Within the first page of The Art & Science of Shepherding, the authors paint a beautiful picture of the relationship between the shepherd and his dog-a bond of “reciprocal knowledge and mutual trust”.
When a hiker in Provence, France, out for a day in the mountains, sees at some distance a shepherd and his herd, he may think at first glance the shepherd does little-he probably could be replaced with fences. . . . But if the hiker will chance to stay awhile, . . . he will observe a different scene, one that will cause him to change his conclusions. A call of the shepherd is followed by silence. Then the sheep or goats, that in the former instant had their noses buried in grasses and bushes, raise their heads and begin to move calmly in a multitude of small single files. The shepherd, with his dog mute at his feet, indicates to the animals the direction to move to another part of the pasture or to the night resting place. He turns, and the herd follows, as if a mutual trust, once established, is never called to question. . . .The hiker will wonder especially about the relationship between the man, the dog, and the herd, made by an alternation of short authoritarian actions and long instants of laisser-faire, the collective being obviously guided by reciprocal knowledge and mutual trust.
Watching a shepherd with his trained border collie, is like watching well choreographed dance. The onlooker marvels at the close bond which exists between the man and his dog, one of mutual trust, love, and respect. Establishing this kind of devoted partnership begins from the first day the border collie puppy comes home. I am still learning about how this all works with my border collie, Kai, who is just over a year old.
This spring, as I headed into the beginning stages of training Kai to work with sheep, I found that he had gained a bit of an independent spirit. He carried an attitude of, “I can do as I please.” In working with sheep, Kai must realize that he and I are a team. He takes commands from me, not the other way around. So I have taken him back to “square one” as a veteran sheep dog friend calls it.
For the past couple of weeks, Kai has basically been tied to my side. I keep him with me at all times and when I am away, he stays in his crate. I allow him time to nap outside during the day in his favorite spot, but only on my terms. He is clipped to a long line, which limits his exploration and keeps him in tow. In doing this, Kai sees that he and I work as one. At first, I was not sure how Kai would take to this, but he has actually seemed much more settled and calmer, as though, there is peace in knowing the boundaries.
Kai’s independent streak has also caused him to think for himself, deciding when to obey and when to basically ignore me, a behavior which will never work when in the field with the sheep. It is pertinent that he learn to take and obey my commands regardless of what is happening around him. I have been working with him on this daily. Each time we go for a walk, I allow him time off leash to run and to practice his recall, coming to me when he hears my whistle or call. Yesterday, I felt we turned a new corner in our training.
During his off leash time, Kai will sometimes wander too far or get totally distracted by a scent he smells or wildlife nearby, making it impossible to reign him back in. Two days ago, we walked along a mowed path that borders our neighbor’s hay field. Kai tilted his nose in the air and took off into the tall grass, scattering a nest of birds. He then took off running through the woods, chasing after the poor birds in flight. We walk this path often and Kai needs to learn to stay on the path and to leave the birds alone. Yesterday, as we headed out, I saw an empty drink bottle in the barn. I grabbed it, and filled the bottom with rocks and then tucked the bottle under my jacket. As we walked along, if he turned his head and took one step toward the tall grass, I would shake the bottle vigorously and say “agh”. It stopped him in his tracks and brought him running back to me, where he was given much praise. On the way down through the field, we did this three times, but on the way back, I did not have to rattle the bottle at all, as Kai stayed on the path.
This morning, I took the bottle on our walk into the woods. This has been a problem area as it is full of wildlife and deer. Again, Kai stayed on the path and did not linger into the woods. He also seemed to keep better tabs on me, stopping every now and then and waiting for me as we walked. Either there were no interesting scents to follow this morning in the woods, or my rock filled bottle training is working.
Kai keeps me on my toes, as my corrections must be timely. I must keep one step ahead of him and keep my eyes open. We have much still to learn but I know that in the end, he and I will work as a team on our farm, and his companionship will be invaluable.
More on border collie training: