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Lessons from Sheepdogs
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The third lesson from sheepdogs comes from a friend, who was on the U.S. National Team for the 2011 World Sheepdog Trials. Peg Anderson had taken her two dogs, Silk and Spot, to England early enough to be able to practice for several days on the hills with local sheep. Although she lives on what I consider to be the perfect farm, with a large, open field ideal for competition practice, she and her dogs needed time to adjust to the new conditions of an unfamiliar country. For the first time in their lives, Peg’s dogs were doing exactly what they had been bred for. Not just herding sheep any which way, but gathering a large flock of sheep scattered like polka dots on a green hill that rose up so high it hurt your neck to look at the top. The dog streams up and up and up like water in reverse, coalescing the sheep into a unified group at the top. Then the entire flock flows down the hill like a wooly white ribbon.

There’s something about the scope of it all that takes your breath away, and apparently it had a profound effect on one of her dogs as well. Peg reported that Spot gained confidence and enthusiasm every day he was there. Like my Willie, Spot didn’t like the pressure that Midwestern sheep and tight spaces often put on a dog, but the f lighty sheep on the big, open hills of northern England brought out the best in him. He came home with more confidence than ever, and has retained it ever since.

The lesson here is not that we should feel guilty if we can’t go to England to work our Border Collies, or arrange for our Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to break ice to retrieve ducks. It is, however, a cautionary note with two parts: One, dog breeds were created not for looks but for behavior, and we need to do a better job of matching a dog’s needs with the environment in which he or she will ultimately live. Two, all dogs, no matter how pure or eclectic their breeding, are individuals. Spot blossomed on the big hills of northern England, but Peg’s other dog, Silk, changed little. She may have enjoyed her time across the pond, but it didn’t affect her like it did Spot. Two Border Collies, two individuals.

Understanding both aspects of canine behavior — breed-related predispositions and unique individual natures — should perhaps be common sense, but in my experience, common sense isn’t actually very, well, common. “No,” I’d say to far too many clients, “please don’t get a German Shorthaired Pointer for your elderly parents who live in downtown San Francisco,” and “Yes, I know that Labradors are generally friendly, social dogs, but your Labrador is a bit shy and sound-sensitive and will not enjoy flyball, no matter how hard you try.”

The final lesson is perhaps the most important of all.

Sometimes a sheep will face off with a dog: head to head, eye to eye, just inches between them. She will put her head down so far that her nose is almost touching the dog’s muzzle, and then feint forward. Insecure dogs panic and charge, causing the sheep to scatter like deer or, worse, to fight the dog in a nasty contest between sharp teeth and an anvil-like skull. In sheepherding circles, we call that a “wreck,” because rarely does any good come of it. But the best dogs, the great dogs, stand motionless, never flicking an ear or withdrawing an inch. It may take one second or it may take 20, but eventually, the ewe will sense the dog’s commitment, and turn her nose, twitch her ears and back away.

These dogs are models for those of us enmeshed in the controversies surrounding how best to raise and train our four-legged best friends. Those who believe that dogs deserve to be treated with respect and understanding need to stand firm, quiet and confident in our commitment. If I were queen and could change one thing right now in the dog world, it would be to give people the confidence they need to be openminded and not over-reactive to challenges, while standing strong for what they believe is right.

Like great sheepdogs, those of us who believe in knowledge and respect need to be calm but confident, patient but resolute. One by one, day by day, the naysayers of the training world will turn their heads and find their way into the fold.

With gratitude and thanks to the editors and readers of Bark magazine, I say, “That’ll do, friends, that’ll do.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 67: Nov/Dec 2011

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

patriciamcconnell.com

Photograph by François Sylvain

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Anonymous | January 13 2012 |

As a wanna-be dog trainer/behaviorist, that was an inspiring article. Thanks Patricia.

Submitted by Ellis Hughes | January 16 2012 |

So sorry to read the LAST column by Patricia in BARK. I have so enjoyed her knowledge, humor and ability to share ideas so clearly. Please let us know when/where we can find her next. Thank you ... and thanks Dr. McConnell.

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