Corporate hospitality - a dog's life

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In the grounds of a number of country house hotels, business executives are getting the chance to try out the latest line in corporate hospitality: that most rural pursuit, sheepdog trialling. Recently, for instance, executives from the communications giant Ericsson were able to swap business suits and power dressing for jeans and sweatshirts and the chance to try the reality of the BBC's One Man And His Dog.

The BBC programme, now in its 20th year, has made sheepdog trialling universally recognised. Ironically, though, the increasing popularity of such events comes at a time when fewer people are training dogs and their use on farms is diminishing as farmers opt for such aids as motorised quad bikes.

A shortage of trained sheepdogs has seen their value soar. At a recent auction at Sennybridge, near Brecon, Powys, 90 dogs were auctioned, including one that reached a record price in Britain of pounds 2,600.

Merion Owen began sheepdog trialling as a 10-year-old, following a tradition started by his grandfather. His father is still one of the leading dog trainers in Wales. "I see no problem with doing corporate events," Merion remarks. "It helps make trialling more popular, and gives an insight into what goes on."

And so, stood in a field in the grounds of Puckrup Hall Hotel, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, Ericsson's finest took it in turns to shout the commands that guided the border collies trained by former Welsh champion Merion Owen, himself a past competitor on the BBC programme.

Working on the farm, Merion would mainly use whistled commands to his dogs as they set about tending his flock of sheep. For the corporate clients, four verbal commands suffice: "bye" to send the dog clockwise, "away" for anti-clockwise, "stand" to stop, and "walk".

Eccentrically, a course has also been arranged through which three ducks are guided. It includes a crossroads, a water chute and negotiating a set of gates before the ducks are herded into a box. This is not as difficult as it may sound: the ducks are practically tame and were raised on Merion's farm at Camarthen, West Wales. However, that most clients succeed in their task owes more to the skill of the dogs and the advice of Merion. Yet it still brings a sense of achievement.

Merion said: "It would be quite difficult to let clients try on their own, but some are good. Women tend to be better because they listen beforehand and take advice. Some of the men think they know it all already."

He admitted that the three dogs he regularly uses know the course and will sometimes do the right thing even if given the wrong command. At busy times they can be going through their paces at two or three events a week.

As one happy participant said, while clutching his shepherd's crook: "This is really good. It is not something I would have the chance to do anywhere else and it is amazing to see how well the dog responds to the commands, even if you have no real idea what you're doing."

Merion puts on similar displays at game shows; it was at a show in Oxford two years ago that he was spotted by Adrian Brown, an organiser of corporate events, who saw an opening for the attraction.

"The days when you could get away with just offering good food and drink are over," Mr Brown explained. "People want to try something different and we have to keep coming up with new ideas. The sheepdog trials are fun, but also give people an insight into the skills involved."

He said the added idea of using ducks was not only practical, but made the whole event something of a novelty. People could have a laugh. And to date nobody has declined to try - an important consideration when one recent client was paying pounds 55,000 a day for the package that included hotel and dinner.

For more details about sheepdog events call 01267 290282