The Gift of an Open Dog

By Marie Sawford 
When I first started coming to herding events, I heard the advice from many judges and successful competitors, “Start with a retired Open dog.”  Coming from a riding background you were always encouraged to start with an experienced horse as well, so that made sense.  However, like most of us I already had a dog and was plugging away doing what I could and getting my feet wet. Then along came Maddie. 
Maddie was a 9 1/2 year old retired Open dog.  I had been working my current dog, Ribbon.  She was doing okay, but she wasn’t going to go far.  Ribbon had an outstanding obedience career ahead of her, so it didn’t bother me that she couldn’t do it all.  Bt my goal was to become an Open handler. My coach Viki Kidd heard that Teresa
Castonguay was looking for a home for Maddie.  Viki thought this would be a good fit for me and a way for me to continue my education.   

*Maddie - Photo credit to Teresa Castonguay

This first thing I noticed was Maddie quickly bonded to me and settled in with home life very quickly.  I think I had only had her a few days before having my first lesson with her.  She was quite happy and willing to work for me. I felt like that was the first hurdle.  I come from a background of starting my own puppies and knowing them from their first breath. My previous experience is in many other dog sports (flyball, agility, obedience), this was my
first experience building a bond and a relationship with an adult dog instead of a puppy.   

The second thing I noticed was that if I got my timing right it gave me the opportunity to do more.  If I got the timing right for the lift, then the fetch went well, once the sheep were at my feet I could work on driving.  This gave me the opportunity to learn to read sheep, to practice small precision flanks and to learn about shedding.  Of course my timing wasn’t great and my ability to read the sheep and react to the situation was sometimes down right awful.  Maddie was very forgiving, especially when giving wrong flanks in the heat of the moment. Sometimes she would take them, other times she would do what needed to be done despite me. Rarely, although this was the most impactful, she would stop and look at me as if saying,”I don’t think you want to do that!” It made me smile but also gave me a kick in the pants at the same time. 
If Maddie had a fault it was her stop.  Viki and I decided to work on this.  We had quite a bit of success at lessons.  But when I went to my first trial (I was competing in Pro-Novice), it was non-existent.  We decided that I would leave the post to make my point.  This meant that I was going to run up the field as far and as fast I could to surprise Maddie and get her to lay down.  Trust me when I tell you that running is not my thing… but I got up there the best that I could and she was surprised and she stopped.  I did this same thing a few more times and then the message started to sink in, when I asked her to stop, I meant it.  It was disappointing to throw away entries, when there are so few trials, but it had to be done.  One other thing going on in the background was trying to learn the whistle - how to make the thing work at all, never mind making consistent noises.  I set my mind to working on one - the stop whistle.   
Maddie and I had 2 seasons together.  I did get the stop whistle but never really perfected any other whistles - very frustrating!  We had some success, I learned an amazing amount.  One particular run that I remember very clearly was doing the cross drive and it was going perfectly.  I think I only gave one or two commands, it just seemed unnecessary and I thought I would screw it up if I gave her any information.  But because the cross drive went so well I forgot to work on getting lovely tight turns. Once my run was over Viki Kidd came up to me and said “Good Job, but you could have at least taken part in the cross drive.” It was pretty funny, I still had lots to learn, but
Maddie had given me a chance to get some experience.   
*Photo credit to Michelle Lawrence

This brings us to early 2022.  I had a dog that was recovering from major surgery and may never be able to return to herding and I had a young dog that wasn’t going to be ready to trial yet.  I made a comment during an OBCC Board zoom meeting that I didn’t have a dog this year.  Much to my surprise Kevan Gretton said ”Do you want Kai?” I was speechless.  Of course the answer was “Yes”.  This was another opportunity to further my education, this time in Open.  I couldn’t run in Pro-novice because I had run my dog Jill in the Open class.  
Kai came to live with me in April of 2022, my first lesson with him was the day I picked him up.  I had all the same feelings as when I brought Maddie home, “will he bond with me?”  “Will he work for me?”, but also “Can I do it? Can I handle an Open dog?” Even if he wouldn’t run for me I had this great chance to work with a highly skilled dog in lessons.   
Just like Maddie, Kai seemed to bond with me right away.  He had no problem working for me.  I was back to learning a different set of whistles (which I have yet to master). Kai has accommodated the best whistles I can do, although I keep trying. 
*Photo credit to François Leblanc

Our first weekend of trialing was at Rush Creek in Ohio. To say that I was nervous was an understatement.  This field has a big creek in it, you are allowed to give a stop whistle so that your dog can negotiate the creek.  I kept hearing “Don’t hurt Kevan’s dog.” over and over again in my head.  I also had the same feeling of “will he run for me?”  We went to the post, I sent him - he went - Whew!  I stopped him at the creek - he knew exactly what to do, came out of the creek and away he went.  Second hurdle overcome.  The rest of the run was pretty good, my timing was off - mainly because I was saying “Holy s@#$” over and over again in my head.  We got around, including doing the Maltese cross, got a decent score and then I spent the rest of the night planning how I was going to do it better the next day.  But the feeling of having an Open dog and getting to compete at that level
was amazing!  I thanked Kai over and over again.  We did do better the next day, in fact we placed 7th out of 85 dogs!  That was totally unexpected and I felt so grateful to Kai for taking me on this ride.   
The biggest thing that I learned having an experienced Open dog was that when my timing was right things went really well. When my timing was bad or my level of knowledge of what to do in certain situations was lacking, an experienced Open dog had the skills to recover the run and in some cases would simply freeze, as if to say, “Are you sure?” 
Now I know why all of the judges and successful competitors said “Best way to start, get a retired Open dog.”  I
would highly recommend it to anyone.

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