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A trialside chat with Derek Fisher

 By

Eric JT Harlow

Spring 2004

 For the last several years there has been a name that has consistently come up in top placings at a variety of sheepdog and cattle dog trials. From the local backyard trial to the Meeker Classic and USBCHA National Finals this young man has proven time and time again that age has no bearing on skill or talent. Determination and hard work is what has made Derek Fisher one of the most promising and up and coming handlers, trainers and clinicians in the country. Derek started training as a result of purchasing some sheep for an FFA project. And it wasnít long before he recognized the value of a good dog and found Jim, an ambitious yearling and trained him for help on his flock of Suffolk ewes. This was the start of one of the most unique and successful careers in the current sheepdog industry. Here we talk to Derek about how he got started, how e became successful and what his aspirations are for the future. 

So Derek, how was it starting out training dogs at 13 years old? I mean most people in this business start out in their thirties; you were half that age, why?

     Well I started because I liked it. I mean I had sheep and hated having to run out in the fields to bring them in. I mean after a day of trying to work sheep we (my family and I) were ready to kill each other and the animals. So when I saw what a good dog could do I decided to get one.

 

Did your parents got you a dog?

     NO! At first they didnít want me to get a dog at all. They thought it would be another pet, not a dog that could be useful. So I had to fight really hard to get them to let me have a dog. Finally they agreed that I could get one if I paid for it and the food and all that jazz. You know take care of the dog and be responsible for it and all.

 

Youíve said you made a lot of mistakes with your first few dogs but you seem to be proud of that, why?

     Totally! Mistakes are what make us learn. Those times I would rather crawl in a hole and hide because of some stupid thing I did are the perfect times for a good lesson. The same goes for dogs. If the dog makes a ton of mistakes as a pup, it might not be so exciting to see as a trainer or a spectator watching the training but look at the same dog in a year or so. That dog that was so mistake prone as a pup now can prevent all those mistakes and look and perform really great. Its simple really, they were allowed to learn when the situation came up and now they are quite skilled in what they do. Thatís why Heidi and I are such a great team. We made so many mistakes that we had no choice but to learn. And now we have gone through so much together that we know how we will react to it and just deal with it.

 

Can you give us an example?

     Well most would be times that nobody has seen. You know like when we were at home and she saved a shed or brought in a ewe and a newborn lamb. Those are the times that are really cool. But the year I was reserve at Meeker, she saved a shed that I thought would be impossible. A marked and an unmarked ewe were walking off together and I was going to try and keep the collared ewe. Well they started running so I just flanked her around them both but she thought different. Instead of bringing both back, she cut between them and took the collared ewe and left the unmarked ewe, exactly what she needed to do, even though I didnít tell her to. But what was so impressive was that she did it on her own and then had to hold this ewe while she tried to get away, and did it! She was just feet from the sorted off sheep and kept this ewe from joining them! Well needless to say I was pretty stoked about it and so was the crowd. They cheered and yelled like we had just won the world-series! That was probably the coolest thing we did at a trial.

 

Tell us about Heidi.

     Heidi is one of the most brilliant dogs I have ever seen. She was trained literally in less than two months. She was eleven months old when I got her (that was in November), and then by January she was helping me lamb out my Suffolk ewes. I remember times when we both got plowed into the mud by some angry ewe but she never let it affect her. She just ďkept on truckin,Ē and worked her butt off for me.

     She has the biggest heart out of any dog I have ever worked. Times like lambing and sorting the ewes and just doing anything that most dogs would get tired of she thrives on. I have used her in times where it seemed impossible to get the job done with only one dog and she did it.

 

Would you say her heart is her best quality?

     Totally! She isnít super talented see. I had to work on her outrun a lot and really try to get her to pace at trials and stuff like that. But she was always willing to learn and was a really quick learner. I taught her to flank in a day, taught her to drive in a day and taught her inside flanks in that same day! She is just brilliant in so many ways that I really canít explain it in words. Itís something that you have to see you know? Like you really canít appreciate how good a performer is until you see them live, well thatís the same with her. When you see Heidi when she is on, itís like watching silk flow in the wind, or like hearing the best singer in the world sing their best song. Donít get me wrong, she has bad days too but they have been far fewer than most dogs I have seen.

 

You have been kind of fortunate in this then. I mean your parents were supportive and you seem to have been lucky to get dogs that are good.

     I would have to say that fortunate is the wrong word. My parents were supportive in the sense that they let me do it. They provided me the basics like allowing me to have the dogs, and letting me have the sheep. But I had to be responsible just like everyone else. I had to pay for the feed, the hay, the dog food, the entry fees, the clinic fees, new dogs etcÖ Itís not like they trained the dogs for me and then told me to run them. I think the reason I have had the success that Iíve experienced is because I worked hard to get there and I continue working hard to keep getting better. I mean I trained all of my dogs myself, I paid for the vehicles and the gas to drive all over training on different terrain, I bought my sheep to work on etcÖ Not to say that they didnít help, but it was my desire to do this so I did.

     And lucky is definitely the wrong word. I think I have been graced with some very brilliant dogs but itís a team thing. We have worked hard to do well, the dogs and I.

 

What do you think about other young people getting involved in training?

     I think itís great! I admire a lot of people no matter their age. Like Haley Howard, she is amazing. I watch her and think WOW!!! But she also trains her own dogs and runs them for herself, thatís what is admirable about her. Not to say that people who donít train their own dogs are any less able to do the job, they are. I just really like to see people do it themselves. I guess thatís kinda stupid for me to say as a trainer but I think that itís really cool when you can work a dog that you trained yourself. Not everyone can do that due to a lot of things like their work, or school or whatever the individual circumstances. But for me itís a really cool and satisfying accomplishment to do that. 

 

You have been on a break lately, how is that treating you?

     Well the break is good and bad. College is getting rather busy for me so I have had to take some time off of training and trialing and focus on school work at the moment. Itís given me time to think about where I want to go and what I want to do with my dogs and my life in general.

 

But you have some big plans this summer, how are those coming?

     I am working on organizing a clinic with last yearís reserve National Champion, Julie Mathews right now. That the biggest deal for me right now, you know getting the flyers done and the word out is taking a lot of time. I have this great friend that is great with computers, Ray Crabtree and we worked together to get the flyer done. And I am working on getting some lessons and clinics scheduled in Southern California, Portland and in Seattle. So Iím hopefully going to be busier than I should be but thatís okay. I like being busy, especially when Iím working dogs. Itís nice to get really involved in what Iím doing and be so busy that I donít think of doing anything else. And the only way for that to happen for me is to be working all day for several days in a row. That way I know what I have to do and I just focus on getting it all done.

 

Any closing thoughts?

     I would tell anyone to just stay determined and never give up. Within everyone lies the ingredients for greatness, we just have to find them and mix them in the right ways.

 

Derek will be doing clinics, and lessons in Southern California, New Mexico, Western Washington, Portland and Seattle from the beginning of June to the end of July.

     This summer promises to be full of dogs, hard work and great opportunities for Derek. This fall his plans include attending the Western States Regional (which he as twice won in recent years), the Meeker Classic (also a previous victory for Derek) and the USBCHA National Finals before going back to school at Boise State University where he studies communications.

     For information on clinics and lessons with Derek contact Eric JT Harlow at eric@harlowsheepco.com (541 215 9109) or look for listings on the Oregon Sheepdog Society webpage at www.osds.org

 

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