It’s not often that a hospital visit to see a relative yields a new-found love.
But the day Lincolnshire farmer James Read set eyes on sheepdog puppies advertised in Farmers Weekly, a journey – not just to Wales, but for himself personally – was set in motion.
But even though James had always had a fondness for dogs from a young age, he could never had imagined what lay ahead when the next morning he drove to Wales to select his puppy.
“It all happened out of the blue, as I wasn’t reading the magazine looking for a dog,” he recalls. “But when I saw the name Ken Powell next to these sheepdog puppies – because I had seen Ken on the television programme One Man and His Dog – I knew the dogs would be well bred.”
“And having working and trialling sheepdogs fits in well with the arable system as we have a trial most weekends in the winter, which is obviously our quietest time.”
But when James first got Jess it was never his intention to get into trialling. “I bought her as a working animal, but I knew she had it in her from a young age and was told she had it in her, which is how I got into it.”
As an arable chap, James didn’t have any knowledge of training dogs, he recalls. “I didn’t really know where to start. I phoned a few people up to try to get some advice and help, but no-one could help. That’s when I bought a video and that’s what got me started.”
James says he began learning the basic commands such as “come” and “lie down”, but it was when he put Jess in with the sheep that he had problems. “I was struggling to get the dog around the sheep. So it was just by luck, I was at a country fair and bumped into the 10-times international doubles sheepdog champion, Thomas Longton, who gave me some tips.”
Thomas then invited James and Jess to his training centre in Lancashire. “It was this visit that really got me hooked in to the whole training side and entering competitions,” says James. “Thomas showed me the traits Jess carried that would make her a good trial dog, and after going along to a couple of trials with him and continually training Jess, I finally decided to enter her into her first competition when she was just two-and-a-half years old.”
To get Jess up to competitive standards took James just over two years. “I would spend 15 minutes most nights training and Jess was a bit of handful to begin with, but it eventually paid off.”
In fact, James said it took him almost two years to get to grips with the whistle. “Dog whistles are not an easy thing to master and getting the tone right is important.”
The first trial James and Jess entered was a nursery trial in Pickering. Nursery trials typically require an animal to:
* Outrun – where the handler sends the dog away towards the sheep to start the run
* Lift – where sheep begin to move by the influence of the dog
* Fetch – whereby the dog moves the sheep towards the handler and through the fetch gates
* Drive – where the dog drives the sheep behind the handler and pen
* Pen – where the dog drives the sheep in to the pen.
James recalls the first trial as “terrifying”. “When you are competing for the first time you never know what to expect, but Jess performed well.”
Jess won three trials in her first year, which knocked her out of the nursery classes and allowed her to move up to bigger, open trials.
“This was scary, too,” adds James. “When you are competing against well-known names such as Jim Cropper it is daunting. However, I am used to it now and the well-known guys are great for giving you advice and encouragement.
“I am lucky to have had such a great dog to start with, otherwise I don’t think I would have ever got into trialling or taken it any further.”
Due to Jess’ good herding instinct, James has mated her to a celebrity – the resident collie in TV series Heartbeat. From the litter James kept two – Sally, named after his wife, and Jim. He has already started entering these two-and-a-half-year-olds into competitions and has high hopes for them.
“You can tell whether they have got it in them from a young age. Sally has won two nursery trials and already an open trial and is showing great potential. I am hoping she will qualify for the nationals next year.”
And it was during the open trials of 2009-10 that Jess collected enough points that eventually secured her a place in the English Nationals.
“She got two wins (six points each) and a second (five points), which were enough to secure her place, as you need 14-15 points,” explains James. Only 150 make it in to the national competitions, which is a trial in which dogs qualify to represent their country in the international sheepdog trials.
In the open and national competitions, the dogs are also required to perform more actions such as shedding a single sheep off.
“I was delighted when Jess qualified, but also terrified, as it is such a big thing,” he says.
In the run-up to the English Nationals, which took place earlier this month in Surrey, James spent about one hour a week training Jess and extending her drive, as well as getting her involved in the every-day work. “Any longer than that and they lose interest.”
And although James didn’t qualify in the top five for the International Sheepdog Trials, it was still an enjoyable experience.
“I was nervous beforehand and worried how Jess would perform. But as soon as I was out in the field with Jess, the nerves went and I knew she would do me proud.”
This first major championship hasn’t put James off and his aspiration to emulate the Jim Croppers or Thomas Longtons of this world is driving him to breed more top dogs to follow in Jess’ success.
Farmers Weekly livestock editor Sarah Trickett has a go:
Having a couple of Border Terriers and having trained them to do cute but rather pointless acts such as “beg” and “paw”, I wondered just how hard it would be to train a collie to round-up some sheep.
Well that just shows how little I knew about trialling. First, I couldn’t believe how many different commands were involved. Everyone has heard of “away” and “come-by”, but then there were others such as “walk on”, “lie down” and “stand”, to name a few.
And not only were there the verbal commands, but the corresponding whistle sounds. James tried showing me how to use the dog whistle, but the only sound I could make were random squeeks, which maybe raised an ear or two but certainly did not control a dog.
My voice commands did have more of an effect when having a go at working Jess. Although I was a little high-pitched at the “away” term, a more firm voice tone of “lie down” worked a treat – Jess actually listened to me.
So hats off to those trainers and farmers who spend hours working with their dogs and upholding the tradition of using working sheepdogs on farm. It is a great skill and an amazing sight to see.