STOCKDOG CORNER by Terry Martin in the Aussie Times (date unknown)
I had an interesting discussion the other day with someone in another working breed. Like myself, she had been in the dogs for a long time and started out with working dogs, but when she discovered the shows in the 1970’s she began showing her dogs in conformation. That was my story too as when I first had Aussies I did not know anything about the world of purebred dogs and was only dimly aware of dog shows. We got the Aussie to help us with cattle although to be honest, we didn’t exactly know how we were going to use her. So we began just taking the her with us when we did chores and encouraging her to go after cattle when we wanted them moved. She was actually a great companion but not so much of a cow dog. The gal I was talking to (I’ll call her Sue) had the opposite happen and her first dog was a really good working dog, but they did learn along with the dog as they too had no experience training. My story catches up with hers when we got the second Aussie whose name was Kid. Kid probably had no formal training but a lot of ranch experience, and he definitely showed us how much a dog can effectively take the place of a human.
It was my conversation with Sue and the memories it brought back that led me to write this column this time about history – as I remember it.
Skipping back to the ranchers getting into the dog show world. keep in mind this was a long time ago – early 1970’s. When I discovered there were places that I could get together with people with the Aussies I was excited. Although this is hard to imagine now, the man on the street never recognized what breed an Aussie was if they saw one, and they were basically unheard of in the purebred dog world. ASCA did not start a registry until 1972, and although the parent club was formed in 1957 it was only active in a few states. I helped form the ASC of Utah with the help of my friends Renn and Shiree Christiansen, some of their friends and some ranchers I knew who had the dogs. Our Utah club decided to put on some shows in conjunction with AKC fun matches so we could compare our dogs and compete just for fun. The entries helped the fun matches with funds and they provided us with a judge and a ring – usually at the very end of a very long day. Since there were no trials, nor had we ever heard of a working trial, it was exciting and fun to load up half a dozen dogs and go meet others, mostly ranchers and farmers, who had the same breed. Competition of course breeds a desire to win, so we learned to read and understand a Breed Standard and evaluated our own dogs. The 1977 Standard had not even been written then.
I think a lot of us were lucky as we discovered our dogs were pretty nice and were competitive even when we started attracting entries from other states. In those days a person’s knowledge of horses and cattle had given us the eye to appreciate good sound structure even before we understand the technicalities of it. We knew a dog’s legs should be straight viewed from the front and rear but had little idea of what angulation meant. We pretty much recognized if an animal was balanced just with a glance. Movement was easy too – who wants to ride a horse with a short choppy gait or ride one that lumbers along? I remember Leslie Sorensen explaining rear angulation to me when she said something like, “You know what a sickle hocked horse looks like from the profile, don’t you? Well that is kind of what you want rather than the legs coming straight down to the ground..” That made sense. Since a horse should come toward you with it’s front feet keeping the same width as when it is standing, I was amazed that my dogs were supposed to converge toward the center line. I definitely knew cow hocks were bad as we sure did not like them in our horses.
Kind of a funny story, but I sold a dog to a friend and she told me her dog always trotted toward her sideways. I definitely remember telling her that is how Aussies are supposed to trot since most of mine did. Ignorance is bliss, right? Imagine my reaction when I found out that “crabbing” is a fault.
The early shows at that time were made up of ranchers and farmers and their dogs as well as people who had bought dogs for pets. We did find some more Aussie owners when we put an ad in the Salt Lake paper for a meeting we were having. We gave our dogs baths at home, mostly groomed them on the tailgate of a pickup or on top of a crate – with a simple dog brush. A lot of people did not own a dog crate so they improvised. When I first got into this about the only place you could buy a dog crate was from the airline if you were going to ship a dog. The first ones I had were made of wood but could easily be taken apart. The wood ones made good grooming tables! I wish I still had one of those crates, but I think most of us ended up using them for dog houses and they eventually fell apart.
Even back in the 1970’s there were people who were breeding for a different look for the show ring. More coat, more flashy colors and bigger size was evident in a lot of these dogs. Since I was into Quarter Horses at the same time, I saw the desire to have stocking legs and big blaze faces was going on in that world too – and bigger being better. Those of us who were getting really involved in the fledgling ASCA and in competition were aware of what had happened to other breeds and how they had split. But we were building our own little world, and a lot of us believed that would not happen to the Aussie. We were far from the rest of the purebred dog activity, but there was a split on what people wanted for the future. Some wanted to keep what we had. I do think everyone wanted to attract all Aussies out there to be a part of ASCA (many were still unregistered) and wanted more people to compete with them both in conformation and in the newly developed Stockdog Program.
For about twenty years it did seem that the fun of competing in both a show and a trial on the same weekend would keep our breed and the people together. Not all dogs were successful in both shows and trials, but there were a significant number who were. There were a lot of people who both showed and trialed because when you traveled to a show you wanted to “do it all”. There were also people who had their show dogs and their working dogs and kept them separate, but had success with both. The fun of the weekend was to win in both venues, but it did not necessarily need to be with the same dogs.
In the conversation with Sue, we were both looking back with some sadness for this time in our breeds. Shows and trials both were not as prevalent, so each one was a big event for us, not an every other weekend occurrence. The weekend of a Saturday conformation and obedience show followed by a Sunday stockdog trial with all the friends and fun in between was something to look forward to. We all cheered each other on and although it was competitive there were no year end awards or finals points to be had – just the event of the day among friends. There were titles, and sure we wanted them. Some of the affiliate clubs had yearly awards within their club. After watching several clubs crumble because of disagreements on rules, arguments about who chose the judges, my advice to many was to not have these programs. I am not sure how many listened, but many clubs did split or fade away because of it.
When the ASCA trials began in 1975, it was the beginning of a real learning curve for those of us active in this program. The rules have changed many times over the years due to a lot of factors. Early changes came about through input from those competing in an untried program. Obviously what looks good on paper is not always going to work perfectly. It had to start somewhere and there were not any models around to copy. There were Border Collie trials, but they did not issue titles or have any kind of certification program, and ASCA wanted to record the abilities of the dogs who were to make up this breed.
The score sheet was too cumbersome in the beginning and has undergone several changes in almost 40 years. The original program did not have an Advanced division and the Started division did not earn certification. I can’t remember the year the program was changed to allow advancing from one division to the other, but it was a good decision and one most people wanted. As the program progressed so did the handling and training knowledge of those in the Aussie world. Competition will do that, and it was a good thing. ASCA did several wise things (in my opinion of course). They never added an Instinct Test to the program. It was discussed many decades ago, and the decision was that the Started Class is an instinct test in itself, and anything less would be watering down our evaluation of working instinct. The record of dogs retaining working instinct was the purpose of the program, and it should not be cheapened although there must be a place for the novice and dog with little training to compete.. The thought was that the opportunity to move a dog through the divisions would of course reward training which can cover up instinct, but it also would reveal the trainability of the dogs. In all honestly the whole concept was borrowed from Obedience where a dog goes from a CD to a CDX to Utility. It is an increase in training but also in trainability.
No program in any breed of animals is perfect when it is set up to identify the superior animals of the time. Actually in anything at all subjective, nothing ever will be perfect. But ASCA does have a program they can be proud of, and I just wanted to give a little history of how it all came about. During all these years there have been changes that were for the best and changes that were not – that still occurs. I hope that those into the future will remember that the program was developed for the Breed, not the people who play the game. It’s a fun game, but rules and changes should be developed to retain the very special working abilities of the Australian Shepherd if they are going to be preserved into the future.