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November 16, 2013: Ryder and Sheepherding

Today, Pete and I ventured to the far side of town, where Ryder got her first lesson in sheepherding. This was something that I wanted to do with a dog for many years. The question (of course) that needed answering is whether this is something that Ryder wants to do with a human for many years? There was only one way to find out.

A few weeks ago, Nick, who works at Animal Food Warehouse, gave me the phone number of Suzanne Nevada, who he said has classes in using dogs to herd sheep. So I called her, and that is how we ended up at her place. And so, yesterday, before us, in a waist-high wire enclosure, were two black sheep and one white one. We were the first to arrive.

Soon, a half-dozen other dog owners arrived with their dogs of varying breeds. Present were a few Aussies, two border collies, a Rottweiler, and a Bouvier.(The Bouvier was large, fuzzy, shaggy, and with bangs shading her eyes).

And finally, Suzanne arrived. I soon realized that she was Claudia’s mirror opposite. She speaks in short sentences, has a bit of a hard edge, smokes. I, like the dogs, knew that I should respect but not cross her. And unlike Claudia, she isn’t into obedience in the formal sense, but more as it relates to “keep those doggies moving.”

Pete and I watched as the others, some using a flag on a stick, and some using a herding stick, lead their dogs quietly behind the sheep. The sheep were the happiest and most unstressed sheep that I have ever seen. I mentioned this to Suzanne, who said that this is because they trust the handlers. I did not have Suzanne’s attention for very long–she was rightly focused on how and what the dogs, sheep, and handler were doing.

Ryder was finally on deck. Suzanne took her leash and led her to the outside of the enclosure, where she told her to sit. Ryder quite clearly WANTED to do something with the sheep. However, she didn’t know what to do. Suzanne took matters in hand, and in a manner of speaking told Ryder that that the number one rule was to walk quietly behind the sheep. My heart was in my throat the first three minutes Ryder was in that pen. I was afraid that she’d run over to the sheep, grab one by the leg, and have a pre-holiday feast.

Ryder might have considered doing this. But she did not. Instead, she ran around, positioning herself in such a way as to move the sheep. This included getting in front of them. Suzanne let her know where she was to be by using a rake as a directional tool, whooshing Ryder back behind her.

Ryder took what Suzanne later said were “time outs.” She ran a distance from the sheep and lay down, or she went to check out the sheep in the adjacent pen. This, Suzanne added, was her way of reducing stress. She also noted that Ryder did some lip smacking – which was her way of indicating that she wanted to mouth the sheep. But she did not nip at them.

Ryder and Suzanne later did a second session. The second time around, Ryder seemed a little less attentive. A few times she scanned the area outside the pen – she was quite clearly wondering where Pete and I were. At that moment my heart (for the first time) went out to her. Up until now, I have been a bit detached; I can’t explain why. Maybe I have been equating her with the loss of Mr. Siggi.

What’s most amazing to me about what went on is my own reactions. I have now had it verified that sheepherding is quite clearly in my DNA. I was totally focused, totally attentive, to what was going on; the way Suzanne was. Beyond this, I right now do not know. It is just something that I need to be doing.

Next: 236: 11/17,/13: Maybe, Just Maybe