From our ringside seats at the Deep Cove Market on the Saanich Peninsula in British Columbia, Canada we watch these amazing border collies do what they were born to do: work. It is a wonderful dance between the sheep and the dogs as choreographed by the trainer.
The field is set with small white hurdles called panels. The Collie is sent by the trainer to fetch the sheep. The dog 15 – 20 feet behind the sheep moves them forward at a walk, now a trot but never a run. She gets close, lies down and patiently awaits a signal. Now up, turning them. But the sheep have other ideas and go their own way, those mutton headed fur balls. The dog comes behind, slows and lies down again. Up, bunching them, turning them, then bringing them back to the trainer; who’s been signaling with a whistle. Dog and trainer as one patiently move the sheep into the pen.
Later, I have the privilege to be in the field feeling the breeze, smelling the grass and watching the dogs (Tee and Murphy) close up. Tee is Julie Carter’s tri-color nursery dog. This means Tee is a natural at herding sheep. Rachel, Julie’s student, owns Murphy, a rescue dog that has taken well to the work.
Sheep herding, in Julie’s words, “is the practical work of moving sheep at a slow methodical pace.” Already an experienced animal trainer Julie fell in love with working stock six years ago when she bought a dog from an outstanding shepherd. She observed this incredible connection of trainer and dog and, after shadowing the handler for a winter, she was hooked. A seasoned obedience trainer Julie discovered that “no ring obedience will give you the level of obedience and the type of relationship that this work gives.”
In February of 2010 she leased a field from Meadow Oak farms, fenced it and brought in sheep. What we are watching today is the first stock training on the Saanich Peninsula, and it’s drawn a lot of interested spectators including myself.
Julie, like Tee, is a natural. This is evident in the passion in her voice when she talks about the work. In the short time I spent with them in the field I gained a glimmer of understanding about the essence of herding. It is based on trust, relationship and finally partnership. This is a partnership where although the dog wants the sheep more than the trainer the bond of trust is solid and obedience unquestioned. The dog gets to know that the trainer is their ally, helping them to perfect the work.
The sheep too must trust the trainer. They need to learn to come to the trainer for safety. A shepherd’s love for the sheep makes the job one of protector, as sheep are very gentle creatures who react fearfully to an anxious dog or trainer. The goal is to keep them calm and controlled. This can only be achieved when both trainer and dog radiate confidence and calmness themselves. It is this type of partnership that sheep trust, and will then walk into the pen by choice. It strikes me that there is a life lesson our culture could take from this partnership, this wonderfully balanced dance of co-operation. Exactly how this balance is achieved will be discussed in the next article “A Balanced Dance.”
Originally published in Sea Side Times January 2011