Tuesday, July 29, 2008

a day in the fields

Saturday morning I was on the road to Massachusetts by 6 AM. It was foggy, and that only added to the authenticity of the day. Since I would be spending the entirety of it with British dogs and a British man - a foggy chill morning seemed appropriate. I was driving to a small farm in the western half of the state to observe a sheep dog clinic held by Dave Sykes. Dave's a bonefide UK trialer and trainer. He's worked hundreds of dogs and had over thirty years of experience. Myself and a dozen other people signed up to watch him train our dogs, give tips, and help spot problems. I was floating I was so excited.

Well, as floating as I could be. As you all know, I don't have a sheep dog or sheep. I was going to watch and learn, find out how to get started. I had met up with some people from the NEBCA at the Merck Forest Trial a few weeks ago, and they said if I wanted to get into the real world of stock dogs, to show up for this event. I filled out a registration form and mailed it in the very next day at work. If you knew how bad I wanted to be out there with own dog and crook, you'd understand. Really.

I pulled into the farm's driveway next to a line of dog cars. People with minivans without back seats, SUVs with breed bumper stickers, and station wagons laden with crates. Folks were walking down the hill to a round pen in the pasture below. Inside the 50-foot pen were two blackface ewes. They seemed calm. I hiked down the hill with my backpack, following people with their black and white border collies or leggy Kelpies. It felt weird, coming without my own, but I certainly couldn't bring Jazz and Annie to an off-leash sheep pen. Besides, non-herding dogs weren't welcome on the farm strictly as a liability to the livestock. So I already felt out of place, which only added to the nerves of being new in a field full of shepherds.

The day went like this. We started out by doing introductions and then people brought their dogs into the field one at a time to be observed by Sykes. For about half an hour each, they let their dogs show him their stuff. Some dogs worked in the round pen but most had the full pasture and more ewes to chase around. I learned a lot watching him, but learned more listening to conversations around me and asking questions on the sidelines. Halfway through the day we had a picnic lunch under an apple tree, overlooking the sheep below us down the hill. Sitting under that tree, with the puppies rolling around, the smells of grass and wool in the air, I felt comfortable for the first time in New England. It was bliss.

The shepherds were a wild bunch, mostly women. A drastic change from the world of mushing, where I was used to being the gender minority. If mushing was the dog sport of men, herding (at least today) was the dog sport of women. But they weren't timid gals. They were as energetic and sharp toothed as the dogs they worked beside. They had that Northeast farmer harsh wit, saying things like "Romnies make horrible herding stock... but they make a great carcass!" Not exactly the language you expect from 60-year-old women in sunhats. Like their dogs, they smile with a wolfish flair.

During one of the sit down talks, Sykes joked, wiping sweat from his brow, about how shepherding with border collies is a 40-year apprenticeship to get it right. He then looked at me, by far the youngest pup in the crowd, and pointed "So you better get started soon!" If someone handed me a puppy, no questions asked, hell, I might've.

We ended the day with a potluck dinner. I brought a pie, which was a hit. Everyone talked and bullshitted like old college friends. There's a bond between people in subcultures like these, something that lets you open up a little about yourself, more so than with co-workers or acquaintances. We talked about families, jobs, sheep, and our dogs. Everyone wished me luck, some even mentioned a dog or two I might be interested in. If you're wondering what shepherds drink, the main tap was hard cider(though that might be a New England thing...)

The best part of whole thing was just watching the dogs work. We'd sit in chairs listening about techniques and dogs and all around us the dogs just worked, happy as can be. It was grand, seeing a preview of what's ahead for myself. But also intimidating, knowing how much is involved. But the day gave me the chance to grow familiar with more and more with the names, faces, dogs, and the history and folklore around the sport. I had a wild time, and certainly there will be more to come.

When I picked up Jazz and Annie at the kennel the next day, they were thrilled to see me. And the guilt of dog-cheating on them sunk back in. I'm torn between them, and our established life's comfort - and the excitement of a new world of dogs. We pulled out of the parking lot with the windows down and Janis Joplin blaring. Annie hung out her head while Janis Cried "BAAAAAABY!CRRRYY BAAAAABY!" After a few miles I turned down the music and looked over at my roommates Then, serious as a heart attack, I aksed them "hey guys, how do you feel about getting a dog?" Jazz yawned, Annie ignored everything that wasn't outside the window.

I knew they'd been ambivalent to a new dog. Siberians are made to work as a team. Well adjusted dogs like these that were raised in packs could handle a new dog fine. It was my friends and family that wouldn't adjust well. They'd say it was taking on too much, too small of a space, wait till I own a farm someday, and so on. I understand this, and quietly drove home, certain a puppy could induce havoc.

Then havoc did happen...

The next morning, a crazy man walked into my old church in Knoxville and shot nine people, killed two. I used to sit in those pews every Sunday and had I never moved to Idaho I would've been sitting there that morning, watching my Sunday School students put on their play.

I am in no way comparing the loss of human life to getting a dog. That would be awful, tactless, and horrid. Please don't take this that way. Yet I couldn't help wondering how many of the people in my old congregation who were fired at were waiting on the approval of their friends and family to do the things that made them happy? How many of them put off bits of their lives because they were worried about making things uncomfortable for the spectators? Would they feel different now?

I did. I certainly did.

My mind is reeling.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


July 29, 2008 at 5:59 PM  
Blogger The Old Man and His Dog said...

You should go for it. We have three dogs, a big malamute/husky mix, a chow, and a pug, in a house probably as small as your cabin and a 25 x 50 back yard. They are extremely happy and so are we. We don't care what anyone else thinks. We love our dogs and they love us unconditionally! If you worry about what everyone else thinks you'll never do anything you wanted to do. Enjoy life without regrets!

July 30, 2008 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Catherine said...

We had a similar decision---with two dogs already in the house (one a retired, deaf border collie!) did we want a third? But Melissa desperately wanted a hunting dog, so I bought her a puppy for her birthday.

Puppies are SO much work. But now we're through that stage, we adore her. The border collie could take or leave the puppy, but the other dog has found a playmate.

I decided it was better to go ahead and get a third dog instead of waiting for one of the other dogs to die. That felt wrong...

So if you want a border collie, go for it...just know they don't have off switches.

August 1, 2008 at 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i cant imagine how horrific it would be to have an intimate connection to a shooting... if your life style and your finances are ready to accommodate another dog, you should get him. i try to take my family into consideration when i make major choices too, but at the end of the day, you're the one who has to live in the life you make.

August 1, 2008 at 11:27 PM  
Blogger Yarn Cat said...

Totally agree. Sometimes, people are just too tied up by their comfort zone or worries.
6 years ago, I decided that there is no way I am going to stay in the same city, the same job for the rest of my life. (I was a civil servant, no job changes, no location changes, but whole bunch of comfort and job safety). I sold all my furniture, get my cat's paper sorted, packed everything and moved from Hong Kong to Paris, all these were done in two weeks from making up my mind. Life is too short to worry about what people thinks. Believe me, everyone thought I am mad until around 3 years ago. They stopped maybe they realise I am just living a life that I want while they are complaining about they have never been outside the city...
Do whatever you think is right.

April 16, 2009 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I remember when that happened. Everyone in my parents church got really upset, and it was all over the news. Crazy, the small world we live in.

October 24, 2009 at 5:16 AM  

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