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Let's Look at the Lift

by Lori Herbel

Choose which best describes the term lift' in terms of herding:

a) The second the stock jump straight up in the air when my dog gooses them from behind;

b) The moment the stock split into two groups, with two going to the left, and three going to the right, and my dog appearing right in the middle;

c) When my dog throws himself at the stock and sheer momentum forces them into motion;

d) When my dog has to physically crawl under the bellies of the stock and stand up to break them loose from their stationary stance.

The true answer to the question, of course, is not listed here. However, I have to admit to witnessing a few trial runs where I suspect the handler could choose at least one of the above!

For our purpose of finding the true definition of lift' on the trial field, we must first recognize that the lift is the middle section of a three part exercise. Outrun  Lift  Fetch. This trio of exercises is found at the beginning of both the A' and B' course. Interestingly, on the A course it is lumped together as one exercise with one set of points (20) which is 20% of the total score; and on the B course, the three tasks are separated into three sets of points (Outrun 20; Lift  10; Fetch  20) which adds up to 50% of the total score.

Regardless of which course you are competing on, the lift is one of the most crucial elements of your trial run, as it is the very moment in time when your dog initially sets the stock in motion, and thereby sets the tone for the rest of the run. It is an extremely quick exercise that happens between the end of the outrun and the beginning of the fetch. It is also a very misunderstood exercise, that with a little bit of understanding could make a big difference in the level of success.

Let's back up a moment and start with the outrun. From the handlers post, the handler casts the dog from his side to move out and around the stock to arrive at the point of balance. (Balance being the geographical position the dog needs to be in for the stock to begin their movement straight toward the handler.) Once the dog is at the balance point, he then turns from the flank, straight toward the stock. This turning motion causes the dog to penetrate the stock's flight zone, which causes them to move away from the dog. If the dog is on balance, the stock will move directly toward the handler to begin the fetching portion of the exercise. The fetch is then the act of the dog bringing the stock toward the handler in a straight line, under control.

The size of the livestock's fight or flight zone (comfort bubble) depends on numerous factors the presence of the dog, weather, past experience, etc. In order to have a proper lift, the dog should not penetrate that fight or flight (comfort) zone until he is at the balance point. As the dog leaves the handler's side on the outrun, he should take an angled path that widens as he goes, in order to arrive on the other side of the stock without disturbing them. The path should not be so narrow that it disturbs the sheep, and it should not be so wide as to waste time, effort and cause the dog to become off contact from his livestock.

The dog has now completed the outrun, and is in a position to execute the lift. As the dog turns in from the flank and approaches the stock, the lift is the moment in time when the stock react to the dog's pressure and move. The exercise is usually over quicker than you can say the word “lift.”

How does the dog know where to turn in toward the stock? We've already determined that he should turn in on balance'. Where is balance? Is it at twelve o'clock (directly opposite the handler at six o'clock)? Can it be in more than one place? Can it change from one run to the next or is it always the same?

A seasoned dog that excels at reading livestock will be able to determine balance on his own. Balance is an ever-changing element and the most accurate way to find balance is to have a dog that can read the livestock's reaction to his actions from the top of the outrun. Due to the nature of the lift, it is difficult for the handler to read the stock from a distance, react quickly enough to instruct the dog, and for the dog to process the command in such a short time.

As to the location of balance, well, therein lies the mysterious element. Is balance always directly behind the stock (at twelve o'clock)? No! Balance is wherever the dog needs to be geographically, to start the stock in motion on a straight line to the handler for the fetch. Unfortunately, many handlers, and even judges, are under the impression that a dog that turns in at eleven o'clock or one o'clock is either stopping short or over running the stock. Not necessarily so!

In a perfect world, the stock would be on a perfect setout, with no magnetic draws to mysteriously beckon them from anywhere on the field. They would be perfectly content to stay stationary at the setout point until the competitive dog reaches balance and turns in to make his initial approach. Now, we all know perfect conditions don't exist, especially on a trial field! There are almost always draws or other conditions that can and will affect the stock that are beyond our control. For example, the stock is often drawn back towards the gate in which they entered the arena, or to the gate which will allow them to exit the arena. Heavy stock will have a strong draw to either stay with a setout person, or to run to the exhibitor. Light stock may simply have a strong draw to exit the arena or field at any place they think there may be a weakness. A dog needs to read and offset these draws in order to achieve a proper lift.

Then how can we tell when a dog has turned in at perfect balance? By watching the direction in which the stock starts into motion. If the stock starts straight toward the handler, then the dog was on balance. Regardless of what we (as outsiders looking on) anticipate to be balance, we have to give the dog credit for being correct if the results are right. However, if the stock lifts to the left, or right, or in a complete opposite direction of the handler, then we know the dog was not on balance and points should be deducted accordingly.

In order to evaluate the quality of the lift, we should not only look at the initial direction of travel of stock, but also look at the manner in which the dog approaches the stock, and the manner in which the stock is set into motion. The dog should approach the stock in a workmanlike manner, with a respectful, take control attitude. The stock should not startle, nor move erratically. They should start to move toward the handler without fear or concern of the dog. The initial movement should be fluid and without a lengthy hesitation.

Now, for the purpose of judging, let's tie the three elements back together. The outrun, lift and fetch are all co-dependent upon each other and should be judged as such. If the outrun is tight or sliced, this will affect the lift and points should be deducted from both exercises. If the lift is incorrect (rushed for example, or in the wrong direction), it will affect the beginning of the fetch and points should be deducted from both exercises. Final judging of the outrun should not be complete until the quality of the lift is evident. The quality of the lift affects the beginning of the scoring of the fetch (for example, if the lift is off to one side or another, the fetch begins with a bauble, or offline).

Keep in mind that the point of balance can also change. It will not necessarily be in the same place for every dog that runs in a class, or throughout a day. Livestock are living beings with a mind of their own, and they are constantly acting and reacting to what is happening around them. It is this very reason that a dog that can read the livestock and choose balance on his own from the top will be a more consistently successful dog.

Judging for the lift, whether on Course A or B, should basically be the same. Interestingly, the suggested scoring doesn't really address deductions on Course A, but we can find appropriate deductions under the scoring listed for Course B. Just as with the rest of a trial course, deductions should be made for anything less than perfect.