James Rebanks Talks Sheepdogs and the Shepherding Way of Life

The Shepherd’s View
By The Bark, January 2017
Shepherding Way of Life, views from the field of border collie

Last year, in his Bark review of James Rebanks’ remarkable memoir, The Shepherd’s Life, Donald McCaig observed, “It isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.” Other reviewers also sang its praises; for example, New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani called it “utterly compelling,” and named it one of the Top 10 Books of 2015 (it was also on our list). So, we were thrilled to see that Rebanks has a new book, The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape, replete with his lovely and compelling photography and poetic essays. On its pages, he shares with us a unique view of the pastoral world of England’s Lake District. We caught up with him recently to find out more about these working dogs and his remarkable partners, Floss and Tan, the sheepdogs who help him tend the flock.

Bark: Where would shepherds would be without sheepdogs—would it even be possible to do the job without them?

James Rebanks: A shepherd isn’t a shepherd without a sheepdog, just a fool running round achieving nothing on a mountain. Sheep are quicker than people, and on their own terrain, impossible to manage without a good sheepdog. To gather the flocks on our mountains (we call them fells) takes 5 to 10 shepherds and shepherdesses, and 20 or more sheepdogs. They are our main tool, and key to what we do.

BK: How can you tell if a dog will be good in the field? Is it breeding? Are skills passed along genetically?

JR: We start training dogs when they are very young, so they learn their names and to come to us. They progress as the months go by, until they are fully trained at about two years old. My youngest dog, Meg, is a year-and-a-half and can do nearly all the work of my mature dogs, Floss and Tan. She has learned from them. Well-bred dogs from good families are incredibly gifted, and show their raw talent and focus as puppies. So I think a lot of the instinct is there, waiting to be harnessed and focused through training. Nature gives you the potential, but nurture determines how well that instinct and natural potential are harnessed.

BK: What makes a good working sheepdog? Does the environment determine how well they can do their jobs?

JR: I like a classic Border Collie-type sheepdog. I think they look right, but that is just vanity. All that really matters is how well the dog works. A pup comes to its new owners to start its new life at eight weeks old. Choosing a puppy is about knowing the working quality of the parents. Floss and Tan came from a noted sheepdog breeder whose dogs are remarkably good workers. Different types of landscapes require different types of sheepdogs; fell land requires dogs with stamina and an ability to hunt sheep out of bracken.

BK: Do sheepdogs have different skill sets?

JR: Yes. Some sheepdogs have strong “eye” (power over the sheep with their gaze and presence), and those kinds of dogs like working in small fields close up to the sheep. Others work best in the mountains and across big spaces; they can hunt sheep out of crags and rocky screes. This kind of dog is best for the fells.

All dogs have different character traits; some are confident, others timid. Part of training is learning to connect with the dog and to communicate with it and get the best from it. Floss is a very strong, confident dog who likes to work up close; she tries to dominate me and the other dogs. Tan is quiet and shy, and I have to encourage him and praise him. I change my tone of voice depending on which one I am working, or I can unsettle Tan.

BK: In your first book, The Shepherd’s Life, you said that it’s possible to “make a mess” of training a sheepdog. How does that happen?

JR: The thread between shepherd and sheepdog can easily break. The dog is often trying desperately to please the person she works for, so if you speak in the wrong tone, or get frustrated or cross, you can shake the dog’s confidence, or scare or sicken her and spoil her love of the work. But perhaps the commonest mistake is that the dog just doesn’t understand what the shepherd wants, and becomes disheartened.

A few years ago, I felt I didn’t understand training as well as I should, so I sought expert advice from a trainer called Andy Nickless, who makes DVDs about training sheepdogs. I use his training method and find it works very well.

BK: In the same book, you wrote, “Shepherds hate other people’s dogs near their sheep.” What kind of harm can off-leash pet dogs do?

JR: To sheep, dogs are just wolves. But the sheepdog who is well known to the flock becomes less stressful and scary, and they know it is under the shepherd’s control. A stray, unknown dog —which is often out of control— causes them stress. It may chase them until they collapse from exhaustion, or miscarry; it may attack and kill them. Even tiny dogs can do this. And even the nicest, friendliest family pet can be excited by fleeing sheep and become momentarily wild as the adrenaline kicks in.

So that’s why I hate other people’s dogs near my sheep: they are all potential disasters. Dogs should be kept on leads near farm animals, for everyone’s sake. Responsible dog owners can help by persuading others to do the right thing. And for that, we are grateful.