by Dana Mackenzie
Sometimes we are lucky enough to be witness to an age-old ballet played out in perfect harmony between man and animal. It leaves us with a sense of awe and makes us somehow reluctant to turn loose of the moment. This is a chapter in the saga of a man and a dog, and the result of the accumulation of a lifetime together. Neither needs an introduction to anyone who has ever known or seen them together.
Slip, Slash V Slide Me Sweet, is a red merle, prick-eared, working-bred Australian Shepherd. She has won more ASCA trials than any other Aussie in the history of the breed. Her offspring have placed her in ASCA's Hall of Fame. Red Oliver, a fine trainer, is known for getting much more from a dog than one would believe possible. He has impeccable timing and sense of distance and place. All in all, a hard man to beat on the trial field. Slip and Red have been a team for ten years now.
The location for their latest, most unforgettable run was in Sanger, Texas on Thanksgiving 1993. It was an open field ranch trial on calves. The competition consisted of Border Collies, Kelpies and Aussies. The trial started with a gather out of a three acre field. This in itself sounds simple, but there was an added ingredient. A bull and several cows were standing against the far fence, plus there was no wire on the fence on the right side of the pasture.
Slip was sent to fetch the calves, which tried to glue themselves to the fence. With no hesitation she worked her way between the calves and fence, hitting (heading or heeling) whatever was necessary to start the calves toward Red. Once away from the fence the work began in earnest, as the calves were determined to stay near the cows. So often in the trial arena Red seems to be making all the decisions for Slip, making her appear mechanical. But in this case, he was only there to render assistance. The stock savvy and ability that old girl showed was the best I've ever witnessed in the time I've been working dogs. She used the right amount of pressure to suit each situation and animal, working them slowly toward Red, making her point over and over, with each calf in turn.
After reaching Red, Slip drove the calves past him through a gate in the fence which had no wire. The calves split and two tried to slide through that fence next to a feed trough. SLip crawled through and over the trough to nip noses and turn those calves back toward Red and the gate.
The next obstacle was a figure eight around two feed troughs. We made a mistake when we set up this part of The course. The troughs were too close to the fence and also to an open gate which the calves could slip through. The problem with this was that the handler at the handler's post could not see around the corner and through the gate, and had to rely on his dog to bring the calves back without command.
Two of Slip's calves made it through the gate to stand next to the previously repenned cattle. Without hesitation, she darted through the gate, picked them up, and brought them back to the group. Around the troughs with the five she went. A straightaway drive across about two acres, then a cross drive behind a stock pond, were a piece of cake, as the calves were hers by this time.
There wasn't a whisper of noise from the crowd as everyone silently cheered them on. Through a distant gate to the far corner of another field they quickly walked. Slip was then called off to run across the field for a fast pat on the head from Red, then sent on another gather. Once she fetched the calves back to Red, he left the handler's post and hastily repenned the group.
A sigh was heard from the audiences held breath was released. Slip and Red shared a glance, then Red tossed her his billfold. They walked off the field to the tune of loud applause. Once again the old girl had done it, beat age and the odds to wind up on top. It was a tough, spectacular run. One I'll long remember. No one else even came close.
Red and Slip are a very special pair; tops in their field. They demonstrate the very best of the working Australian Shepherd and what teamwork really means.
this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer magazine in April/May 1994