The Unexpected Teacher
By Patrick Shannahan

Most times, when we get a new pup, we have great expectations. This pup is my next champion or this is the dog that will be successful with. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you look at it, sometimes dogs are brought to us for different reasons than what we request.

Many a student has said to me, “I feel so guilty. My dog could be doing so well with someone who knew how to handle him.” I calmly tell them that possibly the reason the dog is with you, is not to win trials, but to teach you about dogs, dog handling and sheep, so you can do well with your next dog.

I have had so many great teachers in this venue. Most of them haven’t been in the human form, they have been in the canine form. Some of the teachers I was very successful with, while others made me struggle, and reach deep to get better at what I was trying to master. Here are a few of my greatest teachers:

Toss: This was my first trained dog that I acquired after buying Hannah as a puppy. He is still a very special dog to me, as we had a bond and connection that will be hard to repeat. His gift to me was that he was a very willing and able dog that was very consistent in his work. He did most things correctly, and always the same. It gave me a chance to work on myself, as I knew what to expect with his work. His pace was usually the same. His outrun was always good. His flanks were the something proper. I didn’t have to worry about training; it gave me the opportunity to worry about handling.

Bea and Tony: I got these littermates as pups. I actually got Bea first, and got Tony several months later. I was in complete love with Bea. She had a really fun personality. She was very flashy to watch. Tony was plain and big. So, when starting the pups, I didn’t really keep a clear mind of what was going on. With Bea, it was all about the potential. With Tony, yes he was good, but he was really easy. It took me about two years to figure out that the pups, now adults, were showing me who they were all along. Tony was very good. Bea was about potential, which in the end, she was never able to really show me. Now, when I see a good solid pup, like Tony, I don’t dismiss their easiness or stability. I see them for who they are today, not necessarily of my estimated potential tomorrow.

Flash: Although I never owned Flash, I ran him for several years. Flash was owned by Evie Kimberly, and because of Flash, I was able to form a great friendship with Evie. Flash taught me quite a bit about getting better with my timing. Flash, like a name says, was very fast. I needed to work on my timing so that I could get around a course at a speed I wasn’t really comfortable at. I tried to slow him down quite a bit, but I soon discovered that it wasn’t in his best interests to make him slow. He then ran poorly, not confidently as you saw with a pace that was a little faster than I liked.

Pat: One of my all time favorite dogs, although we never trialed together. But with Pat, I learned about a new relationship I could have with a partner. Intuition. She was great at reading my mind. We had a bond that made me think we could accomplish most anything. I could give her a task, and she could read my mind and accomplish it without much instruction.

Joy: One of my more successful trial dogs, our trialing career didn’t start out that way. Joy had a different type of eye that was hard for me to understand. She had a “hard” eye that could get her in trouble; and either get the stock mad at her, or get stuck trying to move the stock. Either was not good. She taught me how to take that type of eye, and think about how I could use it moving the stock to make them feel comfortable. It taught me that momentum is sometimes more important than the straightest of lines. I still use some of the handling I learned with Joy on my other dogs, which many times don’t have the same type of eye that she had.

Tweed: I bought Tweed as a young dog in Wales. He showed tons of promise over in Wales, but when I brought him home, everything fell apart. Since Welsh sheep are light and flighty, he had never been allowed to be close to sheep. When he was, it was a disaster. I could make the situation much worse by yelling or throwing energy at him. Tweed taught me to be calm, and soften my commands. When Tweed was disobeying, it wasn’t because he was trying to be bad; he was panicked because my voice was telling him that he was wrong with lots of energy. He was trying to fix it as quickly as he could, usually the wrong way that was in his mind. He taught me that when I was in the storm, to stay calm as that is how Tweed’s mind could function the best.

Gyp: Gyp wasn’t my dog. I didn’t really even get to work with her much, possibly only one or two lessons. She belonged to Shauna Gourley. But it was Shauna’s relationship with Gyp on the trial field that gave me a huge break through in helping describe pressure between dogs and people. Gyp was a talented dog, but very pressure sensitive to most all things. In watching Shauna run Gyp, I noticed that Shauna’s body pressure made some tasks almost impossible. But Shauna, in her experience with Gyp, learned to turn her own body away from Gyp to relieve the pressure. I had unconsciously been doing this with some dogs and pups for years, but it wasn’t until I saw it with someone else, that I was able to put it to words. It has helped me understand many a dog since.

There have been other dogs that have taught me so many valuable lessons. Jaff, Lana, Shep and Bella are just a few. Countless others also contributed to my education. Some of those dogs I was really successful with, and others I felt like I failed. But each taught me important lessons that I still use each day, so their value was not only in the present, but sometimes more importantly in the future.

During the 2010 Nationals with my dog Riggs, where in the first go round I had a sick sheep; it was Joy who taught me how to start momentum and move the sick ewe. It was Tweed, who reminded me to communicate clearly, without excess volume and energy. Flash gave me the timing that was needed to make our gates when the sheep started to run. At our shed, it was the intuition that I had learned with Pat that gave me the connection and instinct with Riggs to understand what collared sheep needed to be kept. And finally, Toss, who gave me the confidence to be able to concentrate on the task, by making me understand what consistency meant.

These dogs are valued teachers to me. Each has contributed to my success, while sometimes sacrificing success for them. When I think about the success I have had this past year with Riggs, I think of the dogs and teachers that came before him.

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