Local legend Becky Peterson’s shadow doesn’t stay behind her or disappear at high noon. It runs in front of her, to her side, a little bit ahead. Sometimes she has four or five. Her shadows are pedigree border collies she raises at Orchard View Farm. They follow her wherever she goes, although not all at once. When needed, she can choose from five working dogs.
“One or two dogs manage quite nicely. Four of them can do whatever I need to do,” she said at her and her husband Alan’s (better known as Hoop) 55-acre farm in Leyden, MA. The dogs help rotate their 50 registered Dorsets and 25 lambs into different pastures.
A mainstay at Springfield, MA’s Big E’s Mallory Complex, Becky returns to give demos in September. “The border collie is the best working dog there is.”
A Northeast Border Collie Association member, she occasionally gives lessons and competes in trials. “Got to be willing to drive, drive, drive to different kinds of sheep, different types of terrain, different circumstances,” she says. This will expose a dog to challenges it will face.
“Try to set it up so it’s successful for them — not a sheep that had never done this before. The sheep has to be broke to start a dog. The sheep are very willing to come to the person. In the beginning, the sheep sees the dog as a predator. When the dog gets behind them, the sheep want to come home or to the person,” she said.
Trials use hair breeds such as Katahdins, rather than the heavier-meat Dorsets that Peterson’s dogs are used to. “These sheep are very used to dogs. They don’t do well with lots of running.” During trials, Katahdins take off, rather than act sedately like the Dorsets. Therefore, dogs, “Need to be much more concise, much more careful; that’s their challenge.”
Dogs work with an invisible tension factor with sheep, reeling them in and out according to Peterson’s directions instilled through training.
She counts on the border collies’ innate obsessive compulsive desire to control things that move, their desire to gather and control groomed through their bloodlines.
“Once they’re confident and we have a bond, I start working them with sheep,” Peterson said. If it wasn’t 95 degrees on the farm that day, she could have walked together with the sheep and border collie Peg — called “wearing the sheep” — to illustrate the starting point for a dog’s training. She visualizes the space between them as a clock, working to balance where the dog is in relationship to her, “pushing” it away from her with commands, holding the pressure between them. When they’ve got that, they work a couple weeks 10 to 15 minutes twice daily, using that balance mechanism to teach left and right commands. “Come by” is the dog’s left, “away to me,” clockwise, is dog’s right. Their attention fails as they get tired.
“Pour themselves into it, that’s the kind of dog they are. Extend themselves, run out of gas in 10 minutes.” Because of their incessant desire to work, have to watch out for dogs in hot weather because they do not sweat. They sometimes get in water to cool down, or need to be commanded to do so, or to drink. It’s best to work livestock in cooler parts of the day. Sheep always head for shade.
It’s the only animal asked to command another animal, besides a cow pony, Peterson notes. Sometimes people drive by, say their sheep are out, and ask to help put them back. “We say no, dog’ll take care of it.”
Bred from good herding stock, her dogs are not sold as pets or apartment dogs. This scenario could cause the dogs to nip at their owners’ heels to herd them.
“They need manners, they need to know who is in charge. It is not them. Need to respect your space, need to heel; call it ‘come behind.’ That’s their job. Need to be manageable off leash because that’s where they are when they’re working.”
Peterson’s gift with dogs runs in the family. Growing up in Easthampton, she often visited her uncle, the late legendary Edgar Gould, at Gould’s Farm in Shelburne, MA. He was the first local to import border collies from overseas and Midwest.
Gould’s daughter, Launie York, raises Cheviots and miniature schnauzers in Shelburne, MA. Her two working border collies, Nell, 11, and Kip, four, herd her cows. “They are the most devoted employees you can have. No health insurance, no talking back, they’re lying at the back door in the morning when you want to do chores.” They bring her nothing but joy.