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The Art of Herding Sheep

In my last post, I wrote about vanishing know how around food.  For the past couple of years I have been learning one vanishing art that few choose to undertake: sheep herding.  Yes, you read correctly.  Sheep herding.  Now how did I get into that, you ask?  It’s a long story…

Just shy of 20 years ago, I brought home a little bundle of black, brown and white fur from a sheep farm.  I named him Jake and he became my best friend and constant companion for nearly 14 years.  Jake was a border collie, a natural born sheep herding machine.  Unfortunately for both of us, I never had a chance to take him to sheep.  Jake spent his years herding cats and cars and anything else that moved.  We had a good life together, but I promised myself that my next border collie would get to work sheep.

A little over two years ago, I brought home another little bundle of black, white and butterscotch fur.  This one I named Hannah.  She had floppy ears and one blue eye, and looked like a pot bellied pig crossed with a Jack Russell Terrier.  It was hard to imagine that she would grow into the striking and brilliant dog that she is today:

  

Like Jake, Hannah was bred specifically for working sheep.  While this may seem quaint, I recently had to manage a sheep farm for 10 days and let me tell you, you cannot care for stock without a good stock dog.  At least not naturally reared stock that is out on pasture.  I could have gone out to the field with a pail of grain and lured in the sheep, but trying to get them to go specifically where I wanted would have been impossible without Hannah’s help.  Especially the little lambs, who were constantly escaping and running willy nilly in fields they were supposed to be kept out of (lamb photos to come shortly!).  If you’ve never seen a dog work sheep before, here’s a nice little summary video I came across that is only 3 minutes long.

Hannah and I have been training to herd sheep for about 18 months.  Prior to that I spent another roughly 18 months learning about sheep.  After three years, I finally knew enough to babysit the farm for 10 days, and that’s not saying very much!  There is just so much to know, and it’s not something that comes instinctively.  At least it didn’t to me.  Despite my passion for animals and my many pets, stock are a whole other ball game.  The learning curve to dealing with them has been (and continues to be) very steep!

This weekend I had a big boost to my confidence.  Hannah and I entered our first sheepdog trial, held in central Michigan, and we won first prize in both classes we entered, and the overall novice championship for the weekend.  This is a really, really big deal for me.  I’d been wanting to learn how to herd for nearly 20 years.  Once I finally started training, I discovered how incredibly difficult it is.  Very few people stick it out even to the novice level that I am at now, which took me 3 years to attain.  To get to the top levels takes many more years.  

This kind of knowledge used to get passed on generationally.  Kids would learn how to manage stock, and how to train up their stock dog, from helping their parents.  This is no longer the case as most kids start school by age 2, and few parents still farm.  Fewer still farm traditionally.  Knowing how to raise animals naturally, without industrial means, takes a tremendous amount of know how and our pool of that knowledge is now a barely damp imprint of where a puddle used to be.  We really need to do something about this, and do it soon.  The current push for local food is all fine and dandy, but we really should be pushing for non-industrial food.  It is going to take us years to transition to this kind of farming, and I’m not sure we have the luxury of that much time.  If we get there, we are going to need some good stock dogs.  While I still may be struggling with how to cook, when it comes to having a good stock dog I, for one, will be ready!

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16 Responses

  1. This is amazing. Many congratulations! Of course, as someone who knew Jake well, I know what big paws Hannah has to fill. And congratulations to you as well for your great accomplishment.

  2. Thanks! I really did this for Jake. He inspired me to try herding, and Hannah gave me the chance to fulfill the promise I made to him all those years ago. Hannah is a relative of Jake’s by the way. I didn’t know that until I got her papers. Jake’s sire was her great-grand-dad.

  3. That makes it even better. What a great tail, er, tale.

  4. I am interested in researching sheep herding in antiquity. Do you have any material I could read? Was it done without dogs?

  5. Hi Beckie – I’m afraid I don’t have any information on this subject. Dogs have been used for a long, long time but I don’t know when their use for sheepherding started. I would actually be quite interested to know more!

  6. Hi. Great story! Congrats!!

    Do you know a farm around London, Ontario which train specifically herding dogs? I have a bouvier and i would love to take him to a “herding school” or a farm where he can get rid of some energy and become who he really is.. He needs it!

    Hoping to hear back from you.

    Maddy

  7. Hi Maddy – thanks for stopping by! I’m afraid I don’t know of anyone around London who does all breed herding (my instructor only trains border collies), but you can find a list of training places here:

    http://www.canuckdogs.com/ontario/herding.htm

    There’s one place in Ingersoll (http://www.glenerran.com/). There’s also Sue Jewell in Barrie, and Tea Creek in Niagara. All contact info is in the first link. If you do give it a try, please feel free to come back and let me know how you liked it! Good luck and have fun 🙂

  8. So… I am slacking on research after being rained out of the garden and I begin a search on the internet for herding info relevant to SWO, and find an interesting blog, the author of which sounds really familiar and shares many similar interests to me…. only after about 20mins of reading this blog did I realize who it was!!! I guess the world of dogs, herding, and love of gardening and food is VERY small afterall…love the blog… from the ‘other’ helen

    • Ha ha ha!! What a very small world indeed. Welcome, and thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Can’t wait to see you and Pan out on some sheep!

      • looks like we’ll be going for an instict test up in st. Catharines in Nov (they have indoor and outdoor pens)…at Tee Creek…found it after visiting a fly ball contest just a block away from my house…

  9. in what months are sheep herded(sorry if i got the lingo wrong, doing a project dont know much)thanks

  10. Started sheep herding this week – instinct test done, first class finished, now i have to practice commands in my backyard with a rake (as crook) and a stuffed cow as stock… so far we’ve practiced back, walk in, that’ll do, come by, away to me, and out….although, loose-eyed dog=hard to train, he really just wants to run in at the stuffed cow on a direct line, flanking is apparently only in his nature when it comes to small dogs! hehe

    h

    • Ha ha! I can just picture you with the stuffed cow. Sounds like you & Pan are having fun! That’s wonderful. Do they think he’s a Kelpie? How did he do on actual stock?

      I actually used a basket ball to do some back-yard training with my dogs. Two out of the three of them will flank and balance to a basketball. You might want to try that as it is something that he will anticipate movement from, which may bring out the flanking behaviour you’re seeking to train. Start by playing soccer and see if he tries to head the ball. Work from there.

      I occasionally train with a friend who has a Kelpie – maybe you’d like to join us next time. I’ll send you an email. It probably won’t be until after the end of term.

      Have fun and do keep me posted!

  11. Hello, i have a 1 year and 8 months australian sheperd, he has never been in contact with sheeps, i would love to see his reaction, is there any farm or place where i can take him to sheep??
    i live in toronto, any information would appreciate it very much.
    Thank you
    Best regards

    • Hi – sorry for the very delayed reply! There’s not much going on in the sheepherding world in Ontario this time of year, but come spring there are a few options you might want to check out:

      This farm is just past Woodstock and specifically works with Aussies:
      http://www.glenerran.com/

      In the Barrie area:
      Have Ewe Herd? Herding Instruction, Sue Jewell, Bax-
      ter (just south of Barrie), ON. (705-424-7102; e-mail:
      jewell@mcw.net)

      and I’ve never been here, but there’s a facility in Niagara that also does all-breed herding:
      http://www.teecreek.com

      Have fun!

  12. Interesting comments by 1happy0g, and the commands to give the dog. I suppose a dog is
    absolutely necessary. Still, if the shepherd knows
    his flock… Thanks for the info.

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