by Lori Herbel
The sheep stand side by side in the back of the three-sided pen, appearing as one large body with three heads, twelve legs, and one mind. Their heads are held low, their gaze intent on the dog who lies quietly 20 feet in front of them. The ears of the sheep flick momentarily, from straight forward, to the side, and back, as the slightest noise attempts to steal their attention. Their fascination with the dog is mutual, the dog gazes intently back at the sheep, waiting for the hint of a command from his master.
The handler stands motionless at the corner of the pen, and time seems to stand still. The quietness of the arena is deafening. Finally, after what seems like three lifetimes, a voice breaks the silence.
"That's a hold!"
The judge has spoken.
What's next?! The second most dreaded exercise known to the AKC Herding Handler - the Exit from the Hold/Exam Pen. (The most dreaded exercise would likely be the crossdrive.) There are many ways to remove the stock from the pen, but how does a handler decide which method will be most successful?
Let's back up for a moment - to the beginning of the Hold/Exam exercise. Scoring for this obstacle technically begins when the livestock pass the number 3 in the corner of the arena. The 12 foot travel zone can either be a straight line from the exit of the "Z" Chute to the entrance of the Hold/Exam pen, or it can also follow along the arena wall, from the exit of the "Z" Chute to the entrance of the Hold/Exam pen. As the livestock pass the imaginary line from the number 3 to the "C" cone, scoring ends for the "Z" chute, and scoring for the Hold/Exam pen begins.
Once the stock is put into the pen and settled, they must be held for a previously determined amount of time, only to be released when signaled by the judge. Once the signal from the judge has been given, the stock are removed from the pen, wrapped around the edge, kept in the 12 foot travel zone, and tucked back up against the arena fence and driven to the number 4. Once the stock are within 12 feet of the number 4, the Hold/Exam pen scoring is over.
Now, back to choosing the best exit method - there are many factors that should be taken into consideration. A well prepared handler will have watched previous runs to see how other handlers handled the exit, and taken careful notes on which methods worked, and which methods didn't. With this knowledge, handlers must still take into consideration the difference in dogs -- the amount of presence, working styles, and even the amount of control a handler has over the dog's actions. Different sets of stock may also react differently. All of these factors will have an effect on how successful each exit method will be.
The nature of the sheep is an important factor - are they heavy
or light? Will they move off of a handler easily, or do they move only
from the presence of a dog? Is the pen constructed from material that
could allow the sheep to escape, if pressured, through the panels on
the back or side, rather than exiting properly from the front? Are the
panels constructed so that a dog may slip through from the back or the
side? Is there a heavy draw that will have to be dealt with once the
sheep are brought out of the pen?
Sending the Dog In - With this method, the dog takes, and remains, in constant control of the stock. Once the hold is completed, the dog is sent into the pen, and takes immediate and continuous control of the stock. The handler may flank the dog either way into the pen - if the stock are comfortable with people, flank the dog around so that the stock is brought to the corner at which the handler is standing. If the stock are not so comfortable with people, a handler may decide to flank the dog on an inside flank. A powerful or intense dog may not be able to enter the pen at all without spooking the stock.
Backing the Dog Off, Handler Removing Stock - This method works well when the stock is not comfortable with the dog in close quarters. A dog with a lot of presence will likely be inside the stock's comfort zone in a 12 foot pen, thereby disturbing the stock and presenting the opportunity to "blow" the stock out of the pen. A dog that tends to get aggressive or grip in tight situations should not be sent into the pen. In this case, the dog can be backed off either directly in front of the pen, or slightly to the side. The dog must be backed off/out far enough to allow the stock to feel comfortable about leaving the pen. The first key to a successful 'back out' exit is knowing where to position the dog. A dog that is placed too far towards the top of the arena will be blocking the stock's escape route. The dog should be positioned far enough out of the way to give the stock a place to 'escape' to, but should still be in a position to cover as soon as the stock swing around the open side of the pen. The handler may enter the pen and use his presence to push the stock out, but may not physically touch them without penalty.
Flanking the Dog to the Back of the Pen - Using this method, the dog is flanked around to the back of the pen and his presence is used to push the stock out. If the panel is constructed to allow the dog to slip through and maintain his position, this method works great. It gives the dog more space to take control of the sheep than flanking him inside of the pen. However, if the dog cannot fit through the panel, or has not been taught to slip through the panel, the dog is now out of position to keep the stock on line. Flanking the dog to the open/middle of the arena can push the stock right back into the pen. Bringing the dog up right along the outside panel of the Hold/Exam pen can be a solution to putting the dog back in position to flank around and keep the stock in the 12 foot travel zone, but a powerful dog is likely to push them outside of the zone and cause off-line points.
Regardless of which method is used to exit the pen, a handler is wise to use his body position to help the dog. If the stock are handler oriented, the handler can help draw the stock out of the pen by walking from the corner on the open side, to the back (closed) corner. This action will draw handler-oriented stock into the 12 foot travel zone that they need to remain in, and may also help draw them out away from the pen entrance so that they are no longer in a position to be pushed back into the pen by the dog.
The Hold/Exam pen is found only at the Intermediate and Advanced levels on the "A" course. Intermediate handlers are allowed more leeway to help their dogs, having the entire width of the arena between the 'B' and 'C' cones in which to move. Advanced handlers must be at the 'C' cone when the Hold/Exam pen scoring starts. As the stock pass the number 3, the Advanced handler may then walk towards the Hold/Exam pen. Their approaching presence often helps draw the handler-oriented stock to the entrance. Stock that is not handler oriented can be hazed into the pen by the handler's presence.
This is a 15 point obstacle, and handler/dog teams must keep at least half of the points in order to qualify. Therefore, the maximum amount of points you can lose is 7 ½ and still qualify. Though it sounds like a slim margin, the exercise is easily accomplished with proper training and strategy.
Don't make the mistake of walking to the handler's post thinking "I am going to take my stock out of the Hold/Exam pen by the ________ method." Have a Plan A, but also have a Plan B and even a Plan C ready at a moment's notice. Things can change with the drop of a hat, and a smart handler will use the few seconds that the judge is counting off as a hold to make the last minute decision as to the best method to remove the sheep. Use both the knowledge from previous runs, and knowledge from working the sheep through the first part of the course to help determine the best bet. Keep the options open, and if the first method isn't working, don't be afraid to change to the next plan. You may lose a point or two in the meantime, but it's better to change the plan than to push a non-working plan into an NQ!