Her Right Hand Partner: Keri Palmer’s dogs work on the ranch and in town
Keri Palmer of Kadoka, South Dakota, is looking forward to the North American Sheep Dog Trials coming up on Feb. 4, at the Black Hills Stock Show. The Isabel, South Dakota native says she got her start training herding dogs and using them on the family ranch when she was in high school and learned a lot from local border collie breeder and trainer Pete Carmichael.
“Pete got me hooked,” Keri said. “He was my mentor.”
Keri got more serious about showing her dogs about a decade ago.
“When my kids were little and we were riding I could send the dogs out to gather cattle and we’d keep the main herd going,” she said. “A good dog is as good as another person out there. The trials are supposed to reflect what we do at home on the ranch, to show who has the best working dog.”
Ranch dogs work because they are bred to, following their natural instincts, but Keri says that a dog has to be a lot more broke to do well in trialing.
“There are a lot more handler commands,” she said. “I may have to tell my dog to move a foot or two, or move a cow a foot or two to put her through an obstacle. Trialing requires a lot more finesse, but more ranch dogs are getting into it.”
In a field trial, dogs are sent on an outrun: typically five to eight hundred yards. They must gather the cattle (or sheep), bring them to the handler, move them to the left through a set of panels, then bring them back to the right through another set of panels, and then put the stock in a pen.
In arena trials, such as the North American Sheep Dog Trials at the stock show, panels are set up in some kind of obstacle that the dog must put the cattle or sheep into, and then sort them and bring them out as directed.
“Arena trials can vary,” Keri said. “Some have the dog bring them down an alley and load them into a horse trailer. Sheep trials are very similar to cattle trials, just on a smaller scale. Your dog has to gather the stock to you, then drive them through obstacles.”
Keri entered five year old Joy, a dog she bred and raised. Joy goes back to Pete Carmichael’s lines, and she’s sired by Spade, a border collie Keri purchased from Robin Brown’s Broken Circle border collies in Idaho.
“I trialed Spade for a few years; now he’s home working for a living,” Keri chuckled. “He has a lot of natural rate; he likes his cattle and sheep to move quietly, but he’s confident and will make them move when needed. He has a strong head bite and heel bite.”
Now it’s Joy’s turn to go to town and show her talent.
When breeding, Keri selects for cattle dogs with a little more bite and confidence, but wants her dogs to have a natural gather, be able to read stock well and have plenty of intelligence.
“I might be a little different than a lot of cowboys,” she said. “I want a dog that likes to work on the edge of a cow’s flight zone, but is still brave enough to say ‘that’s it!’ and bite when needed. A border collie’s first instinct is usually to gather, but for trialing they have to be able to drive also.”
Keri will take a young dog out to stock a couple of times per month starting when they are four to six months old. More intense training comes when they’re about ten months of age.
“They’re more physically and mentally ready then,” she said. “The first basic part I want them to learn is to go around the sheep, balance and bring them to me. Then I work on downs and ‘flanks’—sending the dog both directions around the herd. As they progress we start mini outruns. The last thing I work on is driving. I start them on sheep but we also winter some light calves so we’ll bounce back and forth. It gives them confidence. If we winter the bulls close to home I’ll take them out to move the bulls. It’s good for the dogs because the bulls are big and move slowly, and it’s good for the bulls because it makes them more broke. They get used to respecting the dogs and they respect my horse better too.”
Keri is looking forward to the Black Hills Stock Show trials with Joy, and says she has two younger dogs coming up that she will start trialing soon. One is a daughter of Spade; the other is Joy’s daughter. They can be shown in ‘Nursery’ level classes for dogs under the age of three.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “You need some intensity in your dogs for trialing; they need a lot of drive to take the pressure of that much training. But when you’re done working it’s nice to have a dog that just wants to hang out and be your friend.”
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