Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sheep dog days

Last weekend we skipped selling lamb and beef at the farmer's market in order to attend a day of border collie school with Ellen Skillings, a skilled trainer. Border collies are energy filled, work oriented dogs. They have been bred over the past several hundred years to subdue their wolf-ancestors kill instinct and to gather flocks of sheep towards their handler (called fetching); most other breeds of dogs will drive flocks away.

Border collies control sheep with what is called "eye;" essentially an intimidating stare straight at the animal as well as a lowered stance - a dog with a strong eye can get stock turned around and moving without any other force. If the eye isn’t working on a particularly stubborn sheep, the dog will escalate its use of force by nipping at the sheep's heels and a confident dog will “grip” the sheep, giving it a bit on its nose to get it moving. It takes a lot more confidence to grip a sheep head on, rather than go for an easy bite on the flank!

The leisurely life of a BC pup

Border collie puppies aren't necessarily very interested in stock - as they get older most will "turn on" to stock and enjoy chasing, scattering and herding animals with out any direction from their handler. This is the point that training really starts, in short sessions once or twice a day. They will eventually learn commands like "come by" (go left to fetch the sheep),  "away" or "away to me" (go right to fetch the sheep), "walk on" (move slowly straight ahead) and "lie down" (meaning stop right there).

Because of their intelligence, great desire to work and extremely high energy levels, border collies do not make good pets for people who aren’t willing to spend several hours a day physically and mentally challenging them. Border collies do make great partners for shepherds, farmers and dog trainers who have stimulating work for the dogs to do. From watching and listening during the training, it is easy to see that there is a trusting relationship that handlers must build with their dog. Once that relationship is established on both sides, I think a better buddy, partner or employee would be hard to find.

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