Trial Brain

I had a bit of an epiphany at the inaugural 3 Sheeps to the Wind ASC Corona Classic last week. It came about thanks to comments made by a good friend who pointed out that my cues to my dogs, especially Finn, were practically non-existent. He suggested (rightly so) that I pay attention to that and cue the boys just like I do when training.

That got me thinking (usually never a good thing) and replaying my runs in my head which led me to concur that my friend was 100% correct in his observation. And, not that it’s an excuse, but I actually came up with a reason, albeit, not a very good one, and hence the epiphany.

I suffer from Trial Brain.

Upon further reflection it occurred to me that when I enter the trial arena, I feel (on a mostly subconscious level) as though I need to perform. Even though I believe I’m beyond caring what others think and actually tune out the spectators, narrowing my focus to me, my dog, and the livestock, this little internal switch flips. I begin to (attempt) to trial and handle at a level of perfection and subtlety far beyond where my current dogs are. Probably far beyond where any of my dogs have been. (Although I may have had fleeting brushes with that level with Jig a time or two.) After all, this is a TRIAL! Our opportunity to showcase our dogs and our trialing/training/stock handling prowess!!


In any case, instead of clearly communicating with the boys last weekend, showing them what I wanted with obvious and consistent cues, cues they were used to seeing at all other times, I went all stealthy ninja handler on them. Subtlety is an understatement. I expected them to respond to a vague move of my stick and a quiet verbal command. Dillon probably preferred that method, as I handle him quite differently, but poor Finn! Talk about confusion.

Thankfully, I was able to fix the issue as soon as it was pointed out to me and only spent half the weekend with my head up my backside. The outcome was an advanced sheep leg and a High in Trial sheep for Dillon on ovines who proved to be a challenge.

Finn ended the weekend with his started titles in sheep and ducks. He also gave me flashbacks to a young Jig by showing me he *really* likes going to the head on cattle. We definitely need more work on those.

Finn also took the weekend Most Promising Started Aussie buckle award. An extra special award for us as it was sponsored by Tija in memory of Scully, the coolest little dog I’ll ever have the honor of knowing.

All-in-all, the Corona Classic was a great weekend with a great group of handlers, volunteers, and judges. And it did what I needed; showed me holes that need filling and work that needs doing.

Oh good! A mistake! Something I can work on.

For Finn & I, the list of what we have to work on before Nationals is not as long as I feared it would be. We need cattle work so we’ve got a road tripped planned to help with that. We I need duck work. So I have six runners here to help with that.

Yep. You read that right. I have six ducks here. It’s no secret how I feel about that.

Yesterday, though, I have to admit to having some fun while working them. They’re fast and light, and Finn’s pushy, but we’re both learning. Me more than Finn. Mostly I’m learning patience, especially when getting them out of the corner. Finn will hold pressure until the ducks start to move out, then step in behind them. IF I exercise that aforementioned patience and allow him to do so instead of forcing the issue. Yesterday I ramp-trained the little buggers so I don’t have to take the crate off and on the cart to haul them to the duck arena. They picked it up pretty quickly so when we were finished working, I set the ramp and crate up by the gate and had Finn bring the ducks to load up.

Remember the bit about them being fast and Finn being pushy? Well, that combination caused one of the ducks to slip off the ramp. It scooted under the cart and made for the tree line like a demented road runner. It must have been eyeing up the hedgerow all weekend, thinking what a cool reprieve it would offer. The plethora of bugs and greenery it must certainly contain. A veritable smorgasbord of duckly delights. I only assume as much because there was not one bit of hesitation in the duck’s choice of escape routes.

Likewise, there was not one bit of hesitation in Finn’s exit route as soon as the gate offered sufficient room for him to sneak through. Without waiting for me, Finn slipped beneath the hot wire and darted into the thicket. I expected to hear the crashing of underbrush and panicked squawking of a duck under assault.

Quite the contrary.

In less time than it took me to chase after them both, out came the duck with Finn right behind, back into the arena and moments later up the ramp and into the crate with the other ducks.

I really need to learn to trust my dogs.


“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

  • Judith Bigham

    10/10/2021at7:21 pm Reply

    LOVE your “blog,” Kathy! I’m SO in the same boat — ALWAYS seem to leave my brain in the “Brain Bucket” at the gate when I’m trialing my dogs. I’m grateful for their patience & tolerance & uncanny ability to “save-my-butt” when I’m handling like a “know-nothing-newbie.”

    • K. L. Schwengel

      10/11/2021at1:35 pm Reply

      It’s crazy how we can fall into those routines and not even realize. I agree, thank goodness our dogs are so patient with us!

  • Anne j

    10/10/2021at8:27 pm Reply

    Trial Brain is a thing! This is how I handle it, because it’s easy to become flustered walking in there. I repeat to myself over and over, on the way to the gate “We’re just going to move some stock around. We just moving some stock from here, to there (obstacles), and then back to here (repen). Then I take some deep breaths, and clear my head of everything but being responsive to my dog and the stock and living in the moment. And moving them from here to there, in the best way possible. Some days I think my dog can drive, but then that doesn’t work so we go back to fetch, or whatever works.

    • K. L. Schwengel

      10/11/2021at1:36 pm Reply

      Sadly, I didn’t even realize I was succumbing to it until it was pointed out to me. Now I am determined to not fall into the trap again.

  • Donna Marsh

    10/10/2021at11:10 pm Reply

    I bet Finn’s work with the single duck meant as much, or more, to you as his MPS buckle. Congrats on both and thanks for sharing your journey.

    • K. L. Schwengel

      10/11/2021at1:36 pm Reply

      The single duck was pretty cool, but the buckle has huge sentimental value so it’s a bit of a toss up.

  • Aimee

    10/11/2021at1:50 pm Reply

    Great post! You are definitely not alone in having Trial Brain.

    • KLS

      10/11/2021at6:22 pm Reply

      It does seem to be a prevalent condition!

  • Tija

    10/24/2021at6:24 pm Reply

    Hate trial brain but we all fall victim to it. Love friends who can try to snap us out of it. So happy you and Finn won the Scully buckle. It was because of you that we were introduced to this crazy world of herding and all the laughs, cries and great friendships that come with it.

    • KLS

      10/24/2021at6:29 pm Reply

      Doubly grateful that this crazy world of herding brought you and Scully to me. He was one-of-a-kind and so are you!

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