The mysteries of sheep dog training
The wind hums as it whips through the barbwire. A veil of snow creeps down the Pine Nuts. Haley stands quietly beside me, fingering a whistle that hangs around her neck. Six-feet-tall, soft-spoken and strikingly attractive, Haley has brought her two dogs for their workout. Cy is a Border Collie, and used for sheepdog trials; Seven is an Australian Kelpie and used for ranch work. They hug the ground at Haley’s feet, their laser-like gaze focused on nine sheep which cluster tightly together 60 feet away.
“I have these sheep to train my dogs. Poor sheep. I got them shorn the other day, and now it’s cold again,” she said.
A sharp whistle and Cy’s feet become a blur. The sheep flee. Another tweet from the whistle. Cy changes direction. The sheep turn, and race away. In quick succession, commands are given. If Cy gets too close, the sheep will scatter.
“How can Cy hear the signal? He’s so far away,” I asked.
Haley doesn’t hear me. With every tweet, Cy turns right, left, or drops to the ground. Cy responds to Haley faster than Google gets me results on the computer. Haley gives Cy a recall whistle. The sheep freeze, planning their next strategy.
Seven is a work dog. Haley walks into the arena, and gives Seven a command. Seven maneuvers the pod of nine sheep close to Haley. The sheep will have none of it, and make a break for freedom. Seven whirls, and sends dust flying.
“I’m letting him work on his own,” she said.
When the workout is finished, Seven guides the sheep into a pen next to us. Haley tosses flakes of alfalfa to the sheep, and we go to Haley’s house.
Haley’s tone is soft, her words direct. I learn she got a Shetland Sheepdog at 2 years old.
“We were more like siblings, than pet and master,” she said.
I learn Haley is 28, and has raised and trained dogs for 18 years.
“My dogs are not pets. They don’t come in the house. They have kennels where they’re safe. If I made them pets, it would be easy to get too attached. Look at it this way, if I let Fluffy sleep at the foot of the bed, how could I sell her?” she said with amused candor.
My thoughts of sentimentality between trainer and pooch go flying out the window. I ask what she looks for in a dog.
“One that is calm, bold, friendly with people and biddable(means they want to work with you). I look for a dog with a strong work instinct, one who wont give up in a tough situation, and have good endurance to work all day. I avoid a dog that is shy, nervous, or poorly built,” Haley said. “Cy was easy to train. Just the tone of my voice would be a reprimand. Any more than that, I’d break his spirit. With Seven, he is less biddable. He’ll say, ‘yeah, yeah, whatever,’ and I might have to take him by the ruff, and look him in the eyes to make him behave.”
Haley is caring, without being sentimental in the handling of her dogs. With absolutely no bravado she said, “I represented the U.S. in the World Sheepdog Trials in 2005 and 2008, and won the National Cattledog finals in 2003. I also won the National Nursery Finals in 2001 and 2006.”
Four days later she calls. “Ron, I have to fly to New York. I’m judging a sheepdog trial and giving a clinic. You can email the article there,” she said.
I’m a little concerned. Perhaps when she reads it, she may have to grab me by the ruff. In any case, Haley is an amazing young woman, and I feel privileged to know her.
Ron Walker lives in Smith Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.