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by Mari Taggart (Spring 1978 Aussie Times) Copyright 2001 Australian Shepherd Club of America, Inc.
Personal interpretation is used by our stockdog
judge in the latter half of the new score sheet. Unfortunately, an accepted
"standard" of interpretation is unavailable. Perhaps, by a process of open
discussion of clubs and in the dog media, we will arrive at a standard of
performance all can live with. I realize a few may feel that there is always a
danger of restricting these interpretations to only one person's individual
view. Let me say here I do not ever want to see this happen. But right now,
stockdog judges are judging with a score sheet, yet with no idea what the
"ideal" might approximate. This is like giving a conformation judge a score
sheet with points allotted for head, body, etc., but no standard of what an
Aussie should look like! As one might imagine from such a situation--each judge,
having their own private views of what an Aussie should be, would totally
confuse exhibitors, and chaos would reign. This is something like what is now
going on at the stockdog trials.
This article is meant to stimulate discussion into the finer points of appraising the Aussie's working characteristics.
First, we must accept the fact that the trial arena cannot ever exactly reflect actual range or range conditions. Precision, implicit obedience, and an almost "remote control" are necessary in the trial dog. Obviously, the more the dog works alone, with the handler standing back at the chute or even in the pen, the more commands must be given. Inches make a vital difference in trials work -- the ability to set a dog down on a dime and move inches by degrees is often the characteristic of a top trials performer.
The first category on the "STYLE" section of the scoresheet is "Natural Working Style." Included in this category are some very personal interpretations. First is "eye". Well, the Aussie fancy as such has not agreed on just what "eye" is -- or whether eye is even desirable in an Aussie. Many, many prefer Aussies to Border Collies for their lack of strong eye and ability to stay on their feet and get on with the job without a lot of crawling around and flashy moves that waste energy. If we do decide that we want eye in Aussie is, how much is enough? Is "strong eye" ever desirable in our breed? And how strong is strong? (This is like asking a man to describe "dark" if he's never seen it. He may feel that one color is dark if he's never seen black, etc.) When is a dog exhibiting too much eye? The answer is obvious -- when it begins to adversely affect the livestock and its proper efficient handling! A sticky eyed dog may have lots of flash, but do those extra, constant commands it requires to keep such a dog on its feet and approaching stock really constitute what we want?
Hadn't we better define eye and just how much is good before we begin judging it?
"Wear" is included in the same category. Wearing is certainly desirable, but are there occasions when the dog may not need to exhibit wearing? I believe so. On large flocks or herds certainly much wearing is necessary to keep a herd moving. On five head, however, a lot of wearing may prove a handicap, causing the animals to move ever faster out of the desired walking pace. Often the sheep move so fast it becomes necessary to keep the dog well back off them, walking slowly in a straight line to reduce the speed of the stock. Do we penalize this dog because he is being forced not to wear to accomplish better handling of the stock? At the present time, no judge can agree.
Herding or gathering instinct means a lot of things to a lot of people. Does herding mean the ability to keep the herd together?
Handler assistance provides us with the next category and we are told points are earned for less handler assistance. Does this mean physical assistance? Likewise for excessive commands. How many commands are excessive? By the very nature of trials, we automatically assume more commands be given to the dog. Are excessive commands constant conflicting commands? What about quiet commands as opposed to shouted or shrieked commands?
It is interesting to me, as I show BOTH Aussies and Border Collies, that a noticeable double standard of judging exists. While Border Collies are scored very, very high for their precise, instant response to many commands, often Aussies are scored down for these very things! I am not the only person that has commented on this. Aussies who are trained this way are sometimes called "mechanical" even though they worked the course brilliantly! Now I agree that in the range or ranch situation, an Aussie should indeed think for itself and sometimes move without orders. But how on earth can you work a trials course without absolute control? The fact that many tried just that for the first few years of Aussie trials proved how wrong this idea was in the trials medium, as well as provided us with the Humane Society breathing down our necks for some hair-raising abuses of livestock!
Under "Dog's Attitude" we find "degree of interest and concentration on stock." One would presume a high degree of interest is preferable. How is "interest" defined, however? Obviously, a distracted dog that waters bushes, wanders off, or quits is not showing great interest. As to concentration, what is good concentration? Can we define it as the ability to track and relate to the movements of the stock? Does a dog need to have its head, literally, pointed at the stock to denote great concentration? Many Aussies will glance at the handler for commands. When does a lack of concentration become apparent? Obviously, again, when it adversely affects the handling of the stock -- in other words, when the stock can break or run or get away as a direct result of the dog NOT PAYING ATTENTION. May dogs do not need to literally have their eye on the stock 100 percent of the time to be able to have total command of the situation.
Degree of training is next. Does this mean that a totally trained dog will always score higher than a well started one? Or does it mean that we should grade the dog for taking the commands he knows?
The following category is "Dog's Stock Savvy" (how the dog handles himself when he has to "think" for himself). If the judges have figured this one out, I wish they would tell the fancy. How on earth is it possible, without a liberal dose of E.S.P., to tell when a dog is "thinking for itself"? Or responding to an instinct...or even responding to years or months of training drill that simply no longer needs any command? Many feel that this category should be eliminated -- I think so too. It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to tell just what is motivating a dog all the time -- especially for one who is seeing the dog for the first time!
The next category is "Bark". A note is given that quiet workers are scored highest. Though I, like many people, prefer a quiet dog in my work, I have to respect those who work dogs that use some bark. It is true that a force bark at times accomplishes as much as a bite. This is not to say that bark should replace bite, but merely add to it. Many like Aussies over other breeds because they will force bark. So how should this be scored?
Grip is the next category, and a much discussed subject. Though only five points worth, its lack or excesses affect the entire run. How much grip is not enough? How much is too much? The simple answer, once again -- when its lack or excesses begin to adversely affect the efficient handling of the stock! If a cow challenges the dog, and it fails to grip, the cow will go right over the dog, quitting the herd if she darn well likes. Obviously, if the dog shows a weakness, this is detrimental to stock handling. If the dog heels the cattle so much that they run wildly, stampeding or breaking or splitting, this too is detrimental.
Of equal importance is where and when a dog grips. Where ARE the legal areas a dog may take hold? Most agree -- face or fetlock, preferably. Body biting, or wool pulling, and tail riding, are all major faults. Most agree on face and hock, or below, for cattle. However, a conflict arises on sheep. Many feel a sheepdog should only grip head. An equal number (encompassing many sheepmen who work Aussies) feel that a dog should also nip at the fetlocks. And some prefer it. The do have a strong point. In showing sheep, a bite on the face may make a mark (the skin being very sensitive), and ears are easily ripped by an aggressive "header". One ripped ear or nose and that sheep may never be shown, as points are given for head and ears in most sheep breeds. Obviously, a light grip on the fetlocks is different from a dog that grips and clings to the rump or flank! THAT is a no-no! It would be helpful if the judges would agree on this.
When should a dog grip? Many feel that the dog should grip under two circumstances -- 1) if the animal challenges, or 2) if the animal refuses to move. Others feel that the dog should grip to show that he can, or to prevent the stock from slowing down. Again, a ruling would be helpful.
Workability of stock is a category causing much discussion. While, admittedly under some circumstances, some stock may be rather difficult, it is a truism that a great dog makes stock handling look easy. A dog with faults in his work through inexperience may appear to be having a rough draw, when, in fact, the dog's faulty work and moves are creating the problem!
The new scoresheet is an improvement over the old and geared to help us use and breed better Aussies. However, more improvement could be made inasmuch as we are now competing in are area of competition where the IDEAL IS NOT DEFINED. In all sports, the perfection of that endeavor is defined for all the world to see. Right now, many judges are bitterly in disagreement over just what is good and what is bad. I have a hard time imagining some Olympic athletes competing before judges who themselves are arguing over the basic fundamentals!
No one wants to see any one person's view upon the rest of us. But, I believe we could, and should, get our heads together and come up with a workable set of definitions that we all can agree on and live with for awhile. This we did over the conformation standard and many other aspects of Aussies. Better defining of our goal -- the perfect Aussie -- will go a long way towards better trials.