Esme, the senior collie in my house, has been my partner through eleven years of chasing and rounding up little boys. Years ago, she assessed the task in front of her-help Gale to keep wandering toddlers in tidy groups and children on wheels off the road-and got to work. She always keeps an eye on where I am, what I am doing, what I am saying, and springs to action if needed.
One of the pleasures of the partnership for me is that I am unaware of most of the cues I give her. I just bumble through my day, dog at my heels, and she takes care of the rest. Recently, my mother pointed out that when I say "On second thoughtâ€¦" Esme pauses and sits expectantly. "Oh, hang on a minute, Ez, I forgot something in the house," works just as well. Most likely, her cue isn't my words at all, but a shift of shoulders or a change in tone that tell my dog loud and clear, "Cancel that, new orders to follow."
With the boys no longer toddlers, young Phoebe does not have as clear a task in front of her as Ez has had over the last decade. Yet a working partnership is what Phoebe built for, and what I've come to value most in my dogs. Feebes already keeps a close eye on me, and is ready to jump to whatever task I ask of her. The problem is that I haven't quite figured out what that task will be.
In early spring, Dee Ganley of the Upper Valley Humane Society in New Hampshire asked if Phoebe and I would like to try out sheepherding. Brenda Buja, a USDAA Grand Prix National agility champion and trainer, also competes in herding trials. She would be giving once-a-month herding workshops through the summer up at Dee's place, and they would welcome a pair of newbies like me and Feebes. A day with my dog in a field of sheep couldn't take me farther from carpooling and grocery shopping in Tidy Lawn; I couldn't wait to get started.
We drove up for our first workshop in mid-May and joined five other dogs and handlers in Dee's backyard, which offers several acres of field and paddock, a barn, agility course, and a cooling-off pond for the dogs. The other teams were at various levels of experience, the most accomplished being a 19-year-old boy, Mike, and his nine-month old Border collie, Rod, who had never been on sheep but had spent a lot of time working ducks. Rod was awesome. Still half-grown, he controlled our three sheep like a dog twice his size and many years older.
Then it was Phoebe's turn to have a go. High on her toes, barking madly, biting at the flanks of the sheep, she lost control of herself and never had any over the sheep. Of course, I didn't know what I was doing either, except being dumped in the dust by sheep scurrying to escape the mad wolf.
Then Brenda sent each handler in to work the sheep without our dogs. As I moved the sheep around the paddock, keeping them bunched but calm, my understanding leaped. Sheepherding is all about pressure, how much and where from. The shepherd's job is to control the pressure, the dog's job is to apply it. A talented and experienced dog will know how to control the pressure as well or better than the shepherd.
After lunch, we took turns taking our dogs back into the paddock. This time something in Phoebe's brain, an impulse fueled by her bloodlines, clicked on. Instead of lunging toward and leaping back from the sheep, she began circling. I spun at the center of her circle, sheep bunched around my legs. Then, with Brenda's guidance, reached out with a staff into Feebes' path and reversed the direction of her circle. I reached out with the opposite hand, and she reversed again. "Back up! Walk backwards now," Brenda called. I did, and Feebes turned on the diameter of her circle to drive the sheep toward me, weaving from side to side. She knew what to do.
It was exhilarating to see my flirty Phoebe become, in an instant, a working sheepdog. A month later, we drove up to Dee's place again for a second workshop with Brenda. I fretted that a month without practice would erase the progress we had made that first day. Feebes was also in the midst of her first season, and had been lethargic and spacey all month.
Apparently, she had been practicing without telling me. Jumping out of the van, she saw the sheep, shook off her lethargy, and rolled up her sleeves. This time her circles were wide and steady. She was so sensitive to the pressure I applied to her with a thrust of the staff that Brenda took it away and said to just flick my hat at her. "You could trial this dog," Brenda told me.
When we managed to do several figure eights around our sheep in the paddock, Brenda moved us into a small field to give more space for Phoebe's graceful circles. I thought, too, that if we had a direction in which to move the sheep, from barn to gate and back, I would better understand the balance between dog, handler and sheep. In the larger space, we fell apart. Phoebe's month of being lazy and leash-walked while in season began to show as she flopped in the shade letting the sheep trot past. I felt as though I was always standing in the wrong place, and the whole business would be a lot easier if we could just get the sheep out of the way. It was time to stop.
But we'll be back. Brenda's next workshop is in two weeks, and I can't wait.
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