this says a lot to end the conversation if trialing is representative of real work. This man made his living from sheep … as did his father and grandfather. He knew the value of a good working dog and did everything in his power to provide a place to keep this spirit of real dog work alive.

He, his wife (Joan), his son (Micheal), and his daughter (Peggy) for 21 years put on one of the most challenging trials in North America.  This trial tested the merit of these dogs in the “real sense”. It was a huge course (700 yard outrun up hills) with sheep that tested the dogs every step of the way. The Slaven’s didn’t run in the trial – they only worked tirelessly so we could put our dogs to the challenge.

Every time I stayed – after dinner we had to go out … so he could let me watch his young dogs work – he was always so proud of them. It was a ritual we had for many years. I won’t be able to head “up north” for a trial without thinking that I won’t have the pleasure of sharing dog work with him.

As much as it is a personal loss – it’s a bigger loss for the working dog community. We don’t have many trials (or ranchers that love to put on trials) to showcase our dogs like Zamora did. It’s a big loss to everyone  … even if they never had the pleasure of running their dog on this great hill trial. Bill did it all for “the love of the dogs”

I loved what his daughter said – Bill is up in heaven organizing a dog trial. The image gave me comfort. He will be so very missed down here.


Zamora is always one of the most enjoyable and challenging dog trials around. This year it was challenging in “more ways than one” … the weather took charge and everything had to revolve around it.

It all started with the rain they had received in Northern California. The Slaven’s were lambing so they had to rent sheep and try to haul them in. Almost couldn’t “get er done” with all wet weather and mud – so had to bring what they could before it became impossible. This meant there weren’t enough sheep for all the dogs to have fresh if 5 were run … so it was cut down to 3. This was the first time this had been tried so everyone was wondering what the difference would be. Somehow the thought of 3 range ewes seemed a little daunting — surprisingly they worked fine. The first couple of runs the sheep were eyeing the dogs on the lift but then seemed to flow off the top better as the day wore on. They were lighter than 5 usually are.

With 80+ dogs to run everything was scheduled to go like clock-work to get all the dogs in … well, that is until “weather struck again” … the fog rolled in for a couple of hours on the first day sending all plans into a “tailspin”. It was decided to drop the time (the usual 12 down to 9 minutes) and the shed to try to “fit” the time that was left. As dogs “came and went” it became obvious the biggest problem seemed to be getting the drive finished (usually we are more worried about the 650 yard outrun :@) with the majory of dogs stalling out on the drive. There was a creek that the sheep were suppose to cross to get to the pen. It was decided that just getting to the creek would be the end of the drive (only a “handful” of dogs got them across the creek) and fewer yet actually got to make an attempt at the pen (none penned).

The second run we had almost “caught up” but “the powers to be” still had to find a way to get through all the dogs. So, it was decided to have the handlers walk across the creek (instead of the sheep :@) This shortened the outrun and drive considerably but was the only logical thing to do in order to finish. I think most handlers preferred that to a standard … everyone wants to give the Zamora hill “a go” and so it allowed everyone to get another full run in.

I emailed a friend of mine a picture of the course and she said “it looks like the borders in Scotland” (I didn’t tell her the Slaven’s are originally from Ireland) and I couldn’t agree more (including the rain :@) It’s a trial well worth the trip – it will challenge and stretch you and your dog.


Results can be found “HERE“.

Bond’s back

He’s progressing well in most areas. He needs work on his hill outwork (hard for this flatlander to find :@) This time of year is the worse time to “trailer out” because of the foxtails … so not sure he’s going to get that until fall.

His biggest “flaw” right now is pace. He has a hard time understanding that he CAN work sheep from a distance and pacing himself down. So, that’s the main focus right now. I walk with him for miles and just say “time – time” and he’s fine when I’m walking with him (and putting pressure on to reinforce it).

The way I work on pace  — I will have around 5 sheep (don’t want too many as it makes him want to flank instead of  “line”). I have the sheep on one side of me and the dog on the other … all in a triangle (I’m the point of the triangle). I walk … the sheep walk … and I MAKE him walk. I don’t down him I say time and put pressure on … by taking a step toward him … pointing the crook at him and growl time – if he slows down I release pressure. This allows him to make the same mistake again and get another correction. But it also puts the responsiblity to slow down on HIM. If I just downed him I would be taking that responsibility.

I’m trying to keep the distance between me, the sheep and the dog the same the entire time I’m walking with him. If I HAVE to down him … I will but then I “cluck” to him to walk on again.

He’s beginning to “get that” but when he takes the sheep and just drives off he will only go so far before he tries to speed up and when reminded to “take time” he “tries” to ignore the command (unless I get loud which is NOT what I want to reinforce … only listen when I yell:@).

I try not to work on pace when he’s still fresh and ready to go. I will do a number of outruns to tire him out (if that’s possible :@) before I move on to pace. This allows him to burn some of that youthful steam off before I try to “grind him down”.

Sometimes when he does slow down he tends to disengage from the sheep (also not what I want) by stopping and standing instead of slowing down (telling me he really doesn’t fully understand the concept). Occasionally he will turn around and look at me (confusion). When he does that I say nothing … just wait until he looks back at his sheep … then I repeat the command.

I could just down him but I always feel that takes the incentive out of them. I would be controlling him instead of teaching him HOW to control himself. That’s NOT to say I never down him – I do. It’s just I’m working on “take – time” (not down …  he knows how to down – Well, “most of the time” :@).

“All that said” … I would rather have one I’m always trying to slow down that one I have to encourage on.  I’m trying to develope an open dog so it’s better to take it slowly making sure I keep the push in him. If the dog has “it” in him … age often cures “too pushy” issues that young dogs have.

Traveling and trialing

The NoCal trial circuit was a great success.

Suzy and John Applegate put on their first trial (Plymouth, CA) and it went very well. The trial field was challenging as were the sheep … but that’s the way it should be. What a great area to have a trial … beautiful rolling hills, green grass, scattered oak trees and ponds all around. We even had the enjoyment of 3 swans flying in to land on one of the ponds.

The hilly outrun was trickier than it looked – making some dogs cross and others go to wide. The fetch including crossing a stream and it took a “bit” of push to convince the sheep they REALLY did need to go. The post was positioned at the top of a hill and turning the sheep around it was difficult. Some sheep beat the dogs and got back into the exhaust  (The second day they turned around a rock at the bottom of the hill instead of coming all the way up to the post). The drive was across another stream and “by then” the sheep were not that willing to comply – so again it took a little convincing by the dogs. Then on to the shed and pen (which the sheep didn’t seem to mind).

There was plenty of room to walk dogs and enjoy the scenery. That’s always a bonus when you are traveling with 6 dogs :@)

Here are the results:

Then on to Sandy Milberg’s trial (Santa Rosa, CA) that always runs like a precision clock. Great sheep, really good set out along with every other “detail” allowing the trial to go on without a hitch (which is the “norm” for that trial).

The first day had 50+ dogs running Nursery and/or PN. The sheep were VERY challenging for the young dogs but not unreasonable to handle.

The next day we were on to Open. Two trial fields are run concurrently (allowing 80+ dogs to run). The “Flat” field (that really isn’t flat) usually allows for more finesse and posts the highest scores – but this year seem to be the exception. There were some tremendous runs on the Hill field (which really IS a hill :@) and the scores “beat out” the flat field.


Making mistakes

Through the years many of my students had trouble understanding how to take advantage of a dog making mistakes. If handled correctly a dog (AND student) will learn as much from being “wrong” as being right.

Your dog  should NEVER be afraid to make a mistake or he will be hesitate at *those* times when you need a positive approach.

Think about when you are trying to learn something new. Do you do it right every time – of course not.  However, I bet the things that stick in your mind “the most” are the things you do wrong. Unless carried to an extreme – I don’t see that as a negative thing.

To this day … when I walk off a trial course I can tell you everything I did wrong – even when I have a good run. I need to remember what went wrong so I can go home and “fix” it. If I only remember the *good* I would never get better. I never think “gee, how did I make that panel” … but do I ever “mull over” WHY I missed it :@)

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the run or my dog … only that I’m always striving to get better and improve my dog and my handling.

However, if a dog *fears* to make a mistake it can become a critical hole in his training. When a dog fears doing something wrong … he’s NOT going to be giving it his “all”. It’s like walking on ice expecting it to break any moment … are you going to stride out with all the confidence in the world if you expect to fall through at any moment?

Making mistakes and using those mistakes to your advantage to show the dog the CORRECT way to do something … will build a strong bond of trust between you two. This will encourage him to look to you for guidance when things start going “down hill”. However, getting angry at his mistakes will make him turn away from you when things go wrong … just when he needs direction the most.

Let’s take outruns … he’s running out to where he thinks he saw sheep but he’s wrong (seeing … maybe … rocks or cattle on the other side of the road, etc.). He doesn’t need a handler yelling or getting upset. He needs information … calm helpful direction and *that’s where YOU come in*.

Go back to the basics (to make him comfortable with things he knows) and walk out towards the sheep trying to get him to look in a different direction. Just like you did at the very start of his outrun training. When he finally finds his sheep it will be because of teamwork between you and him.

After all to Err isn’t just human – it’s also canine.

Trialing thoughts

Real work is about what is practical and efficient. Trialing attempts to take what is practical and efficient to precise and perfect. That’s why it requires more interaction and entails such mental discipline on the part of a handler/dog team.

I have never understood the “thought process” that trialing isn’t practical. The phases of work that transpires at a trial are common occurrences in every day shepherding. The difference is your work is being judged and has to be brought up to a higher standard.

Separating ewes out that are bred (in order to feed them extra) is one maneuver that is used frequently (shedding). Driving sheep through gates simulates driving sheep to the next field through a gate. Much easier “at home” because there is a fence on “either side” of “those” gates funneling the sheep through also the sheep KNOW where the gate is. Penning, driving, outruns are all necessary to any sheep operation. I’ve always thought trialing was one  of the best ways to improve the genetics of working dogs. It’s a place to see numerous dogs work and see their strengths and weakness. Hopefully allowing  us to see potential breeding quality we need to improve the working dog.

Why people trial is another story. For some it’s the “glory” for others it’s a to see how their dogs measure up to other dogs.

 I’ve always try to look at trials as a gauge to see where my dogs are in their training and to find what I need to work on. Winning is great and we all enjoy it but it doesn’t make you nor your dog any better/worse than before you walked to that post.

Then, there are some people that make trialing miserable for everyone attending. Instead of watching dogs looking for the special ones -no, instead – they use it as a time to put down everything and everybody. Each and every dog and handler has good and bad qualities. To look for the negative in every run in order to say how much better they could do … is a way to try and build themselves up by putting others down.  I understand not liking a dog or a way a handler handles a dog … everyone has their preferences —  but to go out of your way to LOOK for faults … isn’t good for trialing.

There is a top handler I admire very much as I’ve never heard him put down either handler nor a dog. He looks at dogs and if you ask him what he thinks he will point out the good parts of the run. He’s a pleasure to be around and makes a trial an enjoyable place. I wish there were more like him as I think he’s the best PR there is for dog trialing.