Matt Baker: One man and his dog

One Man and His Dog isn't just an institution, it was also the inspiration for a lifelong passion for Countryfile presenter Matt Baker.

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One Man and His Dog has been one of the BBC’s hidden gems for more than 30 years. There’s no dancing or singing required but it’s as gripping as any talent show final you could ever dream of; it’s absolutely mesmerising due to the simple relationship between man and dog, and the insight into their world. They captivate the audience as soon as they quietly walk out to the handlers’ post by simply guiding a few stubborn sheep through some wooden gates. Magical.

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This is my fourth year filming for the programme, and I now have the privilege of commentating alongside Gus Dermody, a voice

I have listened to since my childhood, when my connection with sheepdogs started.  As a boy I was inspired by the heroic shepherds I would watch on the programme and how they could master their dogs with such control. So with the sound of Gus in my ears and watching in wonder as our old dog Meg gathered and fetched our flocks naturally on the farm, it was time for me to grab the whistle by its cord and discover more about this fascinating sport.

When I was 13, old Meg went to the pasture in the sky and so Mum decided to get a new nine-week-old pup. This was the opportunity I needed. I’ll never forget coming home from school and jaggling the bolt on the stable door to reveal a tiny black and white pup curled up in a ball in her bed on top of the goats’ milking platform. From the moment she nestled into me, we were the best of friends.

We decided to call her Lace. The first few months of our newly-formed friendship were spent playing football for hours; with her black and white strip she was the best Newcastle United player going and there was nothing she couldn’t do with a ball. This was the beginning of her training, my starting point for her “come-by” and “away”, commands that relate to the direction the dog runs. I always remember it as a clock face – A for away, as the dog runs anticlockwise around the sheep, and C for come-by and clockwise. To teach this I fastened a tennis ball to the end of a high jump pole and I would swing it round at pace.

As Lace ran after the ball I would shout out the relevant command. Then I raised the pole up into the air and she would lie down, waiting eagerly for it to drop. It was an unconventional method, but it was perfect for us.

Soon it was time to take things to the next level, so Mum enrolled us on a sheep dog training course, when we were introduced to a great family friend, Derek Bowmer. He was our teacher and mentor, and still is to this day.

As we lined up with the other handlers I drastically reduced the average age of the pupils to below 50! One by one we released our dogs on to the unlucky flock of eight ewes. Before my turn I proudly announced that Lace knew her left and rights and she could lie down on command. Having bent the truth slightly and with no tennis balls in sight, I walked out towards the sheep. What a feeling.
I now knew how the One Man shepherds felt as the camera zoomed in – a feeling of expectation and anticipated humiliation.

Lace stalked up to them, and as we looked at each other, I cautiously said: “Go on,” and she was off. I watched as her instinct took over. She was in her element, as was I. Derek came straight up to me and said: “There’s two things wrong with that dog. The first is its name, and the second is that it doesn’t belong to me.”

For 17 happy years Lace was a brilliant sheep dog and my companion. She was always there for me, would vet my girlfriends and keep an eye out of the back of the truck when I reversed.

As I sit in the commentary box this year for all of the international and national champions that competed on One Man, it’s the young handlers that have a special place in my heart. The essence of trialing is the connection between dog and handler. There is a real magic in those early years of discovery that seals the bond that keeps all the old boys going.

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