The National Sheepdog Finals, Part IV.

In my final post about my trip to the National Sheepdog Finals, I promised to say something about the sheep. (Here are links to earlier posts, parts III, II, I.) Before actually watching the trials, it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be much to say about them. I went to watch the dogs and the handlers.

However, if you’re a handler or a dog, you naturally spend a lot of time thinking about the sheep. After all, the sheep can break your heart. Imagine watching, as I did, a wonderful Border collie perform a beautiful outrun, herd four sheep directly down the field through the center gate, and deliver them to her handler efficiently, elegantly, and in complete silence. Things are going brilliantly, there’s lots of time on the clock yet to get through the rest of the course, and these seem to be good, rule-abiding sheep . . . when suddenly the sheep become surly free spirits.  Up until the drive, they’d been cooperative, but now they were more interested in eating than in moving, and when they did move it wasn’t in the direction the dog wanted. After the lift, this particular dog had a hard time getting them to move at all, much less move together toward the gate. After precious minutes had ticked away, she finally succeeded in bringing them to the center of the gate, and while the first two ambled obediently through the gate, the other two rather perversely sidestepped it at the very last second.  For this dog and handler, things went downhill from there. No sheep could be persuaded to go through any other gates, and the clock ran out before handler and dog got the sheep in the vicinity of the pen.

Donald McCaig writes in his wonderful novel, Nop’s Hope, that “No big trial is the same. Though the rules are standardized and judges, for the most part, consistent, sheep vary tremendously.” As we stood in line waiting for lunch, we heard a circle of two handlers and their spouses talking energetically and in detail about the sheep.  We overheard that these sheep weren’t the kind that are often used at trials, that they were more willful and difficult  to manage than certain other flocks or breeds that are used. It was observed that some in a herd had black faces. (It was also observed that this didn’t seem to be causing much trouble.)  The nice woman from Texas I mentioned in an earlier post later explained that different face colors are worrisome to handlers because it may mean the herd isn’t part of the same flock, which means the individuals are less likely to stick together. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that sticking together is a key virtue in sheep. If members of a herd start going their own separate ways, the dog faces a real, almost metaphysical, problem, as she is but one whereas they now have become many.

After watching the sheep and imagining myself as a handler at the post, I can think of several rules I’d like to see followed by any sheep my dog and I were herding. (Nietzsche would agree that these are among the qualities found in the best sheep.)

  • Always stick together. Never go your own way.
  • Don’t stand up to a dog, much less lower your head and show signs of aggression. Kindly defer to her wishes (even if she weighs 35 pounds, and you weigh 120 pounds and have three other pals backing you up).
  • When a dog wants you to move, you move, and in the direction she wishes.
  • When she wants you to stop, you stop, and where she wishes.

A Coopworth ram

According to some folks, The Coopworth flock, from which most of the 731 sheep used for the finals came, were missing some of these virtues.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising, when one considers the Coopworths were developed in New Zealand, an independent, free-spirited country. These sheep are used for meat and wool, and the adult weigh in around 55 kilograms, or 121 pounds. That makes them as much as four times larger than the dogs charged with herding them. Four or five sheep at 120 pounds each is an impressive collection of mass and hooves for one small dog to control and move about on a large field.  It’s understandable that said dog might have second thoughts if the sheep suddenly turn around and face her, dig in their hooves, and lower their heads.  On a couple occasions we did see such momentary signs of mutiny from the sheep, but the sheep eventually backed down. We were told that if the sheep become threatening, judges allow the dog  more leeway to be aggressive in confronting or even nipping them. On reflection, it’s remarkable how readily the sheep we saw did defer to the dogs, at least in general, if not in all the crucial particulars. We saw no bared teeth, much less nipping. The sheep backed down once the dogs, their unnerving gaze laser-locked on the offending sheep, moved closer in their stalk-mode.

As we were driving homeward through the beautiful Klamath Basin after our day at the Finals, my wife neatly summed up the business of the sheep: “I think as a handler you could really learn to hate sheep.”

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