2011 Belgian Sheepdog National Specialty

Herding with Poppies – by Kayla Savory

Bright sunlight struck me as I slipped down the stairs of the large, noisy, wheeled home I had resided in with my people for the last few days. Scents of colored grass I didn’t know filled the air. A sharp, musky tang clung to everything. Packed earth and sweet grass surrounded my paws and mountains stood to attention in the background, some topped with that white cool stuff that I like to play in. The humans of my forever home had brought me here, to experience new things that I had never seen or smelled in my previous four homes. Wonder, worry, excitement, and curiosity filled me as my person lead me through a giant fence and into an area of old structures that carried a sharp scent that was reminiscent of blood mixed with metal. Strange prickly plants grew alongside the familiar tall trees like the ones I napped under at home. Then I saw them. Large and smelly and temperamental. Covered in white fur that looked unlike any I’d seen before. They stared me down, ears twitching and hooves stomping at the ground, stirring up dirt. What are these strange creatures? Why do other dogs bark in excitement and lunge after them?

April 3, 2011 was the beginning of the 2011 Belgian Sheepdog National Specialty. The very first day of herding began bright and early not far from Lancaster, CA. Grass and small brush covered the land with huge patches of orange poppies dazzling the eyes. Sheep and dogs ran amongst grassy fields filled with this state flower; blue lavender intermixing and adding even more color, contrasting with the shiny black coats of the dogs.

Eight o’clock on Sunday morning was the beginning of everything. The stock handlers and scribes had arrived, the stock was already there, and the courses ready to be set up. The geese honked in the trailer by their pen, adding their opinions as the stakes were driven into the ground and panels placed to create the "Z" chute, "Y" chute and holding pen that the dog and handler would work with. A gentle chestnut mare watched from her enclosure beside the area where the geese and sheep would work; curious large eyes ever vigilant.

From the geese pens on to the sheep pens, we were escorted by a Red tail Hawk that coasted on the air currents above our heads. Pens from the day before disassembled and placed against the fencing, it was time to head back to the barn and collect the paperwork and run through the first of the handlers’ meetings of the day.

The first run of C course began with a quick and disappointing end. Resorting of the sheep and we were off again! A smooth run with the dog watching and guiding the sheep along the narrow path, protecting them from traffic, letting them graze several times, and then finally putting them back into their pen, all with the gentle assistance of the handler.

Off to the big pen next! Judge and scribes standing on the sidelines as the dog and handler set up. With a signal to the stock handlers, the sheep are out and surrounding their flakes of alfalfa, hungrily munching away. Dog after dog, command after command, sheep were gathered from where they fed and were put smoothly through their paces. They scattered from time to time, dogs teeth were flossed, and tongues lolled as the canines ran to gather the flocks back in and under control. From time to time voices and tempers were tested, but such is the life of a sheep trial.

Back to the geese, we scrambled with fresh dogs, and fresh clipboards and drinks in our hands. Honking, hissing and feathers preceded the birds as they came out into the pen. Two runs later and we were heading back to the big pen for more sheep runs. Four dogs, four handlers and the winds were picking up, roaring and making it almost impossible for someone to hear the person standing next to them, but the dogs still persevered! When all was said and done, our high in trial had been found. The dog standing tall at his owner’s side as the ribbons and trophies were awarded to them by the judge, clapping and cheering heightening the experience.

Last but not least of the day were the Herding Tested trials. Five runs set and outstandingly preformed. Some listened to their handlers, guiding them from one point in the course to another and back again, changing direction each time to show the control over the sheep. Others went wild with excitement. Having been stuck in a plane or vehicle for hours – sometimes days – they were happy to be back out in the field doing what they loved and just took off, burning dirt and scattering sheep. Tongue’s lolling, they had fun!

After the HT ribbons had been handed out, hugs and good wishes followed. People began to return to their vehicles, going back to temporary homes with their dogs, some meeting up that night to talk and share experiences.

Smells. Everywhere there is something I have never smelled before. It tingles my nose and makes me ask questions. What is all this? Where are we? What are we doing here? What are those noisy things that smell kinda like the critters my people feed in the backyard? What is that even larger, smelly creature next to them that I can walk under with ease? Hm, guess it doesn’t matter. We’re leaving anyways. I wonder if we will come back tomorrow...

The next day started an hour later, giving the dogs and workers time to recover and rest from the long day before. Driving down dirt lane to the location, they were escorted by a raven or two, who are believed by some Native American tribes to have brought the light to the world on their wings. A good omen. Straight away the help was out in the fields preparing the sheep and geese pens while the handlers walked their dogs and psyched themselves for the runs they would be doing that day.

Promptly at ten am the C course dogs were once again out and about, the judge and scribes watching as they ran in reverse order from the day before. The morning started out far better than the day before, without the wind blowing hats from heads. The poppy fields were blooming, creating solid seas of green and orange no matter where you looked, lending an amazing backdrop to the herding dogs. Indeed the raven had been a good omen for the runs started off on a much better foot, two qualifying scores right out of the gate.

Working in the big field was next, the dogs and their handlers in reverse order. More time was given between each event, giving the gallery time to refresh themselves, the dogs to rest and the crew to gather their heads for the next task. The wind continued to hold off as the sheep were released from their pen for the first dog. The temperature slowly climbed as dog after dog ran, and paper after paper was ferried to the barn for the table steward to arrange and add up. The first section of the sheep trials came to an elegant close with more qualifying scores than the day before.

As a smaller amount of the gallery watched as the geese were worked, others gathered to eat their lunches and talk over what had happened in the rings, preparing for the sheep once again. Two dogs and two noisy runs leaving frazzled handlers and ruffled feathers later, the goose pen was being disassembled and prepared for HT as those who hadn’t eaten ate, played and walked with their dogs, and gathered back at the sheep pen for the next set of trails.

As the dogs ran, gathering and moving the sheep, fairing far better than they had the day before, ravens and hawks flew above lending their Native magic to the handlers and pets. The wind wasn’t blowing as it had the day before, the temperature was nice and pleasant, allowing the poppies to bloom and add more of a backdrop than had been before.

As the day drew on, it was times for the Herding Instinct Certificate (HIC) tests. Food was being cooked, filling the air with its aromas as everyone gathered around the round pen by the barn with their untrained dogs. Many of the canines that were there had never seen a sheep before in their life. A few handlers as well, had never been in the herding ring and others not in many years. Dog after dog was taken in and showed potential for what they were bred for – herding. From cute fluffy puppies to a five year old rescue of five homes.

The day closed with food and laughter and stories before everyone parted ways, ready to head to the next location and the continuation of the Belgian Sheepdog National Specialty.

The sun was setting and the heat from the day leaving. I was glad for the thick black coat I had, protecting me from the cool breeze, and the ground was warm beneath my pads. The loud noises of the smelly creatures in the pen scared me. I hid behind my persons legs, watching with wide eyes. What were these? What were the others doing in there with them? Before I knew it, my person was leading me to the gate of the pen where the others had been. Then I was in there with those smelly, large creatures, my owner, and another human. I followed at my person’s side, watching them, sniffing, trying to understand. Then, as if something had been triggered deep within, the urge to chase came upon me. I was let off my lead and off I went! I chased and they ran! I turned, changing direction, and found I could move them, guiding them closer to my owner. The other human stepped in, helping me move them the way the people wanted. What fun! The smell! The feel! The freedom! This, this was what I was meant to do. I had finally come home!

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