Sharp puppy teeth followed me up the stairs like a shark out of water, nipping at my heels. Drawing blood. Every night, as I climbed the stairs to go to bed, my new pup was tight on my heels, delighting in his little game.
Bruno’s behaviour had me bewildered, but after a chat with our trainer, I had more respect for the little guy. I learned that Bruno was just exercising his instinctual abilities, doing what Border Collies have been bred to do: herding—one of the oldest canine professions. Little Bruno was herding me. I was his sheep.
Border Collies are among the many breeds of dogs, such as the Australian Cattle Dog, Bouvier des Flandres, Canaan Dog, German Shepherd, Corgi, Old English Sheepdog, Schnauzer, and Poodle, that possess a herding instinct inherited from their canine ancestors which hunted in packs by gathering and driving their prey. These dogs benefit by being kept mentally and physically active with opportunities to work. Even if you don’t have that sprawling ranch under the big sky of Montana, there are opportunities offered to challenge you and your dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC), Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), American Herding Breed Association (AHBA), and United States Border Collie Handler’s Association (USBCHA) are among the many organizations that offer trials, training clinics, and seminars. Instinct testing is offered to determine a dog’s interest in livestock. Herding trials, held in arenas or open fields, include classes for the various experience levels such as Started, Intermediate, and Advanced.
On Whidbey Island in Northern Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington, Susan Crocker runs a farm that includes a 20-acre field where she holds several USBCHA trials each year and two smaller trial arenas for AKC and AHBA events. There are other smaller areas where she trains herding dogs.
“I have three retired Australian Cattle Dogs and another that’s currently the self-appointed chore dog, though he trials, too,” Crocker says. “I also have two Australian Kelpies that I trial in all venues. Though I have several students, my main focus is training and trialing my own dogs, and managing the farm, which takes considerable time and labour for one old lady!”
Working stock dogs are carefully bred for their special abilities and can sell for more than $20,000. These dogs are used to fetch individual livestock, gather them into a group (herd), drive (move the flock or herd in a specific direction), and maintain them in a designated area. Where sheep range freely over large areas, fetching and gathering dogs are used more often, while boundary/continental dogs patrol boundaries, keeping stock out of crops and protecting them against predators.
The dog’s working style is often defined by his stance and whether he’s “strong-eyed” or “loose-eyed.” Strong-eyed dogs tend to work silently and intensely, shoulders low to the ground, controlling livestock with their eyes. Speed and drive are a must. Looseeyed dogs have an upright stance and don’t try to control with their eyes. Body positioning and barking are used for control.
At Cheryl Cooper’s farm located in Maple Ridge, a town situated just shy of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, llamas, miniature ponies, chicken, and sheep meander near a quaint red barn. Cooper, a former competitor in herding, now uses her expertise to teach. A split-rail fence surrounds the working pen where Ricochet, a black and white Border Collie, is using that hard-eyed stare, willing the gate to open. He knows it’s time to work. Ruger a ten-year-old red Border Collie, excitedly runs the length of the fence.
“Ruger’s a rescue dog, terrified of anything above a whisper,” Cooper says. “Sheep herding does help. They need a job. I can put food in the field and as long as there are sheep in the field, the dogs won’t touch the food.”
Cooper opens the gate and Ricochet slides through. Like a magician, Cooper raises her blue four-foot-long shepherd’s wand (aka “stock stick”). The field becomes alive with action. Ricochet circles, quick, smooth, and powerful. Sheep scurry. He rounds them up, driving them toward Cooper. Her calls play out like a song:
Shhhh, shhhh, away, shhhh.
Go by, go by, walk up, go by.
Look back, git her, git her out, away.
Good boy, lie down. That’ll do Ric, that’ll do.
Erin Moore, professional dog walker, brings Piper, her three-year-old Border Collie, through the gate. They’ve been training for six months. Piper walks steadily toward the sheep, eyes staring— then charges. Cooper raises her wand. Piper moves out.
“What we want her to do is the ‘outrun,’” Cooper explains. “That’s why I use the wand, to keep her away.” She calls out: “Away—good girl—come on, walk up.” “Go by” means the dog should work around the sheep clockwise. “Away” means counterclockwise. Piper circles and drives the sheep in.
When five-month-old Tyson, a first-timer, enters the ring, Cooper keeps a watchful eye. “He’s never been on sheep,” she says. “We don’t know how he’ll be. We have no idea whether he’s going to show any interest. We have him on a long lead so we can stop him and pull him away.”
Tyson sees the sheep, runs out, and returns. Ricochet joins him in the ring.
“Ric always comes out with me when I do a new dog,” Cooper says. With his hard-eyed stare controlling the sheep, Ric circles, then pauses, shoulders hunkered down. The sheep freeze.
Tyson, pup that he is, thinks it’s a game and runs at Ric’s tail. Nip! Ric stays fixed, intense. Tyson does another run-by. No reaction. Ric is working, silently and swiftly circling the sheep. Driving them.
Aha! Tyson’s instinct stirs. He follows Ric’s lead. The two work together, Tyson barking wildly.
“Barking shows he’s not serious. It’s all fun to him,” Cooper explains. “Look back!” she suddenly calls. Ricochet runs back to one lone sheep and brings it to the herd.
Acting mainly on instinct, Ric and Tyson have done what herding dogs have done for centuries. They’ve rounded up the herd.
Once outside the pen, Ric’s strong eyes continue to pierce the gate; he’s still intent on working.
That evening, I hear again whispers of Cooper’s shepherd song—“Shhhh, go bye, away”—as my little pup, tight on my heels, delighting in his little game, nipping away, rounds me up the stairs.