Letting The Sheep Go Their Merry Way
One thing that dogs teach is patience. Odysseus has taught me plenty. When it comes to sheep, he is a monster. I can train him only at the cost of hurting him. That's a step I am unwilling to take.
Ody is a border collie, a member of a breed cultivated for its instinct in herding sheep. But in the battle of nature versus nurture it is sometimes the case that nature trumps. When that happens, it is time to back off.
When my wife and I decided to make a venture into the world of dogs six years ago, we researched breeds. We were raising poultry at the time. We wanted dogs smart enough to stay away from the birds, which free range and come and go as they please. My initial fancy turned to golden retrievers: they are loyal and affectionate. What more could a guy want? My wife, the intellect of the family, wanted smart. She wanted dogs we could train to stay away from the chickens and guinea fowl. So she settled upon border collies. We acquired two, without realizing just what a ride we were about to take.
At the time this choice was made, I had no interest in sheep. I did spend a summer on a sheep farm in Michigan many years ago, fencing in some 40 acres for a black sheep farm. But that farm worked without dogs. The animals were raised primarily for their wool. I didn't know about border collies then.
We took Ody and his sister Penelope to Glen Highland Farm in the summer of 2006. Warren Mick, a champion shepherd, was there with a small flock of sheep. My dogs, who had shown little or no herding instinct with respect to fowl, were transformed into near homicidal maniacs once they saw the sheep. A deep trigger was switched.
"Where'd you get these dogs?," Warren asked. We mentioned the breeder's name.
"Oh, I know their father. He was also too keen for sheep." It turns out that the world of border collies is a small one. Ody and Penny came from a line that may well have been overbred for herding.
The concept made no sense to me at first. I imagined that dogs were more or less a tabula rasa at birth; given the right instincts, a dog could be trained. But suppose that the instinct were too keen? Could a dog be broken of what amounts to something like a compulsion?
I tried with Ody. We worked another summer with Warren. We worked with a shepherdess in Northeastern Connecticut. We traveled to the Delaware Water Gap to spend a week with another trainer. We made some progress, but in the end, I sensed something wild and unreachable in Odysseus. (Penny, you might wonder, is a different story: She could be a very successful sheep dog with sufficient time. But I am unwilling to work one dog at something the other cannot do.)
Over a couple of years time, I fell in love with the romance of sheep herding. I read books on sheep and shepherds. I read about trials and competitions. I watched videos. But Odysseus seemed to be wired in a way that I could not unravel. I spoke to one trainer who told me we could get Ody in line, but we would have to cause him physical pain to break him. I was, and am, unwilling to do that to a dog I love. It is not in me to return his loyalty with injury.
I spoke to the breeder who sold us Ody and Penny a year or so ago about Ody. "If I had known you wanted a sheep dog I would never have sold him to you," she said. Of course, I did not want a sheep dog when the deal was struck. I wanted a loyal and smart companion, which is exactly what I got. That brief conversation opened my eyes. I was frustrated because he would not do something I wanted him to do, something his sister does well.
This past summer, I kept Ody off sheep and away from the sheep. Instead, we worked with agility and play endless games of frisbee toss. Ody is still transfixed by sheep, of course. One day, we were working on a jump sequence when he turned away. He began to trot toward a meadow where several sheep grazed. "Ody," I called. "Come here." He paused for a moment, considering obedience to me. But then some ancient gear was turned and he was off in a sprint, heading for the gate to the sheep meadow. All I could do was smile and walk over to console him. He misses the sheep.
And Penny? She doesn't seem to miss the sheep at all. She's simply happy to play at whatever it is we do. I am happier, too, without the battle of Ody versus the sheep. A relaxed dog makes for a relaxed man.