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It looks so innocent. Three sides…a swinging gate….a quiet, empty, beckoning space… and a six foot rope.

Why is it then, that sheep often hit an invisible barrier as they approach this inanimate object we call the free-standing pen? Why do they stop, lean back, then shy away and hesitate to enter? Could it be there are faint voices that only sheep can hear, warning them of impending doom? Is it possible that only their eyes can see the pale ghosts of sheep from the past, mouthing the words “ab-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ndon all hope, ewe who enter here?”

Or could it be that instead of an empty pen, the sheep see something entirely different (just like in the cartoons), like maybe a huge roasting oven, or a barbeque pit. With a slowly turning rotisserie, emitting an occasional sizzling sound caused by juices dripping into a bed of red hot coals….

Fortunately for us as handlers, none of the above is true. Actually, the sheep see the same scene we do. Three sides….a swinging gate….a quiet, empty, beckoning space… and a six foot rope.

Penning is truly an art unto itself. However, many handlers fail to recognize the importance of learning the proper way to ‘work’ the free standing pen. Often these handlers simply lack experience working with this type of exercise, not realizing that the intricacies of it vary greatly from the re-pen situation seen in the more common arena trials.

Why do the sheep act differently when faced with the re-pen found in the “A” Course, as opposed to the free-standing pen found on the open field “B” course? The answer is simple once we consider the chain of events following each exercise.

What happens to the sheep after the re-pen in the arena on the “A” course? Simple — the run is finished. The sheep are usually allowed to rejoin the rest of the flock in a holding pen, which offers rest, shade, and water. To sheep, this is a positive reinforcement, a reward. They like rest, shade, and water — not to mention the sudden absence of a handler and dog. They are once again in charge of their own lives, and all has returned to normal. As a matter of fact, the real challenge with the arena re-pen is often holding the sheep away from the gate and demonstrating that sometimes elusive hold before releasing the sheep to run eagerly into the exhaust pen.

Now let’s compare this to the “B” course, free-standing pen. We now have a much smaller pen, seemingly plopped in the middle of nowhere, with no visible escape route and no other sheep in sight. There is no obvious incentive for the sheep to enter, other than the repercussions of what might happen if they ultimately refuse. It appears more like a trap than a refuge. A handler at the mouth of the gate often adds to the tenseness of the situation, as he fidgets at the end of the gate with rope in hand, giving nervous, rapid-fire commands as the four-legged ‘predator’ approaches. Once the sheep finally enter the pen, the gate closes, but only for a split second. The sheep are offered no ‘relief’ nor reward, as they must now exit as quickly as they entered, and go on to the next exercise.

Penning out in the open requires both handler and dog to work as a team. The dictionary defines teamwork as a “cooperative effort by the members of a group or team to achieve a common goal”. Too many handlers stand upright and ‘frozen’ at the pen, simply watching and waiting for the dog to somehow (magically) push the sheep into the pen. They pray for good luck, expecting the dog to cover his side AND theirs, and motionlessly watch him doing the majority of the work all by himself. This does not describe teamwork! Proper setup and handling of the pen makes the difference between a successful pen and a frustrating experience for both you and your dog.

Actual judging for the pen does not begin until the livestock enter the working area in front of the pen. However, don’t be fooled into thinking you can wait until this point before you start thinking about how you are going to pen them! Proper set up for the pen starts the moment the sheep make the turn after the last drive panel. Remember the line – the sheep have a path straight from the drive panels, directly to the pen. Any variance from this will result in off-line points.

The pace of the sheep immediately after the turn is as crucial as it is through the rest of the run. If you are working the Started course and have sheep that are happiest acting as insulation for your knees, getting the gate open before the sheep arrive can be tricky! And remember, anytime the sheep stop on course, the judge can deduct points to allow for a dog who could accomplish the task without any stops on course. If you are working the Intermediate or Advanced course, however, you should be at the pen and ready before the sheep arrive.

Pay attention to the manner in which your dog is handling the sheep. The pace often speeds up as the last panel is completed and the home-stretch turn is made toward the pen. Be aware of what your dog is doing on the approach to the pen. Pushy dogs make the sheep nervous and can easily push them off-line along the way or even (horrors!) past the pen with a fast approach. Insist on a proper pace that will bring the sheep to you at an even, steady walk or trot, timing their arrival at the pen after you have had time to prepare.

Swing the gate open when you see the sheep actually looking at it. If the sheep are looking away when the gate is swung, they may not realize it is open. Be prepared to take advantage of the length of rope, which allows you to move away from the pen and make your side of the ‘funnel’ into the pen as much as six feet longer. Dropping the rope voluntarily will result in a non-qualifying run, so hopefully there is a knot tied at the end so that you can feel when you’ve reached the end of the rope without having to look. Having a crook, or sorting stick in your hand can give you even more leeway to lengthen your side of the funnel.

Position the dog so that he is driving the sheep straight into the hinge on the gate. Work with the hinge as your ‘target’. Work your side, and let the dog work the opposite side. Don’t ask the dog to cover both sides. It takes equal pressure by both team members on both sides of the pen to accomplish this task.

Begin to apply the pressure slowly and gradually, and be aware of the direction of the heads of the sheep. Do whatever it takes to get the sheep to look into the pen (short flanks by the dog, using your own body position, or just waiting a few moments, as examples). Wherever the sheep heads are pointed, their bodies will follow. Don’t be quick to increase pressure on either side if the sheep are looking back at the dog or past you. Apply too much pressure at this point and those bodies will follow those heads right out of the mouth of the pen!

As the sheep approach the mouth of the pen, take your time. This is a judged event, not a timed event! A wrong move at this point will be disastrous. If you allow the sheep to circle the pen even once, you not only set yourself up to NQ (up to one point per head for each time they circle), you make the job of penning even tougher. Once the sheep learn they can avoid the pen by blowing past you or the dog, they learn to use this technique to continue to avoid the pen.

Give the sheep time to become comfortable with you and your dog in this close proximity. Show them they can trust your team to treat them with respect. Counter your body language with your dog’s body position/power to place and hold equal pressure on the sheep. Be aware of the amount of pressure you and your dog are exhibiting and adjust accordingly. Too much pressure by the dog will blow the sheep past you, and by the same token, too much pressure by you will blow the sheep over or past your dog. Read the sheep, their actions and reactions will tell you what needs done.

Take care not to touch the sheep with your body, sorting stick or the gate. These infractions cause unnecessary points off (up to 5 each time) that have an enormous effect on this ten point obstacle. Remember — lose a mere 5 ½ points and you won’t be in line to take home any ribbons regardless of how well the rest of your run went! I recently went from placing in a 35 dog class to a non-qualifying run by simply bumping the sheep with the gate when they hesitated going into the pen. The judge at this particular trial is a rancher whom I have utmost respect for as he has been working dogs for close to 60 years. It was a hard lesson to learn, but one that will forever remind me of the importance of showing respect to our livestock.

Shut the gate quietly and with self-control. Slamming the gate will not only cost points, it will make your sheep nervous, and you have yet another exercise to complete with them.

Once you take the sheep out of the pen, remember to shut the gate again before going on to the hold/shed. Take a moment to place the rope in it’s proper position, out of respect for the next handler who will take the field.

A few last tips for setting up successful penning –

1) Do your homework at home, not at the trial. Train in as many different places on as many different types of stock as you can. Learn how to read/work heavy sheep, light sheep and sheep that have never been in the pen. If penning ever seems to become “too easy” raise the degree of difficulty. Place another dog just outside the back of the pen, put your friends in the back of the pen, or try restricting the gate opening to three feet or less. Try penning only one or two head of sheep rather than the customary three or five.

2) At the trial, check the gate on the pen in the handlers meeting. Familiarize yourself with the latching system, and open and close the gate a few times. Pay attention to whether or not you have to lift up on the gate to swing it, and how far it will open.

3) As you approach the handler’s post prior to the start of your run, check the gate again. Make sure the rope is in the proper position. The handler before you may have inadvertently looped it around a few extra times, or accidentally draped it where the knot could catch and prevent the gate from opening properly. When it comes time to swing the gate open, you don’t need to have any surprises!