THE annual Henty Field Days sheep dog trial attracts the best of the best in competition dogs and their handlers each year. This year, however, handlers across the country are bracing for a long break as COVID-19 restrictions come into force.
Competing at the field days for the past six years, Boorowa's Julie Birkett said the break will allow many trainers, including herself, to work with their dogs without the added pressure of an upcoming event. "In a normal year, you're constantly preparing from one trial to the next," she said.
Julie said she would miss heading along to the Henty trial, though her dogs would be continuing their training at home, albeit on a more relaxed schedule.
"With so many trials cancelled this year, I have just been letting them enjoy life but they still get exercise and some training for the younger ones. "I will miss Henty this year, it's very well run - Paul Damody and his daughter Hannah run an extremely good trial, there's no hiccups and they're just brilliant."
Working with sheep dogs for the past 12 years, Julie first began her journey into trials after her husband gifted her two border collies dogs.
"My husband bought me two collies from the Trading Post and they were really clever so I knew I needed to do something with them," she said, adding it wasn't long after when she entered her first trial.
"I remember it was at Molong and I was so nervous but I manage the nerves a lot better now. "The more comfortable you get working the dogs and understanding what's required and the more experience you get."
With a mentor at her side, Julie established herself as one of only a minority of women competitors on the trial circuit.
"It is a very male dominated sport but I think more women are coming into it now and, I would say to other women, if you're passionate about working with dogs, it's a very satisfying sport," adding she believes there is a notable difference in the way women work with their canine companions.
"It's all about how you communicate and women are often very successful because they have a beautiful rapport with their dogs."
Julie said trusting your dog comes from building a good foundation of communication with them when they are a pup, not by forcing them when they're not ready.
"I look at it like raising kids - you need to expose them to new things and see how they react, then show them how to go about it and, if they're unsure, reassure them," she said.
"If they get it wrong, you need to be patient to just show them how to do it and, before you know it, it all clicks and that's when the joy really kicks in." Julie said it is important to build the dog's confidence in you, and vice-versa, so there can be a mutual trust when it comes time to work.
"This sport is like ballet for our dogs, so we want precision and we want every step to be accurate."
Julie said the joy of competing comes from the connection she feels with her dogs when they work as a team.
"I get a real joy of satisfaction when the dog and I are on the same page - that's the most satisfaction you will ever get. "My mentor Charlie Cover once said, 'there'll be days when you and the dog will work really well but it won't show on the score' and it's so true," Julie said adding, for her, the competition isn't about winning.
"You get so much more joy and satisfaction just seeing the homework you do with your dogs being played out on the field, in the competition.
"We sometimes have 180-200 entries and there's only going to be one winner so, if you're going for the win, you're going to be disappointed.
"Ultimately, it's the relationship you have with your dog on the day, in that 15 minutes, is all that matters."