By: Lynda Hopkins
Jan. 13, 2011
It used to be that ranchers had sheep and needed dogs to work them. These days the situation is often reversed. Many Sonoma County residents have fallen in love with sheepdogs—so much so that they end up buying sheep and becoming ranchers to satisfy the dog’s desire to herd.
In fact, if you attend a local sheepdog trial and start talking to a handler about how he or she ended up there, there’s a good chance that the story will go something like this: “A border collie changed my life. I thought I was going to change her life, but that’s not how it works. You get a border collie then pretty soon you move out to the country, get a few sheep and get another border collie.” (That’s the abbreviated story of Karen Kollgaard, handler and sheepdog trainer.)
Or, as handler and Redwood Empire Sheepdog Association treasurer Jack Mathieson put it, “I used to do agility and one day all the agility dogs went to a ranch to be tested on sheep. I saw my dog looking at sheep and thought, ‘How can I deny my best friend this?’” The end of his story is strikingly similar: “Now I have eight sheep to entertain my dogs.”
These accidental ranchers find themselves traveling to sheepdog trials all across the West Coast and even into South Dakota, Utah and Colorado, where the dogs get the chance to work sheep in different topographies and settings. The handlers also volunteer their time locally to perform herding demonstrations and teach students about the agricultural heritage of sheepdogs.
In other words, sheepdog handlers are a close-knit, active community. What binds the diverse group—which includes day jobs as various nurse, photographer, interior designer, doctor, dog trainer, sheep shearer—together is a singular love of the working herding dog.
Most people are familiar with the classic-looking border collie: black, white, long-haired, and irresistibly adorable. Sheepdogs may be black, grey, red, white, sable, tricolor or bicolor, floppy eared, erect eared, smooth coated or flat coated. He or she can weigh 25 pounds or 60 pounds. But when it comes to working dogs, the emphasis is not on looks but rather on intelligence and working ability.
In the sheepdog’s ancestral British highlands, the word “colley” was actually an adjective meaning “useful,” so a collie dog was just a good working dog—not a dog that looked a particular way. Eventually, these “collie dogs” were developed into different herding breeds with specific strengths and specialties. Even within a given breed, sheepdogs can vary widely in body type, coat type and color.
“As far as herding, the border collie is a Mercedes-Benz,” Sandra Milberg said. “If you’re racing, you need a racing car.” Milberg started with an Australian shepherd, moved on to a border collie and, in keeping with the familiar pattern, now has 40 sheep for her collies to work.
Every year, Milberg and her husband Arthur host the annual Wine Country Trial at their ranch in the hills above Rincon Valley. For the trial she imports 300 fresh range ewes—sheep that are accustomed to being out on the range with minimal human or dog contact. Her course, in conjunction with the wild sheep, is designed specifically to showcase the border collie’s strengths.
“The border collie is a silent gathering dog,” Milberg said. “The Scottish would steal English sheep in the middle of the night and they’d use the border collie to do it.” On her course, there was no thievery involved, but the dogs demonstrated skills by fetching the sheep, driving them through two obstacles, shedding them and penning them.
Border collies are renowned for their strong eye—the way they stare down the sheep to get them to move—and wide outrun (initial approach) to the sheep. And while they’re the most popular dog at local sheepdog trials, they’re not the only sheepdog breed working in Sonoma County. A passionate group of handlers train and work kelpies, a sheepdog and stock dog originally from Australia. Kelpies are also a strong-eyed breed, but are perhaps best known for their skill at “backing,” a technique in which a dog will actually run across the backs of sheep in order to get to the front of the flock and turn them around.
Karen Kollgaard owns and trials border collies; Joyce Shephard, kelpies. These two women can be held responsible for the presence of at least a few extra sheep in Sonoma County—and more than a few working sheepdogs. Both women accept novice handlers and novice dogs; they teach humans and canines the basics of sheepdog work at their respective sheep ranches. (Of course, once the students get hooked, they often end up with sheep of their own.) Shephard has trained all sorts of herding dogs from kelpies, border collies and Shetland sheepdogs to Welsh corgis and Australian shepherds. Kollgaard primarily trains border collies.
Shephard loves sharing her passion with her students. “My whole idea is to broaden this,” she said. “Not everybody likes getting dirty, but if I can spur that love in the land and the sheep and the dog in just one person, that’s wonderful. It becomes a way of life.”
Their dedication has enabled a new set of handlers to learn basic herding skills and some students have moved on to trial or ranch work. One of Kollgaard’s students, Kathleene Daly, was hooked after just a few months of training her rescue border collie, Django.
“It’s profound to create this sort of relationship,” Daly said. “It’s a dance. You rely on each other and work with each other. Once I saw him on the sheep, I realized this is what he wants to do—and I want to fulfill him.” Daly is a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, but she admits that she was often stumped when it came to Django. “I’ve fostered 30 or 40 dogs in the past few years,” she said. “He’s completely different than any dog I’ve ever had. He’s my latest, greatest teacher.”
Another student of Kollgaard’s, George Powell, noted, “Border collies are not for the average pet owner.” Sheepdogs treated as pets—given basic obedience training, but no job to perform—often create problems in urban households, which is why dedicated owners tend to either move to the country or regularly train at a sheep ranch.
But if you’re looking for a particular kind of relationship—a canine partner, not a pet—handlers say the effort is worth it. Powell’s dog, rescue border collie Gracie, was about to compete in her first trial and Powell was already anticipating the moment. “If it’s going well, you get into a sort of Zen. The world disappears and it’s just you, the dog and the sheep.”
So it seems that trialing is not just about the dog’s desire to herd, but also the ancient human desire to form a deeper partnership with another species. “There is a magic to it, when you’re connecting with your dog,” Kollgaard said. “It’s hard to explain, unless you’ve been there.” If that connection means becoming a sheep rancher—well, that’s okay, too. “I love raising sheep,” she said, “So it works out well.”
Shephard—who raises not only sheep, but also chickens and steers—agreed. “I got this one little dog and she led me here. And it’s lucky, because farm life is gratifying.”
Sheepdog Trial Terminology
Fetch: The actual bringing of the sheep to the handler; ideally, this should be a straight line.
Lift: The approach to the sheep to get them to move towards the handler.
Obstacle: An obstacle can be a chute, a pair of gates, or even two marked trees that the dog must drive the sheep through.
Outrun: The first gathering of the sheep, in which the dog runs out towards the flock and circles around behind them.
Pen: To put the sheep into a small gated enclosure.
Shed: Separating off certain sheep from the rest of the flock. A regular shed involves separating off the rear two sheep; a singles shed is separating off one sheep.