By Peter Bangarth (with additional content provided by Aoife)
Bitter, cold wind driving a steady pelting of rain. And yearling sheep unaccustomed to dogs. What could
be a better environment for a day-long clinic for rookie handlers and dogs? Well, the fields, comfort
station and snacks and hot drinks at Applewood Ridge Farm near Sunderland, Ontario did go a long way
to make up for the weather.
On 29 April 2023, ten of us with our dogs assembled for a day arranged by Florentine Maathuis to get
individual attention from Tracy Hinton, whose skill and experience are known to many here. The focus
was on Novice-Novice and Pro-Novice teams. Teams had a morning and afternoon session of about 15
minutes each with Tracy. At the start of the morning session, she asked what the student wanted to
work on. Then the team ran through a small course based on their level, after which Tracy pointed out
what she thought needed to be worked on. Sometimes, original issue and observed issue were the
same. Other times, a discussion led to a compromise. Together, handler and trainer then decided a
plan of attack and ran through drills to help overcome blocks either the dog or the handler had.
Dogs that pressed too hard. Handlers who communicated their intent too late. Dogs that didn’t like
long outruns. Handlers who overreacted to disobedience. Many such beginners’ issues came up. Tracy
calmly and firmly helped the handlers see what was going on and adjust to achieve the desired effect.
At the end of the session, Tracy and the handler would come to the rest of the clinic standing by the
fence and talk over the session. “This is what the handler was worried about. This is what the trainer
saw. This is what we decided to work on. This is how we approached the problem. This is the result we
achieved. This is how we can carry on in the future.” So, not only did we learn from our own sessions,
but from those of each of the other participants. Even though the weather was miserable, we held out
at the fence, to see what was happening, learning as much as we could. Mostly. An occasional dodge
into Tracy’s trailer, the ‘comfort station’, or one’s own car to warm up a bit, also happened.
During lunch break in the barn, we chatted, kibitzed, laughed at some of the weirdness of the morning
runs, and addressed concerns written in on the entry forms. Somewhere during that break the rain
stopped for good.
Afternoon sessions usually carried on with issues discovered in the morning, with the same debriefing at
the fence. By the afternoon, the sheep were perhaps a little more accustomed to us. Or … dare I say it
… we maybe had a better grip on what we should be doing, because the yearlings sometimes went
where we wanted them to go! Take success where you can find it.
My personal experience with my girl Aoife was not out of the ordinary. Her outrun is exemplary, but I
had real trouble getting her to believe I meant it when I told her to “Lie Down”, for example once she
had hit the balance point but was pressing the sheep too hard. Of course, other commands were
suspect to her as well. Tracy pointed out to me that my own body language was part of the problem. I
was already moving forward to start getting in the way even before I had given the first stop command.
I was already expecting failure and setting it up. So Tracy worked hard to keep me still at the first
command. Then if Aoife didn’t do what I asked, instead of doing the same command as a correction,
Tracy had me use another command as the correction. I had a handy one ready. Whenever Aoife would
run in the house after a mud bath in the park without stopping to be wiped down, or whenever she
decided the cats needed extra discipline, I used “Hey!” to stop her and catch her attention. That’s what
we did here if she didn’t ‘lie down’ when commanded. You could almost see the light bulb over her head
when I hit her with the first “Hey!”. The next “Lie Down” worked beautifully. We practiced this several
times and we as a team showed dramatic improvement. Same with flanks and other commands.
Now, if the command was still ignored after the second one, then Tracy told me, as she did others,
“Imagine how you would react if she was taking a piece of chicken off the kitchen counter. This is the
same level of infraction. Give that kind of energy, run in, whatever, to let her know in no uncertain
terms this was not acceptable.”
Then Tracy hit me with the big gun. “Now that you have her believing you mean it, and following your
commands, it’s up to you to watch the sheep and give the right command, so she continues to believe
Many thanks to folks at Applewood Ridge Farm for offering a beautiful venue, especially Tim Hinton who
got the water flowing to the comfort station for tea and coffee. Also, a special nod to Rebecca Lawrence
for setting up sheep for runs and exhausting them afterwards, and to Jess MacLeish for staffing the flock
pens and the gates in and out of the farm. They got to stay out in the blustery weather the whole time,
both morning and afternoon. I still shiver thinking about it.
And I’m looking forward to the next one!
Hélène Lawler’s dog Ani asks “Who put this fence here?”
*Photo credit to Hélène Lawler