The second day at Raspberry Ridge didn’t get off to the best start. We were running late (no thanks to a Pawn Stars marathon), we hit a crazy thunderstorm on the way up north, and Shelby’s focus was all off when we finally did get there. I saddled up and steeled myself for another horrible training day.
Fortunately, be it the fresh air, the sheep or Carolyn, Shelby quickly turned around. There’s really something magical about herding.
Magical – how cliché, I know. That’s the first word that comes to mind though. What I mean when I say magical shouldn’t inspire thoughts of wands, voodoo or miracles. But it’s close.
Seeing Shelby work sheep is more akin to what I imagine Thoreau would believe was magical if he wasn’t so grumpy. It’s magic inspired by nature and thus, hard to put into words. Shelby really does become a different dog when she’s working sheep. The sheep turn off the crazy puppy switch in her brain. She becomes more in tune with her roots, and I become more in tune with her. Taking off her leash and releasing her into the field and hearing Joe say, “All right, go to work” causes pride to swell deep inside. Go to work. What a wonderful phrase.
What I learned this second round however, is that the magic seems to stop when the sheep are too far away. Because we were working sheep in a larger pen this week, and Shelby still isn’t ready to work without a fence, the sheep were able to keep a considerable distance between themselves and Shelby.
A tending dog is instinctually wired to patrol the border. Some dogs work wider than others. Shelby likes to work a little closer, about five to ten feet from the flock, which is totally fine. But because the fence was in the way, the flock was able to move to one side of the paddock and happily chomp the grass there, about twenty feet away from Shelby, who kept sticking her head through the fence and wondering why her sheep wouldn’t come try to escape the border.
Because we aren’t using a lot of food rewards in training anymore, Shelby’s big reward is getting the thrill of every once in awhile getting to chase a sheep or two back to the rest of the flock. A tending dog’s main function is to make sure that the sheep don’t breach the border and that they stay grouped while they graze (they are sort of like the hall monitors of the herding world). When the sheep are that far away from the border, the chance of a sheep trying to escape the border is nil, and Shelby knows it.
Let the butterfly chasing begin.
Without the presence of the possibility of escaping sheep, puppy brain goes into overdrive. Because we didn’t know to coax the sheep closer to the border to keep Shelby engaged, the magic faded. All of a sudden, she woke up from her sheep haze and realized she was in a 20 acre field with limitless exploration opportunities.
As my puppy turned into a jackrabbit and went bounding through the tall grass, disappearing from view, I sighed and put my hands on my hips, looking at Joe, who shrugged, “I guess that isn’t what she is supposed to do?”
I shook my head and watched Shelby bound over a nearby hill, “SHELBY!” I called long and loud but not stern. She pivoted and came bolting back toward me. Well, at least that was still solid. When she came within hearing range, I clicked and gave her several cookies as she stopped at my feet and looked at the pen, exasperated. Shelby too, seemed a little disgruntled. She popped her head through the fence again and whined.
While I was watering Shelby and letting her cool down from her excursion, Carolyn drove up in her golf cart from her session with the driving dogs, grinning.
“What an amazing recall she has, I mean just, wow. I saw her pivot on a dime and come to you from like 100 feet away. That’s amazing for a puppy this young.”
I smiled, but I couldn’t help feeling grumpy. Yeah, great, she’s got a good recall, we’ve been working on it since she was 9 weeks old – what about how she sucks at herding sheep all of a sudden?
“She’s not crossing over me when she tends the border, and she keeps wandering away.”
Carolyn nodded, “That’s good information. Were the sheep that far away when this was going on?”
“That’s your problem. You’ve got to get the sheep closer, use the grain and molasses, shake the bucket, call them closer to the fence; she’s got to have that idea that she may get a chance to bite one to keep her excited. All right, let’s go again, just for three minutes now.”
Before I released Shelby into the field, I got Mary Tyler Moore, the black sheep and the leader of the flock heeling better than Shelby does. She was right on my hip, begging for molasses. Wouldn’t you know it, the rest of the flock followed (except the silly little lambs, who still don’t know what’s up). As soon as I got Mary Tyler Moore on my side, I released Shelby into the field and brought the sheep right up against the fence.
Cue music – the magic is happening. Shelby bounded up and down the border, crossing over me and coming back, only to come to a stock still stand stay to bark at any lamb who strayed from the flock.
Carolyn smiled, “All right, I’ve seen enough. There’s your problem. This dog is good, everything she does is just exactly right. I just need you to work on solidifying her stand stay on cue. She’s got a good instinct of when to do it, but she needs to know how to do it when you say. This dog knows how to think, and if she’s got a recall like that she knows how to listen too, but she does better with action cues than stationary ones.”
Yeah, that’s true. I can just imagine Shelby doing something like this – “Oh you want me to RUN to you now mom? Great!” “Oh you want me to stop?” and just sticking her tongue out in my direction.
When nature is working without you, sort of peripherally including you even, a really beautiful and humbling thing happens – you realize how much more your dog is. You realize that she isn’t just your friend, pet, pseudo-child, or snuggle buddy, but she has a mind of her own and a really solid mind at that, something that shouldn’t be but is, so easily discounted by us. Because we as a species are so intelligent, we seem to forget how truly wise nature can be. To some extent we selected our dogs to compliment us, to work for us, but dogs were evolving and domesticating themselves long before we stepped in, and honestly, they did quite a good job on their own. Watching your dog work reminds you that you didn’t really select your dog – nature selected her for you and that’s not just inspiring, it’s magical.