two shepherds, us
That's how my little pup was the entire drive down to Taravle Farm. I was tense too, because my Googlemaps directions had taken us on a ridiculous scenic route, making us nearly an hour late. I called, but was worried another handler and dog had an appointment after us and we'd simply be out of luck. I kept driving south though, through Amsterdam, Florida, and other upstate towns I never saw before save for names on maps. One thing was for certain though, it was a beautiful drive.
I was in the low 60s and sunny. The perfect blend of crisp and sun struck. Peak foliage had the leaves cascading around us as we drove over countless county roads. I had on the local country station out of Albany and was singing to Gibson to keep my tardy-conscious light. "We're all about John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere....Way out here." I crooned to still-distracted border collie. He wasn't about any of the Johns. He was about sheep.
Or so I hoped. Truth is you never know what any sheepdog will do with livestock until he is actually in a pen with them. In my reading and conversations with other shepherds I had heard stories of many a pup who was scared of the sheep, or too violent and made them bleed from bites. I heard of pups who simply did not care and just sat there, staring at them like wooly office furniture. Part of me was nervous that Gibson wouldn't even bother with them. He rarely raises an eyebrow to my flock and has never been in a stock pen. Since my bruiser sheep aren't dog broke (meaning used to working with collies) they aren't allowed to be alone together. Someone would get hurt if I did. Really hurt. So Gibson won't be working sheep at Cold Antler until his flock arrives later this fall: five pregnant Scottish Blackface Ewes from Taravale.
We arrived and I let Gibson out of the truck. He circled around smelling like crazy off leash while I went to find Barb Armata, one of my main mentors in this club. She greeted me and explained she appreciated the lateness, gave her time for lunch. I shot back a sheepish smile. Gibson was darting his head everywhere. So many smells and sounds. Taravale is 80 acres and hundreds of sheep. Quite the culture shock.
Barb asked me permission to go into the pen with him alone for the first meeting. I handed her the lead, no questions asked. Handing Barb a border collie is like a carpenter asking for a hammer. It makes sense, and the receiver is instantly comfortable with the acquisition. She took Gibson inside a small, 50x50 ft pen on a long line and I stood on the fence to watch. She had the dog, and a big plastic paddle to shoo him away from gripping (biting wool) and keeping his distance. I held my breath and camera. This was it.
She let him go and he ran right to them! He chased, barked, his tail in the air like a little buck. Tails up aren't a great sign, it means he's chasing and playing: not herding. He was having a great, albeit frenzied, time. Barb explained everything that was happening and told me not too worry about the high tail. "He's a seven month old pup! of course his tail is up!" she told me. And later in his lesson, when he was a little worn out, he trotted across the pen to the sheep with his tail down she praised him. "Good boy Gibson!" and my heart became three-sizes too large for my own body.
As the lesson went on his tail dropped, his eyes focused, and he started to tire a bit from that manic first chase. We praised him and removed him from the pen for a while and I took him back to his crate in the truck with some water. Barb was going to work her new pup, a ten-month old named Kate. Kate came out of the kennel smiling like a little fox, she was maybe thirty-five pounds of mischief and smiles. Her fine features, pointy face, and merle spotting made her look a breed apart from Gibson: who was what Barb called "big and blocky" but she was still a rookie too. This would be her fifth time on sheep.
Little Kate was all business out there, a real pro. Her tail down and her head focused. You could tell she was the dog of a Nationals competitor and herding instructor. She was a dog with a job, and solved some problems out there. Kate was something to aspire to. Right now I just hoped my dog would circle without barking. Small steps.
After Kate's lesson was done, Gibson was going back into the pen with me instead of Barb. She handed me the light plastic paddle (imagine a boat paddle if it was created for wiffle ball) and told me to circle the pen with him till he was looking interested and would be able to go around them. Within moments I was spinning in circles, dizzy as hell, trying to not trip over the two ewes and keep Gibson from biting wool as he herded all three of us. As his teeth got a little closer to nipping, I whacked him on the head with the plastic paddle and then hollered an instant apology to Barb and Gibson. "I'm sooo sorry! I just wanted him to stop biting!" and Barb told me to chill out because Gibson didn't even notice it (which was true, the light plastic barely put a dent in his herding). But to bonk a dog on the head was not the Armata way, and I didn't want it to be mine either. Feeling like a damn fool, I went back to trying not to throw up.
In a few minutes things got much better. I was learning to walk more, and not fall into that small nauseating circle of panic. GIbson started putting his tail down, watching me, changing directions and keeping a bit more distance. I was able to take him off the long line ( a tripping hazard for a klutz like me) and work with him as a team for a moment. When he slowed down a bit Barb asked me to have him stop and lie down. I praised him like he brought me a superbowl ring.
Barb's assessment was he'd make a fine farm dog and if so inclined, a trial dog too. He was, in her eyes, a good dog for me. He wasn't too timid or too bold, controllable and interested in pleasing me above all. He certainly was driven to work and his attitude would change from panic to business in a few lessons. I was thrilled, relieved, and covered in sweat. Gibson was panting like a greyhound off the track. Two shepherds in a huff, us.
I was happy. So happy. We came this far. Years of trials and clinics on my end, a plane ride from Idaho and seven months of living on his. We were both glowing, yet he seemed changed now. He was calmer in spirit, as if after all this living he finally found the one thing he was supposed to do in the world.
Or maybe, that was my projection on the smiling, sprawled-out pup in the truck cab next to me. I sighed. I hardly think it matters, really. Gibson let out a long sigh too, and then curled up into the final leg of our road trip. He had never been so tired in his young life.
He slept like a stone the entire ride home.