Sitting in the kitchen of world champion Con McGarry, who trains 16 border collies at his Elphin farmhouse, was quite the learning experience. The national, international and world title winning trial dogs have been part of McGarry’s life for over 36 years.
“As a young guy I trained gun dogs, but I soon took a fancy to collies,” he begins.
“I came back from England in 1982 after working as a plumber. I needed a work dog and was looking for something to do as a pastime. I was past playing football and decided to steer away from horseriding because I had young kids and a wife and thought horse riding wasn’t the best pastime with all that responsibility. So, I went to an agricultural show one Sunday in Elphin where there was a sheepdog trial. I said, ‘Well maybe I could try that’ and so, here I am.”
He continues: “From watching trials, I knew the bitch I had wasn’t suitable. She was a tremendous worker – turning cows, bringing in sheep, taking them along the road and standing at every gap - but she wasn’t suitable for the trials. So, I asked a few people there about pups and got a couple. One lad – Scott was his name – was very good. The first nursery trial I took him to, we won.”
Achieving such titles was a slow process with plenty of error as well as trial, McGarry admits:
“I always say it’s a bit like riding a bicycle – once you know, you know – but it is one piece at a time and you need to keep great obedience on the dog. You have to keep trying.”
Distinguishing a good work dog from a potential trial dog is often difficult, he says.
“Spotting a good dog from a great dog is hard to explain. You learn to spot certain things. They have to keep a certain distance from their sheep, have good heads and remain cool.
“It is like a football coach who goes to a school playground and has to pick a county player. Now they can all kick the football but, if he watches for a while he will see that some have a bit more talent than others.”
He continues by dispelling rumours that a dog can only have one master in his lifetime, McGarry says.
“They can only have one master while they have that one master. But, if you take my dog home today, after spending a few days on a lead getting to know each other, you will find that you are his master now.”
Nerves are felt by both man and dog, but keeping calm is the key to success, McGarry explains. “A big part of the exercise is to try to keep cool before going out to run your dog. It is not easy because that is when you feel the pressure the most, but it is so important to be relaxed, because the dog picks up on your nerves.”
Love of dogs
The defending champion’s love of dogs is evident in his practices: “I don’t like to train them until they are about a year old. It is unfair, they are only babies and I don’t want to be hard on them. They have the rest of their lives to work and train.
“The older dogs get a break for the winter. They might do a little bit of work the odd day that there is pressure on but will be mainly free for the winter months to rest up.”
McGarry’s fondness of his pack is made even more obvious as he hesitates to name his top dogs: “I have two very good bitches and a dog, at the moment. Cora is five and a half and Tara is seven. They really are good. Karven Dave is only two and already 2018 nursey champion. He will be my dog now for the winter trials.”
Being world champion does not come easy, however. McGarry spends every weekend at trials as well as working his dogs with his own cattle and sheep daily.
“I have been in the international final more than 20 times since I started, in both doubles and singles.
“I have been European champion and ‘One Man and His Dog’ champion on a few occasions. I would be fairly decent,” he humbly agrees.
“It is very much a team effort though. The want to work for their owner shows a mutual respect between dog and man. They have an extra sense. It is a kind of telepathy.”
Determined to maintain Ireland’s reputation of collie champions McGarry offers lessons to those who are keen to partake in trials.