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Lessons from Sheepdogs
The source of a lifetime of learning
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As I write this, I have just come back from a day at the 2011 World Herding Dog Trials in northern England. I was in the UK once many years ago, watching the International Sheepdog Trials. I was just getting started with sheepdogs and had not yet begun to work as a behaviorist. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot, and I hope to learn a lot more in the future. But the lessons I’ve been taught by herding dogs are as timeless as they are valuable, and are a fitting subject for my last regular column for The Bark.

Rewind the video to 1981, and imagine a dog and a sheep, nose to nose. Kate, a tiny, all-black Border Collie, and Number 437, a fluffy, white Cheviot sheep, are having a discussion about where the ewe should go next. This is where it all started for me: watching a Border Collie face-off with a sheep who had no intention of backing up.

Still in school, searching for a topic for a senior honors thesis at the University of Madison, I tumbled into the world of sheepherding much like Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Dr. Jeffrey Baylis, the professor who later became my dissertation advisor, suggested that I investigate a “natural form” of communication between humans and other animals rather than communication with dolphins as I had initially suggested.

Days later, I stood in a field a few miles north of Madison and watched Kate streak away from trainer/handler Jack Knox toward a flock of sheep on a far hill. As is so often true for each of us, I didn’t know that this one brief moment would change my life. All I was aware of at the time was the way my heart swelled as I watched the little dog run in a wide, sweeping circle up an emerald-green hill, stopping behind a cloud of wooly white sheep. I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Thirty years later, I haven’t changed my mind.

It was sheepdogs who got me started in dog training and behavior, and sheepdogs who continue to inspire and instruct me. Herding may be a relatively rare activity — it’s hard to raise a flock of sheep in downtown Chicago — but its lessons are relevant to anyone who loves dogs. I offer them here in the hope that, in some way, they will mean as much to you as they have to me.

First, and perhaps too obvious to mention, dogs need clarity. Since we don’t share a common language, that’s not always easy. Heaven knows, it’s hard enough for two humans to communicate clearly, much less individuals of different species. Here’s an example from the world of sheepdogs of the challenges we face. Years ago, I had nothing but trouble when I was learning to work with a dog to split off (or “shed”) some sheep from the main group. It’s hard enough to develop the finesse required to separate a couple of sheep from the flock, but you also have to let your dog know which group he is required to move away. Time after time, I’d “tell” Luke to drive away one group and like clockwork, he would focus on the other. I’d be left standing open-mouthed, thinking, No, no! Not THAT one, the other one! How could he get it wrong? I’d use a crystal-clear sweeping arm movement, look directly at the group I wanted him to move and say “That one.” And Luke would make a 180-degree turn and drive away the other group.

It took someone who knew dogs far better than I to sort it out. “Where are your feet pointing?” he asked, after watching me unsuccessfully attempt to shed off some sheep at a clinic. “My feet? Do I have feet? I’m too busy with my eyes, my head and my arm to think about my feet.” Agility handlers around the world are smiling here, having learned, as I finally did, that dogs will most reliably go in the direction your feet are pointing, not where your arm or face directs. Sure enough, although I’d been pointing and looking toward the chosen group, my feet had been pointing the other way. To Luke, it was obvious which group I wanted; I can only imagine his frustration when he followed my instructions and then learned that, somehow, he hadn’t done what I wanted in spite of my “clear communication.”

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