I arrived an hour and ten minutes early—proud of myself because I wasn’t a morning person. Entering the trial site, I felt fortunate for having landed at my destination with time to spare. I intended to get my bearings. It was chilly at six-fifty in the morning, with a dense fog lying close to the ground. My breath condensed as I exhaled, shrouding my sight for a brief moment. The familiar sound of a shepherd’s whistle sliced through the mist. A powerful yearning to examine the course overcame me.
It was my first Big Hat herding trial. Ever. I had never witnessed such a competition. The all-breed herding events I had previously entered were not acknowledged by many of the individuals who competed at sanctioned border collie trials. I was advancing to the big leagues.
I felt prepared. I had read two books, from cover to cover, twice, and watched three videos that I purchased from the classified section of the Working Border Collie Magazine. I assumed it would be a fairly straightforward task to gather up a few sheep, walk them ten yards, and then put them into a pen.
Goosebumps raced across my skin. It was hard to say whether they were a result of the chill in the air or due to my heightened exhilaration. In retrospect, I would deem them an omen of things to come.
First on the task list was to exercise my dog after the long trip. It was rare for me to be early to any event, and the thought that I had plenty of time to unwind and prepare thrilled me.
“Novice handler’s meeting! Novice handler’s meeting! All novice handlers come to the post, now!” The sound was deafening. It broke through the fog and demolished any veneer of tranquility that I was wearing. The bullhorn blasted its message several times in all directions. I looked at my watch. It was six fifty-six. Holding a handler’s meeting an hour prior to the event was unconventional. It was, however, my first border collie trial. I had no standard of reference.
The frigid dew oozed through the tips of my canvas sneakers. I wished I had pulled on my rubber boots before leaving the vehicle. With a hurried pace, I raced around a metal building. There I saw three sets of empty bleachers, a long, flat hay wagon, and a lengthy stretch of orange plastic snow fencing. Clearly it had been erected to separate the trial field from the seating area. A group of about fifteen huddled, hands pressed deeply in pockets, shoulders drawn up to encourage their coat collars to protect their exposed skin from the biting breeze. Before them stood an exceedingly tall man wearing a seasoned Carhartt jacket and well-worn jeans that seemed a size too large for his wiry frame. He was speaking.
“I don’t want to see any gripping. You’ll be called immediately,” he declared in a long, southern Illinois twang. Before he could utter another word, I saw it—the huge poster board tacked on the end of the wagon: NOVICE RUNNING ORDER. Number. Dog. Handler. The column headings, scribed with a thick black marker, stood out from the bright, white paper.
1 Shamaron Tammie Johnson
I felt like a bowling ball had been plunged into my stomach. There it was; my name and my dog’s name written next to a number one. Everything outside my body became insignificant. The prospect of this adversity occurring had never crossed my mind. How could I be so foolish? I would not have the opportunity to observe a single run before I had to compete. It was a condition I had not contemplated.
Parched mouth. Sweaty palms. Weak knees. Fortunately, I could still see. I turned toward the field. The dense mist prevented a full view of the course. What I did spot was a stack of three straw bales positioned around a metal T-post that had been hammered into the ground. They appeared to be floating in the fog that undulated upon the turf. A pen made of white-washed boards stood 30 feet from the post. It seemed quite small.
“So, does everyone understand, then?” the judge asked without waiting for an answer.
“Let’s get started, first handler to the post,” he announced as he moved with giraffe-like strides to the end of the wagon. Skipping the middle step, he climbed a temporary set of stairs. The click-clack of his boots moving across the aged, wooden boards of the wagon pulled me into reality as the judge took his seat.
“Are you Tammie?” a well-bundled-up woman inquired. I only could assume that she determined my identity because she knew everyone else in the crowd. It was a matter of deduction. Reluctantly, I nodded my head.
“The judge is waiting.” She gestured toward the handler’s post.
“I thought it started at eight? That’s what it said on the paperwork.” I wondered if she heard the crack in my voice. I felt like crying.
“Yeah. We received more entries than we expected, so we’ve moved up the start time an hour,” she replied without a hint of apology, as if it were entirely acceptable to do such a thing. It wasn’t acceptable. It wasn’t decent. You can’t do that. I arrived an hour early so that this wouldn’t happen to me.
My shepherd’s crook was still in the car. It was my singular security blanket. I could lean on it. I could block sheep with it. I could direct my dog with it. It’s imperative that I get my crook. Calculating that it was a two-minute walk back to the car, I wondered if they would wait four minutes for my return. I deliberated if I would be required to forfeit my turn because I was late for a trial to which I arrived an hour early. How contorted. I struggled to accept what was happening.
“I don’t even have my crook,” I petitioned. My voice broke again. Did that sound like whining?
I didn’t know those people, but they knew me. They had all been in my shoes. They had been to their first trial. Still competing in the Novice level, it had not been so long ago that those folks had experienced my anguish. None of that mattered at the time. I didn’t need their empathy. I needed the hour that was stolen from me, and I needed my shepherd’s staff.
“Come on, then. First handler to the post. It’s going to be a long day,” the judge hollered.
A beefy man stepped forward. He was wearing a weathered jacket and a knitted Green Bay Packers cap enhanced with ear flaps with strings to tie them. His eyes sparkled like blue sapphires above his ruddy cheeks, conveying kindness and concern. With an outstretched arm, he presented a beautiful shepherd’s staff. It was topped with a carved horn handle in the shape of a sheep and a lamb—clearly a prized possession.
“You can borrow mine.”
I regarded my dog—a lovely creature, yet wholly unaware why we were standing in that field. Shamaron gazed back at me and swooshed his tail. His jaw opened slightly to reveal his signature smile. If he could sense my despair, he wasn’t showing it. I suspect that was his intention.
My devoted companion had been unflappable as I learned about his world, his religion, his craft, his brilliance. That dog had awarded me more awareness and understanding than any of the human instructors whose advice I had sought about herding. I could tell he was game, even if he didn’t know what was about to occur. That was who he was—always ready for the challenge. He never held my own incompetence against me. He perpetually elevated me the way that a ballroom dancer presented his female partner. Sham had an uncanny way of exuding confidence, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude about everyday life and extraordinary adversities.
The man nudged his crook toward me. I reached for it and nodded my appreciation. The woman aimed me toward the entrance to the trial field—an improvised gate held fast with a couple of bungee cords. Apprehensive and anxious, I began my voyage. Is there anything else I am missing, anything else I need?
“Good luck,” said the man without his crook. I suppose that good fortune was the remaining crucial element I coveted.
The grass on the field was even longer and, hence, wetter than the turf around the stands. With each step, droplets of cold dew catapulted off the tips of my shoes, made their way under my pants legs, then dripped down my skin and seeped into my socks. Sham trotted along oblivious to what was about to happen, soaking up the dew in his thick black fur. Had he been able to see at least one other dog’s run, he would have known that there were sheep to be herded.
When we reached the post I surveyed the field. Before me lay a shockingly steep hill. Somewhat obscured in the mist stood a man with four sheep at his knees. Curious. I wondered what he was doing there. Then I saw two tiny, sharp, black triangles rise from the grass. A border collie, in customary working mode, was influencing the sheep to remain beside the man. The dog took an excited step. It triggered the sheep to bolt a few feet.
“Ag! Roy! Come-bye!” the man shouted in a guttural tenor, obviously upset with his dog. “Get a grip of yourself!”
The dog sprinted, flanked to head off the sheep, then dropped below the level of the grass and disappeared. The sheep settled, again, near the man.
“Any time, now,” the judge urged from behind my head.
Perplexed, I didn’t know whether I was to send my dog to fetch the sheep or wait until that man and his dog withdrew from the trial course. Nevertheless, Sham keyed in on the ewes and stood up from his position next to me, quivering with keenness. If he left without my command, I would fail. My stomach threatened to turn inside-out.
“Better send him,” I heard from somewhere in the small group of handlers waiting just behind the plastic fence.
“Come-bye.” I coaxed the words off my tongue with the final reserve of moisture in my mouth. Sham sallied away. He was laying down a gorgeous, pear-shape outrun, just like we had practiced. Such a stunning dog, he galloped full out to achieve his purpose in life. Then, well before he reached the position behind the sheep to gather them, he stopped dead in his tracks. That was not like we had practiced. Bewildered, my dog stared at the man who stood in partisanship with the sheep. Sham’s arrival caused the woolies to stroll toward the man’s dog. Roy rose up out of the deep grass. In perfect synchronization, the ewes’ heads whipped around and their bodies followed as they succumbed to the dog’s power.
Sham looked back at me, befuddled. I had no answer for him. I wasn’t expecting to encounter the situation, either. Yet, before I could make a decision, Sham made his move. He turned tail on the predicament and bounded back home to me—radiating a lighthearted innocence that eased my angst, but only briefly.
We had never practiced taking sheep off a man and his formidable, veteran dog. That wasn’t in the rules that I had read. Outrun, lift, fetch, pen. That was the Novice course. In every book, magazine article, and video that described the basic pattern, a black dashed line represented the route of travel the dog was to take, either going clockwise or counterclockwise from a position next to the handler. I was quite familiar with the rules.
Sham and I had rehearsed the course a few dozen times, but never with a more experienced dog in attendance, and certainly never with a person of authority standing among the sheep. Regardless, I didn’t have time to contemplate that problem. If Sham made it all the way back to me, it was over.
“Lie down!” I commanded. He did.
“Come-bye!” That recast would amount to a very poor outrun score, but our work on the remaining elements could still garner points. I held fast to that modicum of hope. On his second attempt, Sham made it a bit farther but stopped short. Then, he froze. He glanced toward me, then to the man, then to me again. He was puzzled.
“Walk up!” I shouted. Sham dipped his shoulders, focused on the sheep, and took a step.
“Roy!” the man shouted. His naughty dog had, again, reacted to the movement of the ewes. Sham kept his eyes on those woolies. Perhaps because my first trialing experience was in the competitive obedience world where double commands were forbidden, I remained silent but fretful. Sham was relinquishing control of the situation to the other dog and his man. Roy was covering any escape, much to the chagrin of his handler, based on the irritation I heard in his voice. I did not have time to consider Roy or his owner. I remained utterly mystified about their presence on the course.
“Walk up!” I pleaded again. I saw my dog’s head drop ever so slightly. He was trying, but he simply had no clue what to do. Suddenly, the weakest ewe responded to Sham’s minor advance, which caused Roy to lift his head and focus those sharp triangle ears right back at her.
“Roy!” Roy settled back down. Sham stood his ground.
Stumped to settle upon a solution, I turned around toward the judge’s platform and pleaded, “I don’t think my dog is going to work if that man and his dog are out there.”
As if expecting my appeal, his retort was instantaneous.
“You shouldn’t have entered if you weren’t prepared,” he scolded. I felt my whole body blush. Hot. Embarrassed. Sick to my stomach. Wanting to run.
I turned back to the field to discover Sham had taken control of the sheep—or, rather, they had taken control of him. Distinctly different than the diagram I had deliberated over for days, the ewes were not drifting in a direction toward my position. They were dashing diagonally across the field. On the far side of the judge’s stand, an exhaust pen had been erected. It served the purpose of providing a retreat for sheep that had already run the course. Bleating from within, ewes beguiled Sham’s bunch of ovine to join them.
When they reached the orange plastic snow fence, the little flock settled. The ewes that Sham was to precisely pilot along a neat and tidy line directly to me had ended up a hundred feet from where I stood, clamoring to join their kin. Sham’s run was not proceeding how I had projected it would play out. Keenly crouching like a statue, he detained his sheep at the exhaust pen gate. A lump formed in my throat.
I had convinced myself that this “real” border collie trial was substantially superior to the other events I had attended with Sham. The “less illustrious” competitions required the handler and dog to walk along a fence in a small arena. The enormity of the course in which I found myself engulfed me. Dispirited and demoralized, I acquiesced to absolute failure.
Before something else erupted, I elected to excuse myself from the disheartening debacle. Although my allotted time had not expired, I ordered Sham to lie down. He did. I instructed him to “that’ll do,” which is shepherd-speak for “come here.” Although he found it challenging to relinquish his focus on the ewes, he obeyed. We walked to the gate, I attached his leash, and my ever clever dog and I left the field. I felt defeated and ashamed. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was mortified. I longed to get to my car and drive away. I wanted to go home. I needed to go home. All of the wind had been sucked out of me. How could I be so stupid? Thwarted were my plans to observe the rest of the trial and compete the following day. Undoubtedly, that was impossible. Anyone who had observed my performance would be sneering. I ached to avoid added humiliation. There was no way to rectify my disgrace. All of the cells in my body were screaming, “Run!”
The man whose staff I had borrowed was standing at the gate.
“Good try,” he said in a cheerful voice with a genuine grin. His words fell on deaf ears. Staring at the ground, I handed him the crook. I barely pushed enough air out to offer my appreciation, and I am not sure he heard my mousy “thank you.” Then, with a hastened gait, I headed to the parking area before the tears that were swelling up flowed down my face.
I felt ridiculous. I needed to become invisible, and fast. I wondered if I might even vomit. “Don’t throw up!” I told myself. That would be even more humiliating.
Just then, I heard the blood curdling shriek. It was a woman.
“Bob!” Bob was in trouble. Poor Bob.
“Lie down! Bob. Down! Lie down!”
Correction. That was the sound of a woman dispatching displeasure toward her defiant and disobedient dog.
“Bob, you lie down, you!” The declaration reverberated through the vapor still resting upon the meadow.
Although I was worried that someone might see my face, record it for eternity, perhaps post it on an FBI Most Wanted poster for preposterous people who prematurely participate in Big Hat trials, I could not resist viewing what Bob was doing. The sun was beginning to win over the fog. Finally, I had a clear view of the course. Yet I couldn’t see anyone at the handler’s post. Beyond the post, farther than I thought the course limits extended, I saw two arms flailing over a woman’s head as she bobbled down the hill barking at her dog.
“Bob!” she screamed. Without warning, she fell flat on her face and disappeared in the depression that had caused her to lose her footing. In surprising synchronicity, the little audience gasped. The unified surge of their outburst diffused the last hint of vapor that lay upon the earth. At the bottom of the hill, a small tent and two livestock trailers came into view. The terrified sheep were making a beeline toward them, with Bob in hot pursuit. Recognizing that their pals were in peril, ewes in the trailers began bellowing. A brawny bloke, waving his John Deere cap, bolted from behind the rigs. He stomped at the assembly of agitated animals that were threatening to plow through the plastic snow fencing that had been erected to prevent such a catastrophe.
“Bob.” The word trembled with defeat from the woman’s lips. The dog’s owner had regained her footing and resumed her travel down the hill, sans her original sense of urgency. She was no longer attempting to salvage a herding trial run, but was on a recovery mission. The disheartened lady longed to reclaim Bob and a bit of dignity. Crushed, she relinquished concern for the livestock to the man with the cap who had categorically cautioned Bob that any further engagement with the ewes would produce a punishment he might prefer to avoid. Ah, the power of testosterone.
As I obscured my presence between some apple trees, I appreciated that Shamaron’s go ’round, while fruitless, had not resembled Bob’s reckless run. I looked down at my dog. He was soaking wet from his romp in the early morning dew. He had not lost faith in himself or in me. He was not aware that we had failed. He had remained biddable and performed at his best. Sham gazed into my eyes, endeavoring to look directly into my soul, expressing his admiration for all that I was to him—mostly appraisals that I did not deserve, even from a dog. I was privileged to have such an incredible companion. I had made many errors, but he did not hold them against me. He had an effervescence for life that I often failed to see because I was draped in my own unrealized perfectionism. Yet he never gave up on me.
My breathing had slowed. The burning in my stomach was gradually dissipating, and my shoulder muscles were beginning to unwind when the serenity was interrupted, again.
“Meg!” was followed by a shrill attempt at a shepherd’s whistle. Unlike a standard athletic whistle, a shepherd’s whistle is composed of two thin, flat surfaces, sometimes made of metal, other times made of plastic or even hand-carved horn. It was placed completely in the mouth, and the tongue was pressed against the back of the whistle to force air to flow over and through holes that were fashioned in both thin layers. It could take months to develop the proficiency to play such an instrument. Yet many Novices considered it a stepping stone to the major league. They yearned to blow the tricky tool in trials before they could effectively form the same sound twice. Add to that difficulty the fact that one’s mouth became completely dehydrated from nerves, and the sound came out like none the dog had ever heard before. I suspect that Meg had adopted the strategy of, “Never heard it before, no need to oblige.”
I stepped away from the tree to get a better look around the bleachers that were still uninhabited. Meg was running in a large circle. Around and around she ran, seemingly with a bit of pride and a dash of delight. Her handler, a podgy middle-aged man whose face couldn’t possibly get any redder, was attempting to slip into the precise position to cut her off and create a balance point. There, she would comfortably settle, ceasing the relentless orbiting. Awkwardly, he was a perpetual pace behind her.
At its core, herding can be defined by a triangle that exists between the handler, the dog, and the sheep. It’s about the pressure of the dog on the stock, the handler on the dog, and the stock on the dog. When those things are balanced, it is like watching a ballet. When things go amuck, well, it is perfect pandemonium.
“That’s it! Get your dog!” the judge shouted from his observation platform.
Sham nudged my hand. He was probably just bored, but his contact came at the exact moment I realized that our run had not been as unbridled as Meg’s. I worried that her handler would not be able to oblige the judge and bring the run to an end. He hadn’t succeeded, yet. I knew what he could do, and I cast my advice to him across the orchard like a genie blinking a wish. Back up to the fence!
Meg orbited while her wearied handler wheezed. Determined to keep pace with his dog, the man appeared unaware that it was an absolutely unattainable ambition. The judge shouted another warning. That cautioning counsel prompted a kind individual to open the exhaust gate. The ewes dodged out of harm’s way. A quick slam of the gate squelched Meg’s session with the sheep.
“Good try, Rick,” someone called to Meg’s owner as he fumbled with the bungee cord release on the gate. Still gasping for breath, crimson-faced Rick grinned. He cocked his head and huffed, “Well, that was a lot better than last time!” A burly man with a red beard responded, “Ain’t that the truth!” A cordial collection of Rick’s supporters chuckled and concurred. A weathered and wrinkled woman gently patted him on the shoulder and smiled affectionately. “Gettin’ better every time, Rick,” she declared.
Sham would have never acted like Meg. I could stop him. He listened to me. Compared to Meg and Bob, Sham had appeared quite respectable. Although he didn’t get his sheep to the handler’s post, he also didn’t run rampant when they raced to the exhaust pen. He tried to gather his ewes. Had I afforded him the time, my dog would have pulled them off the fence and brought the sheep to me. He had achieved that feat dozens of times during practice. When I self-destructed and called him off, Sham disengaged from the sheep and came to me. The evaluation gave me courage. At the very least, I felt that I could stick around and exercise my older dogs that were along for the ride.
In the thirty minutes that I strolled around with Stella and Macho, I learned the names of most of the remaining Novice dogs, albeit I was several hundred feet from the course. The dogs’ designations were projected with piercing precision, often painted with frustration or aggravation. The handlers barked names and orders that the dogs incessantly ignored.
When I acquired Sham and reviewed his pedigree, I was mystified why most of his relatives had very short, single syllable names like Bet, Nell, Tip, Nap, Ben, Moss, and Joe. I discovered the answer that cool, progressively pleasant Saturday morning in Platteville, Wisconsin. When trialing, and presumably training, handlers often reverted to hollering their dog’s name when struggles surfaced. It was a matter of efficiency. One could shout a single syllable name twice as often as a longer moniker.
Without direct observation, I guessed that Gus gripped his sheep at the lift. Like Bob, Bill ran his packet of ewes all the way down the knoll to the trailers. Floyd forced the sheep into his owner, causing the man to fall to his knees. It was a wind-sucking wallop followed by a well-harmonized rumble from the crowd. I was certain that Jack became sticky at the set out because his owner pleaded him up to his feet for the entire four minutes until the judge called time. At the conclusion of each adversity, the small crowd applauded their comrades with reassuring praises. My feelings of failure vaporized like the last strands of fog that frolicked in the deepest hollows of the pasture.
As the Novice class concluded, spectators from the nearby town began to arrive to the trial site. A table was erected at the end of the lane where money was collected from townies interested in experiencing the amazing exhibition of astonishing dogs. My anxiety abated and I devoured the sandwich I was supposed to reserve for lunch. Around ten o’clock, the Pro-Novice class was called to their handler’s meeting. It was during that lull in the activities that I slipped onto the bleachers to assume the role of undercover spectator.
What I discovered at my first Big Hat affair was that very few dogs moved the sheep along the black-dashed line found in the books about herding trials. Everyone had to negotiate around a man and his dog at the set out point—a condition I vowed to go home and practice. Most of the handlers had a susceptibility to shouting when things went skew-whiff. I also was reminded that harsh or hysterical vernacular typically inspired dogs into various states of mischief, mania, misunderstanding, and disobedience.
Best of all, I thought that I could attend another border collie trial in the future. My maiden voyage helped to dispel the perception of grandeur that I had held for the events. Rather than the royalty that I had envisioned, the trials were attended by normal people—and all the range of character that implies. Those people competed with normal dogs—and the whole range of skills, behavior, partnership, and training that entails. I learned that, regardless of the outcome, the folks tended to support each other.
Most importantly, I recognized that my trusted companion would do his best to handle the situation, even when I felt utterly out of control. He would remain loyal and good-natured regardless of the adversities we faced. My first Big Hat trial offered the opportunity to appreciate how much I loved that dog; not because we did well, but because it didn’t matter that we didn’t.
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