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by Lori Herbel

Planning a herding trial involves club members bringing a lot of small details together to form a complete and total package. Planning starts months in advance to hopefully ensure that the event runs smoothly and according to plan.

There are, of course, the most obvious items that need to be lined up to plan a trial. Facilities, judges, and livestock are some of the most obvious items that must all meet regulations and be appropriate for the courses offered. A Trial committee and secretary must be selected that is knowledgeable and experienced, and can handle the paperwork. The smaller details follow – lining up concessions, restrooms, shade, water for the dogs, ordering ribbons and trophies, making armbands, finding someone to work setout, etc.

Wait! Finding someone to work setout? Whoa! Let’s back up and move that detail from the Small category to the Most Obvious category! Unfortunately, many herding clubs, as well as competitors, are unaware of just how important a topnotch setout crew really is.

There are different methods that can be used to set stock. Some setout crews simply lead the stock to a pile of hay or pan of grain, and leave them there to happily munch away until the dog takes control on its lift. Some use a setout dog to maneuver and hold the stock. Other stock handlers just use their body positions to draw the stock to the setout point. While combinations of all these options are simple, the intricacies of how they should come together are not.

What many people don’t realize is that setting out livestock at a trial is not just about moving stock from pen to pen, opening the gate and ejecting the stock out into the arena. Setting livestock is about handling the stock quietly and efficiently, and preserving their hopefully already willingness to work with, and trust, a dog. It’s about handling the stock the least amount to get the job done. It’s about knowing how to make livestock comfortable in between runs, so that their stress level remains manageable.

Setting livestock is about knowing how to handle taking the stock the shortest distance to the setout point and helping them settle without jousting them about and making them nervous and over-reactive. It’s about knowing how to hold the stock, reading and anticipating their movements, and knowing why they are acting, and reacting like they are. It’s about anticipating and reading ‘draws’ and how to counteract them.

Setting livestock is about knowing how to set in a minimum size arena with a drooling, chomping, crazy-eyed dog wanting to break his ‘stay’ at the handlers post a mere 30 feet away, next to his nervous and fidgeting handler. It’s about being able to set and hold livestock in a maximum size open field course and knowing where to be, where the dogs should be, and when to gracefully exit out of the way.

Setting livestock is about knowing how — and how long — to hold the stock should the exhibitor’s dog slice in at the top. It is knowing what to do if the exhibitor’s dog comes straight up the middle, or runs clear to the fence and takes half his allotted time to complete his outrun and lift. It’s about knowing how to read a dogs intent, and thus knowing when to protect livestock, or to trust a dog when they’ve never seen it work before. It’s about handling their own setout dog without affecting the competitor’s dog, despite the fact that both dog’s basic commands are likely the same.

Sound like a tough job?! Done properly, it IS tough. And it is never a job that should be taken lightly.

There are four major ‘live’ elements to every trial run — the judge, the exhibitor, the dog, and the livestock. Before every trial, each of these elements are prepared and meet the regulations. The judge has fulfilled the requirements to be licensed by the American Kennel Club to pass judgement on the trial entries. The exhibitor has read the rules and has knowledge of what is expected of him. The dog has been trained to the level at which he is entered, and also knows what is expected of him. The livestock have been properly introduced to being worked by dogs, and meet the qualifications called for in the rulebook.

During the trial, the comfort of the judge, exhibitor and dogs are all automatically taken into consideration by the host club, which provides shade, seating, concessions, cooling tanks for the dogs, restroom facilities, etc. Where does the livestock fit into this comfort equation? The rulebook states they must have shade and water. Granted, these items are necessary comfort items, but a third element is easily overlooked — the mental and physical comfort of the trial stock throughout the day.

Animals are survivalists. Their comfort level is determined by key factors that surround them. They can’t read the section in the rulebook that states that their safety is paramount and that dogs not under control will be immediately removed. The livestock’s natural instincts guide them in their decision making every day of their lives. Trial ducks, sheep, goats and cattle can only respond to situations by respecting what Mother Nature tells them to do to survive.

Given all of this information, as a host club member, how important do you think it is to you, to carefully choose who will serve on your club’s Setout Team? As an exhibitor, when you walk to the post, how important is it to you that a host club has taken it into serious consideration who will be handling the stock all weekend?

The quality of the setout crew can make or break a trial in a hurry. All of the livestock preparation in the world prior to the trial can be severely damaged in matter of minutes by having an inexperienced setout crew. The last thing a handler standing at the post needs to hear is stock banging off the fences, see sheep popping up into view like popcorn in a hot frying pan, and hear setout people cursing. The gate opens, and the stock come catapulting out of the setout gate in a panic, high-headed, wide-eyed and looking frantically for the nearest exit. No, this is not anyone’s idea of a good start in return for a $40 (or higher) entry fee!

A truly good setout crew should blend in to the background, and be nearly invisible as they work quietly and efficiently. They are seen and not heard, but are ready at a moment’s notice should their services be required. They can make decisions instantaneously, not just any decision, but educated decisions that come from experience and knowledge of their job. They are constantly evaluating how their stock is holding out through the day and know when and how to adjust the conditions to preserve the mental stability of the stock.

Where do these top notch setout crews come from? Unfortunately, there is no store called Setout Crews R Us, nor any website where the services can be special ordered.

And unfortunately, many clubs run into a stumbling block when trying to draw a set out crew from within the club membership. Understandably, the members who have the experience and knowledge to handle the job usually have trial level dogs they want to compete with. The AKC rules specifically do not allow a dog that is entered that day to be working the setout pens. This rule is to keep the playing field level, by not allowing anyone an unfair advantage by getting to work the stock more than any of the other entered dogs.

If a dog is used to set out stock, it should be a well trained, responsive dog with experience working in tight spaces. There is no place in the setout or exhaust pens for an inexperienced dog! The time to learn handling or livestock skills, or train your dog, is not during a trial as a member of a setout crew. The top priority at a trial is the exhibitors, for without them, there would be no trial. Unhappy exhibitors can take a big bite out of the budget for future trials.

If a club does not have a experienced members that are willing to manage setout, then a reasonable solution should be taken into serious consideration. An option would be to hire an experienced setout crew, or with some advance planning, consider putting together a clinic set up specifically to teach club members how to efficiently work setout. Clinics and fun days are excellent opportunities for new handlers or new dogs to learn.

The two main keys for setout should be efficiency and consistency. These factors are equally important within the classes and across all levels, since all levels compete against each other for High in Trial. Each setout should look as identical as possible to the one before it, and the one after it.

Competing handlers, listen up to this next piece of advice. Take every opportunity to prepare your dog by training him to handle any type of setout you may encounter. Teach him to pick stock up out of a corner, off of a feed pan, around a setout dog, off the fence, and away from a stock handler. Teach your dog how to lift and control heavy sheep, and light sheep. Teach yourself how to handle your dog in these situations. Learn to honestly evaluate the issues you need to address and don’t be quick to place blame elsewhere for a lack of training.

Setout crews are hard-working folks who rarely get the recognition they deserve. They spend all day behind the scenes, in the heat or cold, and dust or mud, working hard to help set up your run to be a successful one. Next time you go to a trial, take a few moments to focus on the crew in the back, and find a moment to give them a pat on the back or a well deserved ‘thanks’!