Glossary of Terms:
Border – The area around the flock, just on the outskirts of their grazing, where the tending dog runs to keep the sheep inside the area.
Eye – Typically grouped into three categories, the strong-eyed, the medium-eyed and the loose-eyed. The “eye” relates to how much eye contact the dog makes with the stock. Typically, Border Collies are “strong-eyed” (picture them crouching low to the ground, stalking something, giving you “that look”, that’s the “eye”). “Upright” dogs, like German Shepherds, who herd more with their bodies and less with their eyes, typically have “loose” or “medium” eyes.
Tending – Large flock herding, whereby the dog acts as a “living fence” to keep the sheep grouped while grazing in large, open areas. Typical tending breeds include: Belgian Malinois, Belgian Sheepdogs, Belgian Tervurens, Bouvier des Flandres, Briards, Beaceron, Pyrenean Shepherds, Pulis, and, of course, the German Shepherd.
Upright Dog – Unlike the “eye” dogs, like Border Collies, the upright dog (like a German Shepherd), uses its body to herd sheep, not its eyes. They stand straight, using their physical presence, whereas an “eye” dog, gets low to the ground and stares up. While the breeds can typically delineate the type of dog, it is not always the case that upright dogs will use their bodies and eye dogs will use their eyes.
Wearing – The back and forth pendulum movement of the tending dog, used to keep the flock together while grazing.
Part 2 – “Tending”
Carolyn chuckled as Shelby struggled to keep up with me while we walked to the tending pen, “I’d like to get that line off of her, put this on her instead in case we have to wrangle her up real quick, but that’s too cumbersome for such a small pup.” She handed me two, small, nylon leashes tied together, and I switched the line out with the leashes, then let them fall to the grass.
As soon as I switched the leash, Shelby walked to the pen with the thirty sheep, sniffed, then took off as fast as she could in the other direction. I stared up the hill where Shelby was headed and my heart dropped into my stomach.
“Don’t worry, it’s 20 acres of fenced in paddock. She’ll come back eventually.” I think Carolyn must have seen the terror in my body, because she was laughing softly like she’d seen the same scene a thousand times. She probably had, but this was my dog, my Shelby! I tried my hardest not to call her back to me, because Carolyn said she wanted to see what Shelby would do on her own. I waited. It really only took her less than twenty seconds to come back, I know, because we have it on video, but that twenty seconds lasted into oblivion at the time. Shelby has never run off on me, and I didn’t like her doing it now.
She turned at the top of the hill and came barreling back, jumping on me when she did. Shelby only really jumps on us when she is super excited about something, or nervous. I guessed this was nervous.
“Now, Aimee, walk around the pen, see if she will follow you.”
I did as directed and began to slowly walk back and forth around the pen. Shelby followed faithfully, first on my left side, furthest from the sheep then when we turned, her heeling training led her to follow again on my left, but now nearest the sheep. She stopped, stuck her head in, as if she was confirming that these were indeed the same animals, sniffed, then trotted back to me. Carolyn watched, then said, “Okay, so I’m going to want to see you get in the pen.”
I looked back at her, “Me? In there? With them?”
“All right, I guess.” Lisa held the fence open just enough for me to slip through without the sheep getting out.
“Now, walk inside the flock, nearest the center pen.”
“Are you sure you’re comfortable with this?” Lisa brows furrowed in concern. I imagine it was because I probably looked terrified.
“Oh yeah, I’ve worked on barns with horses my whole life.” I played it up, but I wasn’t convincing myself, though I apparently did a decent job of convincing everyone else. I kept telling myself, horses are taller, bigger, stronger, smarter, they are not as skittish. You are going to be fine. They are just sheep; they only come up to your waist, after all.
But it’s their eyes. They have goat eyes with those weird, rectangular pupils, and I have never been particularly fond of goats (for the record, horses have a rectangular shape to their pupils as well, but most horse eyes are so dark you can’t tell, maybe that’s why I’ve always had a strange aversion to horses with blue eyes, because you can see those strange pupils). And on top of it, sheep just stop and stare you down. I kept thinking, no wonder Border Collies have to have such intimidating eyes, these things are terrifying.
Carolyn was right though. I needed to get in the pen. My entrance into the lair of the sheep switched a button “on” in Shelby’s mind. As soon as I got in there and started walking around with the sheep, following Lisa as she fed them corn in buckets around the pen, Shelby matured. She became a working dog in an instant. She no longer fled from the sheep, instead, she began patrolling the border, back and forth, back and forth, wearing, stopping to stick her head in and investigate, or jump lightly on the fence to see what was going on.
“Now echo me when I say ‘good’.” Every time Shelby got near a straggler we would say “good” as she drove it up the line of the fence, back to the other sheep. She floated back and forth, gathering up the proverbial black sheep to a chorus of “good”s. The only time she stopped was when a butterfly would flit by, to which Carolyn would laugh and say, “Oh that’s just puppy brain, this is exactly what you want to see in a dog this age. Exactly.”
Meanwhile, back in the pen, I was making friends with the sheep, holding out my hands to one particularly large one named Freddie (Carolyn names all of her sheep after celebrities, and I believe this one’s full name was Freddie Mac, but it was hard to keep track of them all). Freddie sniffed my open palm the way a horse would when you offer it, and he let me pet his head. I loosened up. I guess they weren’t so different from horses.
But then Freddie got out of line, and Shelby set her sights on him. I looked back when Carolyn said, “Oh look at her staring Freddie down. She’s got a good eye for an upright dog.”
There was Shelby on the outside of the pen, frozen, every muscle in her body tense, her legs slightly to the sides, so she was lower to the ground, her head angled up, staring directly at Freddie. And Freddie was staring right back. She just stood there, stock still, while we all watched. It was an incredible moment when Freddie turned around and followed me, bringing the whole flock with him. How did she know? How did she know he was the leader?
When everyone was back in line, Shelby went back to patrol the border. At some point, she came to the end of the pen and did a half play bow, almost like an abrupt stop, and the sheep scattered back to the other side of the pen. She looked up at me, tongue lolling as Carolyn yelled, “Good!” Then said to me, “Look what she figured out!”
Shelby raced back to the other side of the pen where the sheep were gathered, tongue flapping as she ran and abruptly stopped again, sending them all flying back. She beamed; I beamed and called, “Good!” without needing prompting. Gee mom! Look what I learned, neat! I know; it is neat! Good girl!
Carolyn smiled and nodded. One more loop, and Shelby had caught three stragglers and gone back for the last one when Carolyn called the test to a halt, “Looks like you have yourself a tending dog lady! A tending puppy, actually. Now, can you call her off?”
I laughed and got out of the pen, flush with excitement, “Shelby, come.” She ran right to me, I clicked and gave her a jackpot reward. Carolyn nodded, “Very good.”
Good things followed. Shelby got a nice, cool drink of water, tons of treats from everyone (including the strange man in the hat she’d never met and didn’t stop to bark at), and I got lots of praise from Carolyn.
I told Carolyn, Lisa and the man whose name I didn’t catch all about how I had started as a punitive trainer, and I didn’t like the way it felt like a chore, and Smokey’s dog aggression, and Sandy and our whole little story. I told them how I adored clicker training, and I worked so hard with Shelby, and I was so happy to see that she was having fun and doing what she was bred to do. Carolyn said it was obvious that Shelby had never known an aversive, that she was clever, and focused and happy, that she was “sweet” on the stock, had a wonderful demeanor and adjusted readily and listened well. She said the bond between us was incredible, and that Shelby was much further along than many other dogs she had seen come through there, and she was still just a puppy.
“Honestly, I think she gets physically worn out quicker than she loses focus, which is amazing from a dog so young. We’ll have to be careful when working her that she doesn’t get overheated, because she would probably keep working those sheep until she dropped if you told her to. I would think about 15-20 minute bursts with nice naps in between would be good for her, and since it’s tending, not driving, there’s not too much really intense physical bursts of speed necessary, so it will be easy on her joints and bones. She’s in great shape physically, I’m very impressed overall. You’ve done a great job with her, and I hope you continue. You could go places with a dog like this.”
Go places? Oh yeah, I think we can certainly go places.
Author’s Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 3 “The Spirituality of Sheepherding”