Sunday, December 12, 2010

the rookie

There was a point early Saturday morning when I was hunched over a large, upset, sheep holding her in place by the horns, panting like I just sprinted a mile. I was holding the new sheep between my knees, shearing-style, to slip on a makeshift halter. After which I slowly walked her through the snow back to the pen she had recently escaped from in a wild panic. We made our way past the dead garden (where I caught her), past the Subaru in the driveway holding a frantic, howling border collie who was ripping up the interior while I pulled one of "his" sheep away from him. All the while, I was trying not to slide or fall (again) on the slick wet snow covering the farm. Covered in sweat, heart-racing, I lead the sheep into the pasture and shut the gate. The ewe walked off to her friends who watched the whole adventure in quiet amaze. I turned around to face Gibson in the mystery machine. He stopped barking when I looked right at him, narrowing my eyes. He smiled that dog smile and wagged his tail, tongue out long enough to reach his elbows. Can we do it again, Lady? Please pleasepleasepleaseplease. He had no idea why I stopped all the fun short. I let out a long sigh, the kind that leaves a trail of smoke, grabbed my puppy out of the car and went inside. I was covered in mud, sweat, and lanolin and had not yet tasted my first cup of coffee.

One of those days, you see.

Yesterday morning was Gibson's first time with his own sheep. It didn't go as planned. I was herding under the influence, drunk on the excited of the event. I would be herding sheep today on my own farm, with my own fine dog, with my own stock. To walk out into that pasture with my collie and my crook, I felt like my heart was stitched together with wool and tweed: a hill shepherd to be. When you get glossy-eyed at 28 at the idea of a life of a sixty-year-old Scottish Farmer, you know you're in trouble.

I had selected two of the older dog-broke, Blackface ewes to work with, and had Gibson on a lead. We had been training for weeks, so I planned on doing what I did at Barb and Denise's farms, just here in the backyard. I walked up the hillside and Gibson seemed focused, but calm. When things seemed okay I let him circle the ewes, but that peaceful stride soon turned into an all-out chase. The sheep were running away from the young dog, who had no interest in hurting them but had a lot of interest in seeing who could win the race down the hill. He was right on their heels.

Oh man, was that puppy happy... Gibson was nothing but pure glee, running up and down the hill after one sheep at a time. I however, was not sharing in the euphoria. A sheepdog is supposed to be subtle, move the sheep with his eye, suggestion and what not. They can (and do),use force when needed but not on a small 1/4 acre paddock. Thinking my area wasn't that much larger than the training pen at Denise's Farm I foolishly thought I could control the situation like I did there with a trainer on hand. But this was Bedlam. Gibson was digging his claws into the ground with each joyous lope. One ewe flew past me and like a deer vaulted over the gate into the driveway. The other one slammed on the brakes in front of the fence and then turned around and stomped at Gibson.

I'd seen this before, and so had my orthopedic specialist. A knee of mine has been damaged by a sheep that stomped at a dog right before I shoved my right leg in front of the dog to protect it from a head butt when it was backed into a corner. Not wanting to repeat history: I told Gibson to stop, come here, and lie down (which he did, now happy to listen that one sheep was backed into a fence and the other was trotting around the driveway. So his work was clearly done). I shooed away the ewe, and grabbed his lead and stuck him in the back of the station wagon while I tried to collect my lost sheep. "That'll do." I told him as I shut the car door. He barked the canine version of a cuss word.

Seasoned as I was now at the antics of runaway sheep: I went right for the grain bag and decided honey would bring my a fly better than vinegar. So I filled a small wooden box with grain and tried to bribe her back into the fence she just vaulted from. She just looked at me from half an acre away. Just looked, then trotted away around the back of the fence.


Gibson cried and barked as I got more grain and convinced the other 7 sheep to join me for a nosh. This got the loner interested and she came around to about five feet away from me, a fence away from her friends and the free buffet. When She was between the garden fence and the pasture fence I decided my honey days were over, and jumped her. I pulled her rump and head the way I was taught in Sheep 101 from the Vermont Extension and flipped the horned gal on her butt. With one hand on her horn, the other on a dogsledding x-back harness I grabbed from the hutch of the Subaru, I created a halter and slowly walked her back with grain to the pasture gate.

Like I said, I still hadn't had any coffee. I was beat.

I came inside and Gibson drank a gulp and sprawled out on the kitchen floor, he was in pure Nirvana. I emailed my trainer and explained what an ass I had been, taking on too much work too soon. She explained that all Gibson did was exactly what he does at her farm: starts out frantic, but since he wasn't in a controlled environment like her round pen, he panicked the sheep and they fled the circumstances. I needed to be in control, not Gibson. I needed to be able to have him work for me, not me chasing him, shaking a crook in the snow. I simply expected too much. I apologized to Denise, Gibson, and the sheep and realized if I wanted to train my pup here I'd had to build a proper pen to start in.

The good news is no one got hurt. Not me, not the sheep, and not Gibson—and while it sounds like chaos it really was just a few ewes being scattered around for a few frantic moments and then fleeing the scene. Then it was just a hassle to get the world back in order again. But it's a good lesson, all this. Just because you have a border collie and a few sheep doesn't make you Aled Owen. You can't expect to have a great training session when you're new at this game, the dogs new at this game, and the sheep have only been here one week. But I am glad I gave it a try, that I know what not to do, and that while I was frustrated I'm not detered from training myself to train this dog. His father might have been winning Nursery Trials at 10 months old, but he was trained by a pro. My crook cost twelve dollars.

It's only up hill from here, right?


Blogger Heather said...

Absolutely. That's my favorite part about falling- the only way to go is up! Keep at it and you will get there, surely. :)

December 12, 2010 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

It's good that you have the attitude to learn from your mistakes. Now that you know what not to do, you can move on. It will get better.

December 12, 2010 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

Well, no harm done. You got some cardio and a learning experience. It's a steep learning curve some days! Remind me to tell you about the time my five year old horse pushed past me at the gate and galloped around my neighbor's house at top speed one Sunday morning. He wouldn't come back for an hour no matter how I tried to tempt him with a can of grain.

December 12, 2010 at 10:00 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

or the time my guinea hens got lost overnight in a storm and tried, at 6:00 one Sunday morning in a residential (tho sorta rural) neighborhood to get into the neighbor's basement by pecking through the glass. Hang in there.

December 12, 2010 at 10:57 PM  
Blogger Tora Consolo said...

Boy I wish I'd been there with a video camera - I'll bet if you saw the whole thing on tape - you'd be laughing! Like the others have said - no harm no of you will get the nack shortly - good luck you!

December 12, 2010 at 11:16 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Oh my goodness! It sounds like it was a regular melee. I'm glad nobody got hurt.

Any chance of your trainer coming to you to get G going on the right foot on his own turf?

December 13, 2010 at 12:10 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

All this before coffee! That is a rough morning.

December 13, 2010 at 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heck yes! And I love how you describe Gibson barking swear words at you. That's so appropriate for herding breeds.

Now, I know you have real sheep to herd, but have you ever had any experience with one of those herding balls? I'm asking not to give you advice, but rather to get some! My herding breed dog has no sheep but a good drive -- and good teeth. She'd love something like that as long as it was durable. Just curious!

December 13, 2010 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Living the dream! I hope you enjoyed a good cup (or pot) of coffee after all that!

December 13, 2010 at 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would figure it's only uphill. He sounds like a pup would act, to me at least. Around here, relatively few dogs are for herding while most are used for hunting.


December 13, 2010 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Rurality said...

Here's to 12 dollar crooks and millioniare spunk!

December 13, 2010 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger IanH said...

Jenna, here is a link to a story on the border collie that you may enjoy. Read it to Gibson for inspiration!

December 13, 2010 at 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like something I would do. Good on you, Jenna, for taking it all in stride. We've had similar newbie embarrassments with our pigs, so I know of what you speak. In the end, it makes for a great story around the fire pit.

December 15, 2010 at 11:24 PM  

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