I missed watching the first day of the Grizzly Jamboree in Montana, but from reports the following day, it was just as well, because the sky had poured down rain, turning the arenas and pens into mudpits. When I arrived the morning of the second day, when people were calling it the Drizzly Jamboree, rain was only intermittent. The mud, however, was a permanent feature. The ambitions of the trial planners were not quite matched to the constraints of an unseasonally muddy, rainy trial ground with only one arena for both sheep and cattle. It proved impossible each day to finish the afternoon sheep runs (on Saturday, they didn't even have time to start them), so the days were very long, and the previous day's trial had to finish the morning of the following day.
This awkwardness didn't interfere with my own pleasure, naturally, since I was just there to watch. There are a number of good reasons to attend trials. To see dogs work which might figure in later breeding or purchasing decisions, to talk dogs with old and new friends, to have fun with your dog, and to show off your own dogs' working merits. And, potentially, you can also win stuff like handpainted pillows, and bags of kibble. I think I got about as much enjoyment out of the trial as anyone, even though — or maybe because — I hadn't entered anything. Remembering the summer weather in Alberta, I had thoughtfully provided myself with a full rain suit, rubber boots with lug soles, and a comfy camp chair, so I was set.
The windy, rainy weather put the stock in a bug-eyed mood, and the footing in places was bootsuckingly bad. Many teams struggled and failed to complete the courses. Taking time at the beginning of one's run to settle the weather-rattled stock seemed key to a successful experience. When your stock tears out of the gate at a ripsnorting gallop, you don't have a lot of hope for a high score. There were a few dazzling runs, though, the kind that becomes a template in my mind as a goal to aim for.
In the arena trials, Betty Williams and her main chore dog Spur did a near-perfect job of moving the sheep around C Course. I particularly admired the way Spur pushed just a bit and then waited, pushed and waited, even turning his head away to let off the pressure if the stock moved too fast. It was not the "drop and drift" style you sometimes see, particularly with eye dogs, but a careful series of nudges that never propelled the sheep out of a jog (I believe they generally walked). He "had" his sheep at all times, as though an invisible elastic cord connected them to him, and he moved them precisely to Betty's directions; neither one had ever run C Course before, even to practice.
The ranch trials were full of spectator interest. There were runs that ended up with a single sheep floundering in a pond, or the whole flock vanishing through the back fence, not to be seen again that day. The most successful handlers correctly assessed the training level of their dog and did not ask them to, say, do a blind gather on hilly, unfamilar terrain, unless the dog was truly capable of it, which few were, on the day.
One stellar cattle run was by a local rancher with a Hangin Tree Cowdog named Rio. I'd never seen this breed in person before. A slick-coated docked dog of a pale red color, he was homely from the standpoint of an Aussie lover, but he was one impressive stockdog. Gary Ericsson, who developed the breed, used cattle-type Border Collie, Aussie, Catahoula, and Kelpie genetics to create it. When I complimented the man on his winning run, he replied that his dog did that kind of work every day of his life, and it was no big deal to him.
This trial drew folks from at least six states and two Canadian provinces, and I think every major working line of Aussies was represented, along with some Border Collies. It was fascinating to me to see the range of looks and working styles. I am beginning to be able to identify some working characteristics of various lines, good, bad, and subjective. Of course, the majority of this knowledge is gained by listening to my betters comment and converse, and comparing it to my own observations. That's how I learn stuff at trials, and it's a big reason why I go.
Socializing is a nonstop activity at trials. I was glad to meet so many people I had only conversed with via email and message boards, and put names and faces together. I was especially glad to see my friends from the Northwest, and their dogs. Then there were the friendly folks I'd never heard of until then, but was happy to add to my acquaintance.
A recurrent remark addressed to me was, "I hope you're not writing that down!" I suppose those were compliments in a way, in that I apparently have acquired a potentially influential level of readership. On the other hand, it does reflect an ignorance of the ratio between what I hear, observe, and think versus what I upload to my site, which has got to be something on the order of 99:1.
When someone criticizes someone else's dogs or breeding methods or training style or personality or ethics, I tend to file it in my mind under 'unconfirmed data', so to speak. The last thing I think working Aussies need is more divisiveness. On the other hand, I do file it. It has been awhile since I imagined that there can be only one legitimate viewpoint, and the number of people who I classify as unimpeachably unbiased, experienced, accurate observers is, frankly, extremely small. It is always worthwhile to assess the quality of the source as well as the data. This is my journalism training at work.
True, I have a hard time writing those "thanks to everyone who helped make our event so wonderful" sorts of articles, because firstly I am by nature a suspicious creature who turns over rocks to see what might crawl out, not a stay-on-the-sunny-side type (see journalism training, above), and second, I find it pretty boring to both read and write such stuff. At the Grizzly, there were triumphs, there was generous praise, conviviality and commiseration, and also people nearly wept in bitter disappointment or frustration, became enraged, frightened, and often exhausted, although not everyone and not all at the same time. Not everyone's behavior to others was what their mothers might have wished. In other words, it was a normal trial. No need to prettify it. It was fun.