Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wolf In The Sheep Fold

Today I took Wolfie for a “herding instinct” evaluation.

I did this because his intensity around the goats has been driving me crazy, and I wanted to find out whether he was just harassing them or trying to be of help.

By “intensity” I mean that when I have the goats out of the pen, he keeps his eyes on them every second. If one of the three gets separated from the others, he lunges after her. And when I'm trying to get the goats either out of or into the pen I have to tie him to a tree because he simply will not hold a stay. Even when the goats are in the pen and I'm, say, weeding the garden, he will lie down next to the fence, and stare at them for hours.

Also, there is the little spot on his front leg. This little spot serves as a barometer of Wolfie's state of mind. When he is bored or frustrated, he chews on it. When he is fulfilled, he ignores it. I've been noticing that on days when I don't take him out with the goats, the little spot gets chewed on.

I felt a bit silly making the evaluation appointment, since German Shepherds are not highly regarded in herding circles these days, despite their having been bred to do just that.
Driving to the farm this morning several dire scenarios ran through my head: of Wolfie killing a sheep; or yanking the trainer's arm out of its socket as she tried to restrain him; or otherwise disgracing himself and me.

The trainer put him on a long line and led him into a pen that held three big, savvy-looking sheep. Then for the next several minutes she gave him permission to do exactly what I'd been trying to stop him from doing at home: run after the sheep. Not an uncontrolled run, of course. She would let him go, then have him stop and sit, then tell him to “walk up” to the sheep. And sure enough, pretty soon he had the sheep bunched into a corner, whereupon he lay down and stared at them, saying “Sheep, don't you dare move from where I've put you!”

The trainer turned to me and explained that, true to his heritage, his instinct runs more to “tending” (keeping the sheep together in one place) than to “herding” (moving the sheep thither and yon). And immediately a vision swam into my head of myself sitting in our field playing the recorder, while Wolfie keeps track of the goats.

Apparently that vision may come true some day. According to the trainer Wolfie has the right amount of drive, the responsiveness to commands, and the basic instinct to do what needs to be done. I must say that I have never, in two years of obedience and agility training, seen him as serious and focused as he was in that pen with the sheep. I could see his brain working as he absorbed this new reality, in which he gets to do what he desperately wants to do as long as he observes the rules. That look on his face was completely thrilling to me.

So Wolfie and I will do some homework with our goats this week, and go to our first herding lesson next week. He will get the mental and physical workout that he craves. The goats will get protection. As for me, I will eventually get to say those quaint commands I've always wondered about: “away to me!” and “come by!” Some day I may even have a shepherd's crook.

6 comments :

  1. Wow. What a disciplined woman and soon to be dog. I was explaining to John tonight what a delight your blog is because you are a gifted writer/illustrator about what matters to you now. He is similar and should blog: a gifted writer with a passion about what matters to him: walking, the environment and health care policy. And you are collecting a distant audience, me :) and others. So who would have thought and send me an email with a snail mail address so I can mail you the newspaper article about your dad.

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  2. mrb posted that comment not Kate H.

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  3. Hooray for Wolfie! It's a wonderful thing to find one's calling.

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  4. brilliant wolfie!
    and brilliant for you, to try to work with his instincts instead of against them.
    lovely!

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  5. Thanks, Kate H/mrb. Get John blogging now!

    Joya, yes, that's exactly how it seemed: as if he's found his calling.

    Laurie, those instincts were so apparent that even I couldn't miss them, and felt morally obliged to look into them.

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