Thursday, August 27, 2009

Master Class

A shepherdess from Nebraska came to teach at my herding instructor's place today. Not a powdered-wig-and-roses, Watteau-style shepherdess, but a white-haired, weathered-faced lady with a gravelly voice and a herding resume as long as Wolfie's tail.

After eight lessons, I must confess I still have little idea of what herding is about. It involves too many moving parts—the sheep, the dog, the instructor, and my own clueless body. My difficulty comes from the fact that, by the time we analyze who did what and who went where, everybody is in a different place and doing something else.

The basic premise of herding is that a good dog already knows what to do—you just need to give him a little guidance. That is certainly true in Wolfie's case. I've been told over and over that he has a superb inborn sense of how to handle sheep. It's the “little guidance” from me that is the problem.

Take today. The sheep are in a corner of the pen. Wolfie is on a down-stay in front of them as the guru from Nebraska explains some finer point to my instructor and me. The guru is barely even facing Wolfie, but at one point she interrupts herself: “You see that? He just got the sheep to turn.” Wolfie is still lying down, he's done nothing that I can tell, but by golly, suddenly the sheep are facing the other way. “He didn't want them to go in THAT direction,” the guru explains, “so he just moved his head a little.”

My dog moving his head a little, six sheep changing direction—this is the new planet on which I am learning to tread.

Sometimes during a lesson my teacher takes over, and then I can see him--my own Wolfie whom a raised from a floppy-eared pup--serious and determined, working those sheep, putting them where they need to be.

What have I done to deserve his? I fed him well, loved him dearly, took him to obedience classes which he found a little boring and did not excel in. But obedience is a long way from herding, where he's thinking on his own, making decisions, acting responsibly. I don't know where Wolfie gets what my father used to call (relating to violin playing) his “conditions,” the sense of tone and timing that cannot be taught.

I lean on the fence, just another stage mother. How did I end up with this herding dog? I was only looking for a pet—a smart pet, of course, but just a pet...

A sheep breaks away and Wolfie firmly leads it back. Good boy!

By the time the hour is over, he's shooting me looks. I can tell that he's mentally exhausted, like a teenager who's just taken the SATs. “Let's get in the car!” I don't have to say it twice. Panting, he lies down in the back of the Subaru, then naps most of the day at home. But for the rest of the day he sticks close to me, lies down at my feet, looks me in the eye. “Thanks,” I can hear him saying, “thanks for letting me do that thing with the sheep.”

9 comments :

  1. And we have beautiful, full face photos of his most loving intelligent face and communicative eyes. He's a great dog.

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  2. And you are the first photographer ever to capture Wolfie as anything other than a black silhouette. Those are fantastic photos!

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  3. That thing with the sheep. That is so sweet.

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  4. I love the fact that I "know" someone who uses the word shepherdess and she's not talking about a fairytale!

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  5. Waxwing, you should come to Vermont--there are shepherdesses all over the place. But I know what you mean. I still giggle every time I give Wolfie the command, "away to me!" (means "go forth in a counter-clockwise direction and get behind the flock.")

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