Monday, January 26, 2009

The Colonial Shetland Sheepdog Club's Herding Fun Day at Sunflower Farm

Ok, so I guess this is better late than never
The actual even was on Sunday, October 12, but due to a little bit of a hectic schedule over the past week, I've been a little slow to post. (sorry!!)
A few weeks ago while checking my email, I got one that made me so excited I almost fell out of my chair. It was an email from the CSSC yahoo message board letting everyone know that there would be a "herding fun day" after the members meeting in September. With my hand shaking from excitement on my mouse, I continued to read on, hoping that two of my questions would have favorable answers: 1. it was a day that I could attend (a Saturday?!?!?) and 2. It was open to non-members. Working at the emergency vet hospital on Sundays has been one of my favorite days to work, but it is one of the harder days/shifts to get coverage for if someone needs a day off. So I was hoping it was on a Saturday, my usual weekend day off. Unfortunately, that was not the case. It was going to be held on Sunday, the 3rd. BUT...that WAS the day of my cousins wedding. The wedding was at 3 pm, and the clinic was going to run from 9 am to 1pm. I thought, "PLENTY of time to go and enjoy the day, and still make it home to get ready to attend the wedding." (Yes, I wanted to go THAT bad that I would plan on mucking around in sheep-poop and dirt the same day I was going to be dressing up for a family wedding!) Then, after realizing that I would have the date free, I checked to see if it was open to non-members. IT WAS!!! The price was a few dollars more, but of course, it was TOTALLY worth it! I have wanted to become a member for some time now, wanting to help the club that does so much for shelties, the people who love them, and of course for newbies like myself, but I don't have the time or money at this juncture to commit. Certainly what membership entails is nothing drastic and they certainly aren't asking much, but with my schedule for work and money constraints it isn't fair to other members if I ask for "passes". But, I try to support them whenever I can...and this was another perfect opportunity!
So, with my hands still quivering, I emailed the contact person practically BEGGING them to put me on the wait list for 2 open spots. But, with my girls having seen both sheep and ducks before (and not showing the herding prowess that I had hoped for) it was fine if I didn't get in. I just wanted to attend to see how everyone else's shelties did. I haven't seen too many shelties herd, with the exception of a few videos on YouTube, and was just as excited to see other peoples dogs on sheep, even if they weren't my own. I got a quick email back saying that the girls and I had been added, and that I would be notified with all of the updates. So, for the next few days, I religiously checked my email in hopes that we would get in.
It turned out, that the first attempt to hold the herding clinic was canceled due to the weather. That Sunday's forecast was heavy rain showers as the remnants of a tropical depression edged its way up the east coast. So, the girls and I were in, but we would have to wait a little bit longer to get our next turn on sheep.
The emails and posts between members and non-members alike went back and forth, trying to find a new date and time that would work for a majority of the participants…well, the human participants. Not that our dogs social calendars didn't matter, but they were a little more flexible, owing to the fact that most didn't hold full time jobs. And again, as I checked each email, I kept my fingers crossed that maybe this time it would be on a Saturday…
But, alas, it was rescheduled for Sunday October 12. I made up my mind. I would beg, borrow or steal in order to get the day off from work so the girls and I could go. Luckily one of the girls at work was looking to pick up more hours, so she took my Sunday shift, and I took an open one on that Saturday before. I emailed back when the coverage was final, and said that I would still most definitely be attending.
That morning, unlike the Sunday it was originally planned for, dawned bright, clear…and chilly! I had groomed the girls a few days prior so they were looking their fluffy best (you know, because it's important to be spotlessly clean and tangle-free when you plan on running around at a farm in sheep-poop!) I had also made sure that I had cleaned out my car so that I would be able to find everything that I would need for the day. We got up nice and early that morning, and took off. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the directions so I had to go back. (More unfortunately, I had forgotten their leashes, but didn't realize THAT particular fact until I got to the farm in Carlisle.)
We pulled in to a beautiful large fenced in farm area, and saw with delight that there were quite a few participants for the clinic. Some of who I know by name from having the pleasure of meeting them at other venues (agility mostly) and some who I knew only by seeing their kennel name, and knowing of their amazing reputation as exceptional breeders. I left my girls in the car, and brought my chair down to the small area next to one of the large fenced in fields where everyone was gathering so that the owners of the farm could explain what we would be doing for the day, and what we hoped to see. The two ladies who run the farm are WONDERFULLY sweet and knowledgeable, and were able to give us a lot of information on what they do, and why their farm was set up the particular way that it was. They work very closely with Carolyn Wilki of Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm ( who is a very well known, all positive herding trainer. (Does that name sound familiar? It will if you are a fan of Jon Katz's books about his experiences with his border collies of Bedlam Farm. She is the instructor he worked closely with for training his own dogs to herd; I'll be writing my next blog on his Bedlam Farm books, so keep checking back!)
Their sheep pens for herding testing and training are set up so that the sheep are in a large square pen that is surrounded by an even larger round one. Then, they have another large pen diagonally across in the corner of the large square field holding even more sheep. The first pen is set up so that the dog has ample space to run around the sheep, and is able to see them and become stimulated by them, but they are protected by their square pen so if the dog gets over-stimulated or a little too rowdy, they are protected at all times. When the dog develops more control, then the sheep can be let out of their square pen, into the larger round one, so the dog can experience driving the sheep in one direction or the other. What about the sheep in the far corner of the field? Their not forgotten! They are used as a reward for dogs who are interested in the sheep, and are successfully called off of the first flock. When they successfully leave the first flock, they are walked over to the second pen where they get to see…more sheep! They learn that just because "That'll do" is said, doesn't mean that the fun is necessarily over. It can also be used for dogs that are a little scared of/apprehensive around/ or not-as-interested in the sheep. The dogs can be brought into this larger pen with the sheep, on a long line, and see if their anxiety eases or their interest grows.
After listening raptly to what the ladies were said, the running order was decided, and we got our dogs. There were sables, blue merles, bi-blacks and tri's. It was really nice to see so many beautiful dogs, and how their people loved them. I brought my chair up to the outside of the fence so I could be right up close to the action.
Everyone's dogs did really well! In addition to having representatives for most of the beautiful colors of our breed, there was also a lot of diversity regarding the dogs' ages. There were quite a few young dogs who had never seen any type of stock before (although most did extremely well! One very memorable moment came when the youngest member of the bunch, a young puppy walked right up and kissed the nose of a curious sheep!) And there were a few, like my girls, who were a few years old. Again, the older guys did exceptionally well too. Age didn't seem to be a factor, but color sure did! One of the participants noticed that the sheep seemed to react differently to the bi-blacks and tri's than the sables and blues. The instructors hadn't noticed before, but they said that they were going to pay more attention from now on! The other thing that seemed to separate the younger dogs from old, was their fascination with the little "delicacies" of sheep-piles laying around the field. Some were more interested in the scat than the sheep! This of course, was completely normal, and a little funny at times too. One some of their little sweet and innocent faces, you could see the dilemma: "woolies in the pen, or poop on the ground…and do I roll in it, or eat it first?" As I watched one dog who was particularly interested in the doo, I was forcibly reminded of something my agility instructor had said to us a long time ago: how she would be filthy rich if she could figure out a way to make sheep-poo into a treat that dogs could eat and people would want to carry around in their pocket. She said that even the best trained dogs in obedience, with exceptional "leave-it's" lost their heads in a valley full of the most mouth-watering (I know, eeewww…) treats they had ever smelled.
My girls did what I sort of expected…ignored the sheep! I tried to keep the picture of them herding the sheep spectacularly around the pen, hoping to project this mental image into their little noggins, but to no avail. Heidi was up first. We put her in the large round pen, and walked around the smaller square one (with the sheep) inside it. I walked once around, and the instructor (seeing that she had no interest in the wooly beings, and only had eyes for me) handed me the crook, and put me inside the pen with the sheep. Still, Heidi walked around ignoring the sheep. She didn't really understand why I was in the pen talking to her, rather than outside of it FEEDING her, and voiced her displeasure. She barked, not at the sheep, but because she couldn't get to me, or the liver in my pocket. THEN she noticed that the instructor had cheese! It was all over. My dog had officially gone over to the dark side. Now, not only were the sheep I was petting and talking to invisible, but so was I! I walked out of the pen, gave up the crook, and my dreams of having a herding champion hidden somewhere in the fluff that is my girl, Heidi. But, I praised her, snuggled with her, and fed her all the same. That's what Sunflower Farm is all about. Praise. Positive reinforcement. It didn't really matter to me if Heidi was going to turn on to the sheep or not. It was about having an adventure with my dog, and enjoying some ever fleeting time with her. With both of them. Shelby was up next. I put my happy Heidi back in my square (car) and got my little one. Shelby was super excited and just looked like she wanted to work. I have been letting her "herd" (chase) geese at various locations close to home, and hoped that with all of this extra "herding" practice, that she would turn on to the sheep. I didn't, however, want her to chase the sheep as she chases the geese. As the instructors explained earlier that morning, herding and chasing are NOT the same. Herding dogs almost never run, and some don't really even look at the stock. Still, I was hopeful. Shelby got into the square pen, and also didn't seem to notice the invisible sheep. We did the same thing: walked around once, and then I was sent back in with the sheep. Shelby, unlike Heidi, was not frustrated at not being able to reach me or the snacks; she ran back to the fence and sat by it, where our chair was. I tried calling her and getting her "amped up" but she just went and sat. So, this time, the instructor had me put her on a long line, and "drive" the sheep around. She let them out of their square pen, and Shelby followed them. I wasn't, however, sure if she was following them because I was, and I had her on a leash, or if she was really driving them. I am hopeful, because she didn't try going the other way, or even stopping. She just followed them around. I truly think if I had started her earlier, or had the time and money now to spend to truly develop any instinct that she has, that she would be great at it. I don't call her my little BC in sheltie clothes for nothing. She's super fast, has great structure, and is seemingly unafraid. I was super pleased with her too, and showered her with praise, snuggles, and treats.
When everyone had had their turn with all of the dogs that they had signed up, we gathered around the small area outside of the field again, to chat about how everyone did, and what the next steps were. They gave us some more information about the farm, like prices, schedules and clinics, and then we had some time to ask questions. When the day was officially over, we packed up, said our goodbyes, and left Sunflower Farm for the day. The whole ride home my head (and camera!) was filled with what I saw that day, and my dreams that I still have for the future. I have DEFINITELY been bitten by the "herding bug"!

The day was not only beautiful, but a huge success. I think we all (even those who have been involved with the breed for YEARS learned a little something more about the wonderful dogs we choose to enjoy our lives with. Sunflower Farm is a beautiful place, not only because of its scenic location (enhanced by its rolling green fields bordered by trees blazing with autumn colors) but it is made even more so by the techniques that the instructors use, and the manner in which they teach. They treat every single animal (yes, including their sheep, which is so nice to see!!) and human with such respect and kindness. This is what we were really all here for. Sure, we were hoping to see some great instinct in the ancient zen-like art which is herding, but we were really here to strengthen and deepen our relationships with our dogs. We were there to enjoy the beautiful autumn day, and great company with people whom we share so much. Sure, we may be different in terms of what we do for work, our families, and where we live, but we are all strung together, woven with a wool thread that connects us: our love for our dogs. Dog people (and not to be biased, but especially sheltie people) are some of the kindest people I have met. It was such a pleasure to spend the day with such wonderful people, and, of course, the stars of the day: their amazing dogs!

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