Herding helpers on the farm

CEW-MR-2-Herding dogs16by Sally Colby

Although many sheep farmers use herding dogs to work livestock, not all of them had sheep when they started.

Julie Williams, who lives in the Hudson Valley area, had herding dogs before she had sheep. Her first dog was a Kelpie named Lucy. “I trained her all the way through knowing how to do a shed,” said Williams, referring to the act of separating designated sheep from the flock. “I worked with Warren Mick, of Ultima, NY, and he’s really good at what he does. He had a Border Collie named Glen that I really liked, and I found out I could get a puppy sired by Glen — that’s how I got Dan.” Dan was Williams’ first Border Collie, and Joe, her second dog, is related to Dan. Williams started both Dan and Joe as young pups.

Although Williams didn’t have experience using a herding dog prior to obtaining Lucy, she had experience in training dogs for other purposes. “I had done obedience and agility,” she said. “I also did goose control with my Kelpie at golf courses.”

For someone who is interested in using a herding dog effectively, the best learning experience is through doing. To learn and gain experience, Williams attended clinics, observed trials and worked with seasoned handlers. She noted that for those who don’t have sheep at home, learning is much slower.

Williams purchased her first sheep when she had Lucy, and her flock grew. She selected Border Cheviots for certain desirable traits. “They aren’t too big, and I like their clean faces,” she said. “They’re hands-off and hardy.” That ‘hands off’ quality is important when it comes to working dogs. “If the sheep are too people-friendly, there’s no challenge for the dog,” she said. “It’s also more difficult for the dog. I like my sheep and don’t want them to be afraid of me, but I don’t want them to run to me and to be too ‘headish’.” Williams says that hair breeds can be difficult for working dogs because  those breeds tend to be more people-friendly and become dog-broke — or accustomed to being moved by dogs — quickly.

Working with the herding dog and preparing for trials involves short training sessions. “When they’re young, I’ll train just a short time, about five minutes a day,” said Williams. “When they’re older, I try to train every other day, but still for just a few minutes a day. I don’t like to work them every day — it keeps them keener and fresher.”

Williams says that the basis of training the herding dog is pressure. “If they’ve had a little time off, they’re more prepared to take the pressure,” she said. “They really want to work the sheep because that’s their reward, but they need to do it the way I ask them to do it.”

Honing dog-handling skills is an ongoing process. Williams is always open to learning, and gains knowledge through listening and watching how others work their dogs. “I’ll have a preconceived notion of something, then hear another way of doing things and try it,” she said. “Clinics are helpful, and trials are also very useful. If you’re very quiet and watch all of the runs at a trial — the good and the bad — you will learn a lot. If you had a bad run (at a trial), then sit on the sidelines and watch, you can see what a good handler did differently.”

Williams typically competes in about six and eight trials each year, depending on location. “It isn’t cheap,” she said, adding that most trials are at least an hour away from where she lives. “Sometimes there are waiting lists (to enter a trial). The sport is becoming very popular.”

To keep her flock growing and to produce lambs to sell, Williams breeds her flock every year. As seasonal breeders, Cheviots tend to breed toward the end of September for lambs born in February. A marking harness on the ram helps Williams keep track of when ewes are due to lamb. Ewes that are close to lambing are kept in a paddock near the barn, and heavily pregnant ewes are brought into the barn. Williams uses jugs, or individual pens, to help ewes and newborns bond during the first few days after lambing.

Williams doesn’t hesitate to work her dogs with pregnant ewes. “If the sheep move around, they’re in better shape from having exercise,” she said, “and it’s for only about five minutes at a time.” She says that dogs tire quickly, and can quickly become physically exhausted, especially in summer. “They have such a desire to do the work,” she said. “It isn’t just jogging with your dog — it’s constant thinking, so the sessions have to be short. I always end on a good note.”

One incident with Dan proves the dedication to duty that Border Collies are known for. When a customer came to pick up a lamb, Williams used Dan to help bring the lamb in from the field. As Williams moved Dan and the lamb toward her, the lamb jumped into a pond. Without direction from Williams, Dan followed the lamb into the pond and continued to work.

“We all aspire to get better, and I think we get better with each dog,” said Williams of those who pursue handling sheep with dogs. “Not every dog is as talented as the next, but every dog has a good purpose. Even it if isn’t the greatest dog, you’ll learn from them.”

Williams is currently working on organizing a 2014 trial to be held Sept. 19, 20 and 21 in Rhinebeck, NY. The judge for the trial will be Andrew Emmerson, of Duns, Scotland. Following the trial, Emmerson will offer lessons. For more information about the trial, contact Williams at juju543@juno.com

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