For the past two years my dog Boo and I have been learning sheepherding at the Farm. It’s been an incredible experience – I often refer to it as “the best thing I have ever done.” I have learned far more than sheepherding there. And I’ll write about it a lot.
I was hooked from the beginning.
From the very first day while I watched Mike, our trainer -mentor and the owner of the Farm work dogs, I knew that I very much wanted to do this.
I love to watch first-timers watch their dog “turn on” to stock. Mike is a natural and he brings out the best in every dog, young or old, regardless of breed. It appears very romantic. Mike moves the sheep and dog around a field as the dog’s spirit awakens to initiate a primal dance, DNA stirs from down deep in the soul where domesticity has blanketed it…it’s a very poetic thing.
Owners too get a sense of a time long-gone, where humans and dogs worked together for their very existence. You can feel the energy – and it’s good and pure energy – course from their souls as they watch spellbound – captivated by what they see, and, what they are feeling while they watch the stark soul of their dog as nature intended unfold before their eyes.
It’s one of my favorite parts of being at the Farm. It gives me goose bumps when I see and feel it.
Some people feel the tug so greatly they ask Mike, as I did that first day, “Can you teach me to work my dog?”
I love it when I hear that – because I wholly understand that longing more than I understand almost anything else in the world.
A lot depends on your dog, so for me the reality of being a novice was my dog ripping the cord into the palm of my hand and most likely changing my fingerprint patterns for life anew each time we entered the gate of the pen, as well as developing a nice set of tricep muscles as we worked the perimeter of the round pen, all while working hard to remain vertical.
Little by little, we got past that initial strong and chaotic wildness that is Boo.
Early on, stopping Boo became my greatest challenge.
Boo quickly found and developed her natural confidence at the Farm working (or, at the time, better defined as chasing) stock. Going between the sheep and the fence when I was trying to stop her became a grand game. Usually ending with me grabbing her cord, stepping on it, or becoming entangled in it and forcing a lie-down, often resulting in a lie-down myself, though not purposefully, in the pen gazing up at the sky while Boo continued to gleefully pursue her flock around the pen.
As I looked up at the sky, I always heard Mike call from outside the pen,
“Are you okay?”
“Yes.” I would always answer – even if I wasn’t sure yet.
His answer was always the same.
“Then get up and control your dog.”
Eventually I developed a quick-check process where I would move each finger/toe set, hands/feet, upper body and legs and when I determined that nothing was broken, I would hoist myself vertical, site my dog, assess the situation as much as my rookie mind would allow, or, process what Mike would call for me to do, and try again.
One of our first missions was to control this confidence of going between the sheep and the fence in a way that wouldn’t stop Boo from doing it completely, but one that would be performed in an “on demand” manner command from me type of thing.
For me and Boo, our beginnings were more Ultimate Fight Club than graceful ballet.
When I see a “soft” or “nice” newbie dog and handler at the Farm, admittedly, my heart spikes momentarily with chagrin.
Though I am reminded that Boo and me are on a path, and if it were easy, we would not be the team we are now.
Every moment has purpose.
And if it was without challenge, that dog in there with me?
It wouldn’t be my Boo.
And I wouldn’t have been forced out of my comfort zone to be who I am now.
And not just at the Farm.
Learning sheepherding is very humbling.
I compare it to baseball and softball a lot, as it’s a sport in which the participants are set up for failure – the variables are vast, uncontrollable and ever-changing and they change very quickly.
You get humble and stupid real quick.
The sick part is that you find yourself coming back for more. The frustration at my inability to “get it” often resulted in my crying all the way home during the two-hour drive because I feared that I would never, ever, be able to do this.
Our greatest early achievement was coming to terms with one another.
Boo and me.
I am not a dog trainer, and sheepherding might as well have been learning Japanese for me, and Boo is not a dog that learns via conventional training methods.
After carefully watching so many other dogs for over a year, I began to realize that my dog was very different. I was going to have to go outside of the box and have the confidence in myself as her trainer and handler to connect her dots.
My confidence in “Raising Boo” promoted Boo’s confidence in me.
The development of “Boo-Think” was strongly encouraged by Mike from the get-go – once I got the nerve to entrust him with my thoughts and observations, that is. I can never thank him enough for his total buy-in of my novice insights to train my very special dog and allow me the freedom and the confidence to try things that might not be considered real or valid in the dog-training world. Some of that is probably because he knows how that feels from his own experience in that world.
The other part is that he is one cool dog-dude.
“You know your dog,” he has told me on more than one occasion during our discussions.
From him, those are words that make my heart sing.
Little by little, Boo and I began to put things together.
We spent a long, hot, first summer walking behind sheep on a line in the big field and began to develop a sense of the stock. I also developed a sense of my dog.
With the help of Mike and some good friends I have made at the Farm, along with reflections our first obedience trainer Harry had gifted to me, I began to solidly piece together Boo-Think.
Each week that passed found us becoming more and more excited about our next Farm Day.
I compare it to a drug.
How fast you “get it” as a novice depends heavily on your dog and what your dog’s temperament and personality allows you to do.
Trust me when I say that nothing, not one damned thing, came easy with Boo. Boo is not an “easy” dog.
But she is my dog.
And I would never, ever give up on her.
And though I call it “Raising Boo,” the truth is that Boo has raised me, too.
Even if you have a dog that is easy, every single little baby step forward learning sheepherding is hard-fought.
You find yourself daydreaming and replaying your runs in your head all week long.
It’s terribly all consuming.
Husband: “What are you thinking about?”
Me: “Oh. Nothing.”
Husband: “Don’t tell me you are emailing Mike. Can’t you leave that poor guy alone?”
Me: “Uh. I was just…well. No.”
My husband is also a guru that people who share his interest…pester. Like Mike, he gives freely of himself to share his insights because he is very passionate about his sport and loves it when people want to learn through hard work what it takes to “get it.” And like Mike, he makes a living off of it. And because of their respective passion for what they do and their willingness to share it and grow it for the good of the sport – they’ll probably never be rich in monetary measure.
My husband is my and Boo’s biggest fan.
He also keeps me in line and reminds me that there is a balance that I need to keep from making a pain in the ass out of myself.
Sometimes I know I’m not that good at that.
Don’t make the mistake of taking yourself too seriously – especially in the beginning.
It can leave you on the ground submersed in the comforting aroma of sheep crap to remind you of your silly seriousness in yourself for the rest of the day.
For the first year I can guarantee that if Mike said “Go to your sheep” once a day, he said it twenty times a day to me. “Go to your sheep” can mean many different things, I now know, depending on what you are working on or what the situation in the pen or field is.
A lot of times, this means to go to your sheep to get them to come to you – or with you – so that you can work your dog on them. Sheep that are dog-broke will follow you around and aren’t so apt to run from your dog, allowing you to learn and train – including training yourself to not trip over them.
Ask me how I know.
In the beginning I spent a lot of time staring at the sheep when they would gather at wherever the draw on the field was or in the round pen, where they would gather at the gate, trying to process my situation so I could figure out what the hell to do next. And, kind of enjoying the peacefulness of the moment before the storm named Boo came a-calling.
Mike yelling, “GO TO YOUR SHEEP” would break my trance during these times.
Sheepherding had become – at least to me – all about learning on the fly. Standing there wasn’t going to teach me anything, so off I would go, to my sheep. Whatever happened, I would let it be, and take it from there.
Now, understand that going to your sheep also means that your dog needs to stay where she’s at so that the sheep will come off the draw or whatever they are doing and come to you so that you can work your dog.
This is easier said than done.
At least it was for Boo and me.
I will never forget the first time that Boo stayed in a lie-down as I walked across the round pen to the sheep. It was just shy of our one-year anniversary of coming to the Farm to learn to work stock.
The sheep were on the other side of the round pen from Boo and I, and from behind us I heard Mike say, as I knew he would, and I almost was mouthing this with him by now,
“Go to your sheep!”
We had been working on this for a very, very long time.
I had begun to learn that I needed to approach each moment of our training void of high expectations and frustration.
Despite her “Big Country” attitude, strong presence and toughness, Boo is a very sensitive, gentle and over the top intuitive dog.
Boo ferociously feeds off me.
She has taught me to be calm to keep her calm.
She will mirror what I project. Times ten. Maybe a hundred and ten.
We have developed a Golden Thread that we began to weave by working together at the Farm. We have learned to communicate without words on a plane that is as exhilarating as much as it can be dangerous.
We make mistakes.
Even though we do fail several times a day in our work at the Farm, the Thread grows thicker.
I imagine the Golden Thread tethered from me to her.
The Thread requires me to have control over myself first.
As the handler, you have to have control of the situation – or at least a firm assessment of your situation – for your dog to know to do what you want her to do.
Nowhere else I have I seen this demonstrated in greater light than the Golden Thread between Mike and his Mara. What they have is what we all want – but it’s not what we all get.
That doesn’t mean we can’t want it and that we can’t try.
Boo will read me.
And I can’t fool her.
It’s got to be the real thing.
It’s been a big part of our journey not just at sheepherding, but also in our lives together.
Upon Mike’s words that day, I put Boo in a lie-down-stay, dropped the cord, and walked with my back to her to the sheep.
My newly developed senses of always assessing and being “aware” kicked in naturally and as I walked forward I realized that the sheep were NOT moving, meaning that my dog was NOT moving.
This is the way it’s supposed to work, I put out to Boo.
Good job, Girlfriend.
I fought the urge to look over my shoulder at her.
I knew I couldn’t.
She needed to know that I trusted her.
That I trusted myself.
We had been here before, but never this close.
As I neared the sheep they moved toward me and I held the Thread with my mind.
At this point what usually happened often ended with me on the ground either tripping over my own feet, being tied up in Boo’s cord, trying to avoid Boo’s cord – and the sheep – grabbing the check cord and holding on for dear life to stop Boo.
But here we were, me, the sheep off of the fence and standing there with me – I turned around to face my dog.
And there was my Boo – stuck to the ground – watching me, eyes flicking to the stock, then back to me, waiting for a command.
It was one of those only seconds moments, rolled out in slo-mo so much so that it felt like an hour. I feel as if I could draw it with a pencil from memory even now.
It was beautiful.
I could see just past Boo where Mike and two of my fellow herding students were standing. We had all been through a long, hot summer together, and it was fall – and still hot.
You make good friends at the Farm. And they knew something big – VERY BIG – was happening here for Boo and me.
Mike broke the spell – by spelling the command I needed to give in a hoarse whisper.
“Tell her to C-O-M-E…B-Y-E…”
I made the mistake of moving left before giving the flanking command, which led Boo to run straight at the sheep (still her favorite approach at the time) and scattering them all over the place.
But that didn’t matter.
I was elated!
I had gone to my sheep and she had stuck herself to the ground!
I got knocked over two times that day, Boo continued to run straight at sheep with every attempt, but she also stuck to the ground every time I went to my sheep.
It was our first huge victory in a long year of line-work walking behind sheep in the big field and tumultuous and hard work in the round pen.
My dog was starting to respect me enough to give me a lie-down-stay in the round pen with sheep.
I had shown her my confidence and my trust in her and she had given it straight back to me.
It was a day I’ll never forget.
I still get emotional when I look back on it.
We had notched our first big accomplishment and nothing was going to take that away from us.
I was so proud of her in that moment I wanted to cry, but I managed to wait until we were driving home. I had cried a lot on the way home that first year, usually from futility. This was the second time I cried with joy. The first time had been in February of that year when fate took over (or Mike planned it that way – I’m still not real sure) and forced me back in the pen after a month-long mental and physical hiatus and I realized that I COULD work my own dog.
Time marched on and every Monday we learned to build on that magic moment.
We had grown and had strengthened the Golden Thread.
It spilled over from the Farm to our work at home and in social settings.
Months later, we found ourselves training in the PT field most of the time. Boo had shown she is a dog who does better with room to work, (she is, after all, “Big Country”), and we had built a pretty good foundation in the round pen – enough to get us into a little bit bigger of an area to work.
We were working on gathers a lot and thinking we were pretty cool. I would walk to the sheep while Boo would wait in a lie-down-stay across the field, I would get the sheep to follow me to the middle of the field and then I would attempt to flank Boo one way or the other as I walked the sheep, leading them in the direction that I wanted Boo to flank them with nice distance.
I saw Mike watching and I was feeling pretty good about myself as we were repeating the exercise with fairly regular consistency. Each time we “ended” I would wait with Boo while the sheep went back to the draw, which that day was the tree separating the A Course and PT field.
I put Boo in a lie-down and asked her to stay and began to walk to the sheep thinking I was going to hear, “Nice work!” or some other compliment from behind me.
So imagine my surprise when I heard Mike call out,
“What are you doing?”
Mike is a lot like my late big brother – he likes to do this thing where he forces me to think for myself.
I stopped short and looked at him, standing between the sheep and Boo.
“Uh. I’m going to my sheep – to…to take them off the draw,” I said, more in a question than an answer. I was still unsure of the jargon so I often hesitated in my explanations to him.
“To do what?”
“To…set them up…for a…”
“Yes! That’s it. A gather. Correct.”
I was stumped. I didn’t know. I thought if I kept looking at him long enough real stupid-like, that he’d tell me.
I was working Boo mentally to not get up and go to the sheep and therefore making the decision for me.
Multi-tasking becomes second nature in sheepherding.
Boo stuck like a sleek strip of black and white Velcro to the brown spring ground.
“Okay,” I finally said when it struck me that Mike had decided we had reached a point in our Master Po-Grasshopper relationship where he would no longer provide the answers. It was now my job to give him my answers.
“Because that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we always do,” I admitted.
“You don’t do that any more,” Mike said to me as he walked to the fence like he does with his head down and his arms rising, palms up – it’s what he does when he’s going to tell you something important.
“That’s what your dog is for.”
Another day I will always remember, another graduation of sorts for a dog named Boo and me.