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Sheepdogs 101
Sheepdogs 101

Sheepdogs 101

by Kristina Goetz of Jackson, Wyoming

After much debate, the time had come. I was volunteering at the humane society, where I was always meeting with a slew of available creatures. “No white dogs,” I told everyone, “and no border collies.” I could hardly keep up with keeping myself clean, and the borders I have known were an intense and rather wildly energetic lot. It wasn’t too long before the white border collie arrived home. Or was he? Border owners swore he was; others swore not. More were definitely, positively, not sure.

There was only one way to find out. So when I saw an ad in the paper for a sheepherding clinic being held less than a stone’s throw from my front door, I could not resist. Such an event, pre-dog, would definitely have interested me, falling in the category of human-animal cooperative endeavors, as it were. But this was a chance to see borders in action! I wasn’t sure if I should dare bring my mangy pound puppy, though. So I signed on as a spectator, shelled out a little cash, and arrived a minute before showtime, curious to see, and maintaining the option to bring the mystery dog later.

So this is how I found myself one Sunday in late June, at the Teton County Fairgrounds, under an intermittently snow-spitting and sun-strewn sky. With me were 25 or so other curious folk and their assorted stockdogs. It turned out I had nothing to fear; the other dogs, although many purebred, had not been exposed to livestock either. And the folks were so nice! The clinic was hosted by K-9 Athletes of the Tetons and was led by Anita Pratt of Blackfoot, Idaho, a cattle and sheep rancher and longtime trainer and breeder of working border collies. Her extensive knowledge and disarming demeanor made us all feel comfortable right away.

After a morning of discussion and watching Anita’s pros Moss and Sue show us how it’s done, we spent the afternoon introducing the dogs, one by one, to a herd of sheep in a small round pen – made even smaller with the addition of two people! Anita stressed the importance of introducing an inexperienced dog carefully, and only to tame, dog-broken stock. Otherwise, chaos is sure to ensue, with neither animal having any idea of what they are supposed to do. The stock most DEFINITELY filled this criteria. The sheep – courtesy of the assistant, local dog groomer Rose – were switched out every few dogs, to keep them from being too harassed and habituated. It is crucial to have respect for the stock and not let dogs – even learning dogs – abuse them in any way.

Sheepdogs 101

In that 25 or so there, we had a fantastic cross-section of sizes, breeds, ages, and personalities. And that’s just the dogs! A few heelers, two rough collies, a smooth collie, a corgi, and several borders and aussies made up the mix. This turned out to be one of the most interesting opportunities of the clinic: not only could you see how a dog responded as an individual, but as a breed as well. Coddled couch surfers or regular ranch dogs, mostly all reacted to the sheep with a combination of curiosity and excitement. After being led into the pen and getting a good look at the sheep, the owner would release the dog; the instructor, armed with a long handled rake, was poised to intercept the dog if it should get too close or nip too aggressively at the sheep. Using the rake, she also kept the dog running wide off the stock in the circle along the perimeter, blocking the dog from where she didn’t want it to go, and encouraging the dog to change directions frequently. As it soon became clear, most dogs favor one direction. If the dog did well, it was encouraged to actually “fetch” or “gather” the sheep off the rail and bring them to the instructor, who would back herself into the opposite side of the pen. The dog would then be asked to stop and hold the sheep there. A lot for one lesson! Being the first experience for the dogs, the sessions were kept short and the dogs were never asked to do anything our instructor didn’t think they could handle. Of course, the same could not be said of the owners, who had the hardest job of all: trying to stay out of the way of the instructor, listen to what she was saying, and simultaneously not trip over the rake, teacher, dog, or sheep. Good grief!

Of course, only a few dogs go as far as the fetching. Some entered the pen beside themselves barking. This turned out to be some of the younger ones, who didn’t yet have the self-confidence that comes with age and experience: barking can apparently be a sign of fear. Others were confused, and needed some prodding and encouragement from their owners, who got to herd the sheep themselves, and invite their dogs to join in. Although, of course, amusing, it didn’t necessarily mean a dog wouldn’t work. A few caught on and began to enjoy themselves thoroughly! A very few, however, showed no interest at all in either the sheep or their movement, which strangely enough was the case with both the rough collies. But we were all delightedly stunned when the little corgi rolled into the pen and got those sheep up and running without a moments hesitation!

It was quite a show and an education, and in fact it was hard to tear yourself away from the action when it was your dog’s turn! It was fascinating to see clearly the raw, innate styles revealed among the dogs who definitely got the idea. Some got in right behind the sheep and nipped at and even grabbed their legs (“gripping”); others trotted quietly behind. Some were inconsistent, first diving in, then pulling back, then diving in again. Some were content to just follow the sheep. A few of the dogs showed eye, a mannerism of concentration in which a dog stares intensively at the stock. (A “strong-eyed” dog stares and crouches when cautiously approaching stock. A “loose-eye” is a dog that doesn’t drop his head, and will even look around when herding. A “medium-eye” falls between these two.) We could see for ourselves the difference between the “fetching” or “gathering” dogs and the “driving” dogs. From what I understand, the difference between the two is based in the dog’s innate instinct, and cannot really be drastically altered. A gathering, fetching, or circling dog wants to not only move the stock, but direct their movement in a specific way. The gathering instinct is to keep the stock between you and him or her at all times, and it is this that provides the basis for the ability to herd. A driving dog, instead, has an instinct to keep the stock moving, not necessarily gathering or fetching it, or rounding it up to change its direction, but to keep it moving. Of course, these are crass over-generalizations. There are dogs of driving breeds that will gather; there are those of fetching breeds that will not. There are even, as we witnessed, herding dogs who show no interest in stock!

Most folks have heard of the legendary border collie, but there are in fact MANY herding breeds. For clarification, the breeds considered to be herding are as follows: The Australian cattle dog, or heeler; the kelpie; the Australian shepherd, the Beauceron; the bearded collie; the Belgian malinois, tervuren, and sheepdog; the border collie; the Bouvier des Flandres; the briard; the Canaan dog; the Catahoula leopard dog; the collie, rough and smooth; the English shepherd; the German shepherd; the McNab; the old English sheepdog; the Picardy shepherd; the puli; the Pyrenean shepherd; the Shetland sheepdog; and last but not least the corgi, Cardigan and Pembroke. So it’s not just border collies, is it? Aside from lineage, the characteristics of the individual dog also strongly influence his abilities to work. These include self-confidence, balance, concentration, desire to work, temperament, and style. Some of these are alterable, some not. This multitude of factors is taken into account when gauging a stockdog’s talent. And, after all that, the only way to know for sure how a dog herds – and hence how to train him – is through watching him work, work, work!

After witnessing the process unfold for the other dogs, I could not resist. I had them pencil my dog in, and brought him over, last one of the day. I knew he’d be excited and curious about the sheep from the moment he smelled them, and I was pretty sure he’d be inclined to herd. But words cannot describe the surprise I felt once he was let off the leash. He trotted right over and moved in behind the sheep like he’d done it all his life, although I’m pretty sure he never had. Despite being mostly white (it is said that sheep will not be as instinctively fearful of a white dog because their predators historically have been dark-colored; this explains why guard dogs for flocks are usually white, and why whiter border collies are viewed as inferior, and tend to end up at the pound), the sheep quickly moved away from his confident gait. He didn’t grip, had a medium eye, and really preferred one side to the other. Watching him glide around and around, it was like seeing a completely different side of someone you thought you knew so well, yet clearly seeing their ultimate purpose. I hardly recognized him! I guess 300 years of breeding goes a long way. It was delightful and wondrous; and not just for me! He even made it as far as a getting a few stabs at fetching and stopping. Although he was not quite confident enough to sit or lie down with those sheep so nearby, he was most definitely smiling proudly from ear to ear. That sheepdog! So, we made it through Lesson One alive. What next? Unfortunately, I’m a town dweller, and so more or less stock-less. The clinic was just a lucky onetime thing. Herding possibilities for a dog living with a person such as myself are borrowing stock to work with, either from farming friends or for a fee; joining a herding club that organizes practices and clinics; or finding an instructor whom I respect and trust to take us on as students. In fact, many aspiring trialers do just this, in the hopes of taking their sheepdogs from the backyard, or farmyard, to the highest recognized level.

Sheepdogs 101

Trials are gatherings of dogs and their handlers for a competition of herding. The difference between a working dog and a trial dog, however, is vast. Many dogs can learn to herd stock wonderfully for the small farmer or simply for the enjoyment of the backyard hobbyist. Clearly, it is a fascinating and enlightening process to learn and teach a dog to work. However, trialing is more intense and demanding and requires a certain kind of dog (not to mention handler) that not only works well, but well under pressure, in different and unusual areas, and in front of an unpredictable crowd. Trial schedules tend to be rigorous and exhausting. It is sort of like the difference between sounding wonderful singing in your shower, and then singing wonderfully in another shower, on stage, on Broadway, in front of a full house, six nights a week, for a year. Not to mention the years of training!

Not that some dogs wouldn’t enjoy it; they surely do. And although I knew in a moment it was not for me to participate in, I just had to go see a trial. Which is how I ended up at the Big E Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Massachusetts, last September, the parents I was visiting in tow. There was a two day trial and we went to watch the second day. Held in the indoor arena, we arrived early to take a look at the set up, sans dogs. Gates, a pen, and a bridge were laid out. A handler led in dog #1. In less than the allotted few minutes, he fetched five sheep, drove them through a series of gates, and into the pen, his handler barking orders throughout. We were suitably impressed, especially when, after 25 or so dogs, we realized only about half would finish the course. It became clear this course was designed to test all the skills required in a herding dog: the outrun, the lift, the fetch, the drive, directions, obstacles, penning. We were also here witness to an array of styles, both in the dogs and the handlers.

After chatting with the handlers after the low-key event, we came to discover that, although impressive, this was not quite the “real” thing. The REAL thing involved big sprawling fields outdoors and 400 yard outruns. My eyes got as big as saucers, and I felt my dad nudge my elbow. I suspect our spectating days are not quite over yet!

Of course they aren’t: watching dogs work is a real treat. For those of you already sinking into the dark abyss of “wanting to know more” there are a variety of resources. Sheepdog Training: An All-Breed Approach by Mari Taggart, the only one I could find of its kind at my library, proved to be a clear, basic book for the beginner such as myself. LittleHats.net on the internet has something to offer, and the US Border Collie Handlers Association website (usbcha.org) has all sorts of official information, including dates and locations of all US sanctioned trials. This is where I read about the trial I went to, and there are about a zillion others held throughout the year, all over the country. There are sometimes contact numbers as well, and also some links to local herding club chapters. Go and witness an age-old tradition of human-animal cooperation in action, in person. I don’t think you’ll be sorry! But be careful! Like Anita warned: “If I had known beforehand how engrossing and involved this would have become, I’d never have started!” And undoubtedly training and working with sheepdogs has its frustrations, but also its rewards. And if you could see Anita and her well-trained dogs beaming at one another, you’d know she’d do it all over again, too.

To give you an idea of how incredibly tiny the tip of the iceberg I have touched on is, here is a list of terms commonly used, or related to, handling a stockdog.

BASIC COMMANDS

Come Bye – the traditional command for sending a dog out to his right; also called a flank command.

Away To Me – the traditional command for sending a dog out to his left; also called a flank command.

Walk Up – dog is to approach stock and move them.

There – dog should turn into stock at that point and start moving them.

Steady/Steady On – the dog should slow down behind stock and move at a steady pace.

Lie Down – the dog should stop. Some dogs will stop but remain standing, others will lie down.

That Will Do – the dog should stop what it is doing. It can be followed by another command; if not, the dog should return to the handler’s side.

Get Back – the dog should get farther back off the stock.

OTHER TERMS

Outrun – the dog runs from the handler’s side to reach the far side of the stock; to either the left or right.

Flight Zone – the area in which must be entered to get stock to move.

Lift – the moment when the dog has reached the end of the outrun and moves forward for his first contact with the stock.

Fetch – the dog’s moving the stock towards the handler after lifting them.

Flanking – the movement of the dog from side to side as he drives stock.

Balance – the point the dog has to be on stock in order to move them too you (preferably in a straight line).

Drive – the dog’s moving stock away from the handler.

Heading – the dog’s going to the front of the stock.

Gripping – when the dog bites stock.

Eye – an inherited characteristic in working dogs, used to control stock.

Power – a combination of self-confidence, fearlessness, and the ability to control stock.

Light Stock – stock that is free-moving and quick in their reactions to a dog.

Heavy Stock – stock that is reluctant to move away from the dog.

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