Last week, we had another few days of herding practice, and then a fun day for interested dogs and owners.
I took Chance, who is always thrilled to have an excuse to run after and bark at anything, and Kate, one of my smooth girls. Kate was sent over to me from the US when she was about three years of age, after having already gained a herding title there, and having produced one litter of puppies, most of whom achieved herding titles by the time they were a year or so old.
Kate is a gentle soul, and it took her quite a while to really adjust to being in a new home. She wasn’t sure where she fit into this new pack, and why her life was so different. She was sent over pregnant, and had little time to adjust before having a litter of nine lovely puppies. She was an excellent mother, but the demands of a family didn’t give her a lot of opportunity to think about her new surroundings.
So it has been at least three years or more since Kate worked with sheep, and I thought I would take her along and see what she thought about going back to work. And, of course, I had to see if she and I could understand one another and work together.
When we first got to the farm, she was confused and suspicious – why had we come to this new place? Then she spotted the sheep, and immediately perked up. This was something that was familiar! Although she and I were not too well attuned as to how she was supposed to respond to my commands, she was definitely interested, despite her doubts about the new place, in moving those sheep.
There are quite a lot of different breeds of sheep in the world, and the ones we have here are what the professional herders would call “heavy” sheep. They are a breed called Awasi, are quite large with a lot of rather long and very thick wool, and a very big, fat, heavy tail. They are very passive sheep; it takes a lot to get them to move. In the conditions of this country, there are no large lush green fields for them to graze in. Rather, there are rocky trails with scarce vegetation here and there, and they just keep walking and eating. One doesn’t run much around here – it uses too much energy, and using energy means that you need more food, it uses too much water, and water here is certainly not plentiful, and it can be dangerous on some of those steep and slippery tracks. So these sheep walk, and sometimes may break into a rather heavy and clumsy jog. When it is hot and sunny, as in midday, they all stand in a tight group with their heads down, sheltered in the shade cast by their big bodies. If something really annoys them, they are likely to turn around and butt with their heads – and they do have tough skulls.
Kate did try her best to get these sheep to move to where I wanted them. But despite her barking, running at them, staring them in the face, and other actions, they just stood there with their heads in the shade, totally uninterested. And Kate is a gentle and polite dog – no way was she going to grab them or do anything rough.
Chance was a different story. Chance is a tough girl and very determined, and the more they tried to ignore her, the more pushy she got. She had no qualms about shoving them hard with her nose, or grabbing a mouthful of wool and jerking them around. Her techniques were quite effective, she did get those woolies to move.
But then the fun day came around. And on the fun day, we didn’t have sheep to work with, we had goats.
These were young goats of a native breed, rather small, and were very accustomed to dogs, the guy who keeps them also breeds border collies. There were a number of dogs that were in turn to have a try at taking these goats around a simple herding course. The goats were not easy to work with; they were much more prepared to split up with each one going in another direction, and to come up and stand pressed against the legs of the shepherd and start to eat his shirt. (One of them managed to eat the wire of the microphone of the announcer…)
Then it was Kate’s turn and we came into the field. She took a look at these animals moving actively around and her eyes lit up! With my first command, she took off after them in total joy! They were moving! They were running! They were splitting up! She dashed after the strays and happily brought them back and expertly herded them after me across the field. This was how sheep should behave – even if they did look and smell a bit strange…
Kate was very reluctant to end her turn.
Now it was time for Chance to show what she could do. I have to admit that I was a bit worried – Chance had no qualms about grabbing sheep, and if she grabbed these goats, that didn’t have the protection of that thick long fleece, she could hurt them.
Chance came in and looked at the goats, and calmly started running around them, at a much bigger distance than she kept from sheep. She approached them quietly and gently, hardly barking at all, and herded them without touching them or even, most of the time, getting very close to them. She had immediately understood that these needed to be handled in a different way than the sheep – for goats, she needed to be gentle. I was so proud of her!
I am consistently amazed at the ability of our dogs to understand new situations…!
Kate and Chance are impatiently waiting for the next time we can go to work with stock.