Monday, July 9, 2012

Fulfilling his genetic destiny

There is something about me that you need to know...

I am a city girl.

It's true that I was born and raised in the country, and that for most of my life, my address was "P.O. Box 2" instead of an actual street name. It's true that I am no stranger to the smell of manure wafting from the barn. It's true that I can identify the grain being grown in a field by sight alone. And it's true that I thought overalls were highly fashionable until my 3rd year of university. (It might also be true that I accidentally dated my 2nd cousin in junior high, but that's the topic for a whole other blog...).

Equally true, however, is the fact that I left behind my humble bumpkin self 18 years ago when I moved to the city. And I haven't exactly felt the urge to move back. Once you've tasted Michael Kors, you can't go back to the General Store on Main Street, you know what I mean?

Yet there I was last Sunday morning, searching for Concession Road #10 in the middle of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, when I would usually be sipping an over-priced coffee, made by some spoiled-brat-of-a-high-school-barrista at the neighbourhood Starbucks. What gives?

The Beast gives, that's what.

You see, I got it into my head quite a long time ago that Fergus would be an excellent sheep dog. How could he not be? His momma was a border collie, and his poppa was an Australian shepherd. Or maybe it was the other around, I don't really know. The point is, his lineage screams of herding. And sheep live in, well, herds.

All it took was a quick Google search to find Ewenique Farms. Not only is this a sheep farm - a mere 75km outside of Ottawa - but the owner breeds border collies as livestock dogs AND offers both herding evaluations and lessons. Hot-diggity-dawg! Sign me up!

So I sent her an e-mail, which went something like this:
"Hi! I notice that you offer herding evaluations. I have a 2-year old Aussie shepherd/border collie mix, and I'm always looking for new things to do to keep his mind busy so that he doesn't drive us crazy. And since he seems to like to herd all the dogs at the dog park, I thought we could give sheep-herding a try. Do you offer lessons on weekends?"

Part of me wonders if she rolled her eyes as she read it and thought to herself, "Oh great, another one of these spoiled, undisciplined city dogs and its silly human companion who doesn't know a thing about raising animals...." Well, maybe she did think that, but an evaluation is an extra $45 dollars in her pocket, regardless of the dog's ability (or lack thereof), so she very gracefully told me that she would love to meet my boy, and to bring him by on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.

And so on Sunday morning, I found myself loading the Beast into the car so that we could embark upon a little family outing at a sheep farm.

Now Fergus loves, and I mean LOVES, going for a car ride. I mean, look at this face? Doesn't that face say "There is no place that I would rather be than in the backseat of this car RIGHT NOW!!!!" He quite happily jumped into the car, and spent an hour panting, drooling, sniffing the fresh country air, and just being generally happy to be alive as we drove down winding roads to Concession Road #10. 

As we got closer and closer to the farm, some innate sense kicked in within the Beast, because he started whimpering and barking in his "I'm so excited that we're almost where ever it is that you are taking me and I can't wait until you stop this car and let me out RIGHT NOW" voice that words simply cannot describe. 

Of course, I interpreted this excitement as the Beast instinctively knowing that he was about to do what he was bred to do - kick some lamb ass! "Look honey," I said to Hubby. "He just knows where we are. I mean, he's never even seen a sheep and he is super excited to get out there and show us what he is made of!"

(Of course, the Beast makes the exact same noises and shows the exact same level of excitement when we pull into a gas station to fill up, but anyway...)

When we did pull into the driveway, Fergus was ready to bound out of the backseat like a rocket. Further proof that he instinctively knew that he was about to fulfill his genetic destiny by becoming the world's greatest city-dog-sheep-herder, I say. He barely even noticed the trainer when she came out of the house to meet us. He was simply too thrilled to notice anything other than the sheep-farm smells. Plus he was too busy peeing everywhere to mark this new place as his turf.

As we walked over to the sheep pen with the trainer, she sized the Beast up a little bit by asking us all about him. How old is he? How long have we had him? What's his history? Where does he come from? Why did we want to try sheep herding? We chatted for a few minutes, and then she said, "Okay then. Let's see what this boy can do."

She opened the gate, and there stood 7 or 8 ewes, all huddled together in the middle of the pen, being held there by the intense stare of her 4-year old Border collie, Nan. "Nan is here to help us," she explained. "If Fergus can't handle the sheep, or if he disperses the flock, you'll see Nan bring them all back together. Then you'll be able to see how it works with a fully trained working dog."

"As if Fergus isn't going to be able to do this," I thought to myself. 

And so off came the Beast's leash. As soon as I gave him the "Break!" command to release him from his sit, he went tearing off, straight towards the...

... other dog. To play and herd her. Like he was in a freaking dog park.

So the trainer called him towards the sheep. "Fergus, come." He actually listened, and came running toward her, until he got distracted by a great big pile of sheep shit, which he decided that he should taste before deciding to roll around in it. And he just went to the groomer's last week...

For about 2-3 minutes, the trainer tried to get him to focus on the sheep. But there were too many other things to do. Pee on the thorn bush. Try to get Nan to play again. Chew on a stick that he found in the middle of the pen. He was interested in everything except the sheep.

My heart actually began to sink a little. I leaned into Hubby and whispered, "What if our boy isn't any good at this?"

And then the trainer went into the flock, grabbed one of the ewes by the hind leg, and dragged her out. This caught Fergus' attention, and he tentatively came forward to take a sniff. But when the trainer dropped the ewe's leg so that she could go back to the others, the Beast resumed eating sheep shit. So the trainer grabbed at another ewe, and tried again. Only this time, when she let the sheep go, Fergus took off after it at top speed, directing her back to the flock.

And I let out a big "Whoop!!!!" 

As soon as Fergus realized that he was allowed to be interested in the sheep, nothing else mattered. He could not get enough of running circles around the flock, making sure that they all stayed together and, more importantly, that they all went wherever he wanted them to go. This was like the dog park on steroids, because unlike other dogs, these things completely followed his direction. The Beast just couldn't get enough of it!

After about five minutes of watching him run circles around the flock, we called him off for a break, and he literally collapsed in a gigantic, panting heap on the ground. Like this (although this picture wasn't actually taken at the sheep farm, this is exactly what he looked like):

As he rested and caught his breath, the trainer began to explain to us that Fergus definitely had the herding drive. In fact, he had already figured out that his main role was to "balance" the flock by keeping them all together. Many dogs simply went running straight into the middle of the flock to disperse them, but Fergus seemed to know that his job was to keep them together. The next step would be for him to do that without running circles around them, but simply by weaving back and forth behind them. "This," she said, "is the hardest part for most dogs. So watch me use this paddle to stop him from going around the flock and to get him to weave in the opposite direction."

Sure enough, as soon as Fergus was released from the down position, he immediately resumed his clock-wise circle around the sheep. Until the trainer redirected him with the paddle. The first couple of times, the Beast simple tore a wider circle and went around the paddle. But the third time, she tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He looked stunned for all of 2 seconds before he simply took off in the other direction. Just as he was about to circle the flock again, she put her paddle down in front of him, and without even a touch, Fergus weaved in the opposite direction. Within a couple of minutes, he had learned to weave back and forth behind the flock, without running laps around them, and without being redirected by the paddle.

It was incredible.

And I was viciously proud. "Baby!" I said to Hubby. "Look at our boy!!!  Look at how fast he is figuring this out!!! I just knew he was going to be good at this! I just knew it!!!"

(There might have been a tear glistening in the corner of my eye...)

Fergus got another break - and downed about half a litre of water - while the trainer gave us her assessment. "No doubt about it, you've got a good little herder there. When I first saw him, I could have sworn he was more Border collie than Aussie, but he herds like an Aussie. Notice how he runs upright, and how he uses his voice to move the sheep? Border collies slink down low and use their eyes. Whatever he is, he's going to be really good at this. We will work him a little bit more today, but we can definitely give him some lessons if you guys are interested."

So. Very. Proud.

She spent the next fifteen minutes or so teaching Hubby and I how to direct the Beast in the sheep pen. Suffice it to say that Fergus may be a natural, but this city girl is a little rusty when it comes to communing with the livestock. I probably need the lessons more than the Beast does...

And when the hour was over, Hubby and I had one exhausted sheepdog on our hands. Exhausted but completely exhilarated to have been given a "job" to do. So exhilarated that it would be cruel not to bring him back for another round.

So this city girl is probably going to find herself heading out to the country a little bit more often. To breathe in that fresh country air, and to give her dog the chance to satisfy his need to herd. And most importantly, to cheer him on like a ridiculously proud soccer mom.

That's love, baby!

In the meantime, a few snapshots of the Beast.

Not so interested in the sheep just yet. But there is some fresh sheep shit just over there...

Hey... When I get close, they move out of the way...

Woooohoooo! I love this job!!!

Trying desperately to stay awake during the car ride back home after a hard day at the office...

...and failing miserably