A Moment of Sheepishness During Her Herding Test

It had been a while since Rain got exposed to something 100% new, so I scheduled her for a time slot to test her herding instincts. We would be heading to Brigand’s Hideout, a small farm in Clark County, WA, that regularly hosts herding lessons, dog shows, and more. Once upon a time Rain’s mom Skye was even in a dog show at Brigand’s Hideout!

Our readers probably know that Australian shepherds were bred to be herding dogs. Despite the “Australian” moniker they were bred in the United States, originally for herding sheep but they eventually became more closely associated with cattle. Border collies have historically been associated with sheep herding in both the United Kingdom and United States.

I planned to leave about an hour before our appointment but wanted to finish up a project. Then Murphy’s Law got payback, as Rain could tell I was about to ask her to take a car ride and didn’t want anything to do with it. She didn’t even want to leave the house! I coaxed her outside onto our front porch. In the interest of time I had to pick her up and put her in the car again as I had done for agility class this week. Once we were on the road, a bit later than hoped, Google estimated a 48 minute transit time, including a couple spots of traffic.

As soon as the car stopped during arrival, Rain started barking. She didn’t want to be in the car, and she was in a completely new environment. At first I brought her out of the car, thinking that she’d hush up once she got to sniffing the environs. When that didn’t happen I put her back in the car so I could fill out the required release form before we got down to business.

Dave Viklund told me where to bring Rain when the release form was filled out, and she managed to bark nearly the entire way. Dressed in a black full-body rainsuit with the hood up, Dave looked suspicious to Rain and she barked at him too. He asked me to tell him about us but it was difficult to hold a conversation over Rain’s barking. It was one of those moments when it felt like we had taken two steps forward and then one and a half steps (or more) back. Hoo boy, what had I gotten us into?

Dave ushered a few sheep into a small, circular pen, and escorted Rain and me past the gate. I thought I had dressed for the weather, but even with straw laid on the ground the mud was thick and slippery.

Situating ourselves, Rain started directing her barks at the sheep, nearby but out of her range. Dave instructed me to take Rain off leash to see what she’d do. I unclipped the leash from her harness…and Rain very boldly stepped behind my legs!

“Do you know why she did that?” Dave asked. “She’s afraid of the sheep and wants me to go first!” I said. Ha ha, Rain. Good one.

I took a step forward and that’s all we needed. Rain trotted out from behind me and started circling the pen. My job was to hold a herding stick with a rattle (like this one, only with a green paddle). It told the sheep I was in charge, as they started closing in on me, and I was to use it to direct Rain. I learned that ideally, Rain was to remain on one side of the sheep and I was to remain on the other. When she came over to my side, I stretched the paddle out to keep her back on her side.

Rain, unsurprisingly, did great—she seemed to be a natural at trotting around and herding the sheep. At one point when one of the three sheep strayed from the group I noticed that Rain’s attention moved solely to it, and it was quickly back with its brethren right next to me. Rain was also perfectly quiet the entire time she was loose inside the pen with the sheep. Her brain was thinking so her mouth wasn’t moving.

Soon there was a new issue: the sheep were getting really up close and personal with me! I thought I had dressed for the weather, but I hadn’t anticipated three muddy sheep, whose backs were as tall as my waist, body slamming against my front and back! Frankly I hadn’t known what involvement I would have in this “herding instinct test,” but I certainly didn’t wager that I’d be surrounded by sheep! They were a lot bigger than I had imagined. Crowded around me, I found it difficult to move the herding paddle quickly enough to redirect Rain.

Once I think I was starting to get the hang of the exercise, we were done. I put the leash back on Rain’s harness and Dave put the sheep back where they came from. Rain started barking again, and Dave showed me his preferred method of correcting for it. Essentially it involved annoying the dog while they barked by jiggling their harness/collar with the leash. Once Rain stopped barking, even for a moment, the “reward” was cessation of the jiggling. It seemed to work better for Dave than it did for me, but I’m always happy to have new ideas in the toolbox.

We chatted for a few minutes after our test and Dave said Rain did better than he thought she would. If we were to continue visiting, his next step would be to help me be more comfortable with the sheep. 😀 His next lesson had arrived and he moved along with his day, allowing Rain and I to walk around the grounds a little bit so Rain could sniff and and I get some photos before we set out on the trek back home.

It was all such a whirlwind—particularly due to Rain’s barking—that it took me a few days to wrap my head around everything that had happened. Now that I have though, I’m not sure how to proceed. Rain seems to be a natural at herding, it seems to be a good challenge for her, but I still have some reservations. For one thing each one-way trip was longer than our actual time spent working! Can we afford to pay for herding plus agility classes? Would it be worth our time?

In the meantime Rain will just have to continue herding Roy and me around our very modest house!

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