Here is another unpublished chapter from the work in progress; “A Dog Trainer’s Guide to Human Happiness.”
CAN WE HUNT BUFFALO TOGETHER?
“Radar, comebye,” I shouted over the freezing, December winds that brought with them icy rain and ewes in labor. Wise, old shepherds always said that if you are anticipating lambs, you need wait no longer than a drop in barometric pressure.
Radar was a Border Collie, but not my dog. He belonged to Gary who was propped up in the house with a broken hip. His wife Robin stood next to me. She tugged down her wool cap then shoved her hands deeply into the pockets of her oilskin jacket, supervising me without any concrete proficiency of the task at hand. Herding was my hobby, not hers. Gary had only recently taken up the pursuit, once he invited my sheep to his land. He saw it as an opportunity to maintain agricultural zoning on his ten acre parcel, the likes of which were being redefined by the assessor as equestrian estates that came with a significantly bigger tax burden.
Although hosting my livestock on his land may have been Gary’s idea in the first place, I existed in the precarious situation of housing my animals on a someone else’s property – an arrangement best resolved in a few weeks, not months on end as it had come to pass. It is easy to overstay one’s welcome with such a plan. Gary had broken his hip while feeding the sheep one morning when he slipped on a patch of ice. If you trace back to the reason Gary was even feeding sheep in his pasture, you can understand why Robin probably thought this was my entire fault, including the fact that a ewe was hold up at the far end of the field and wouldn’t come in for the night. The only positive note for me was that the specific sheep was one that Robin and Gary had purchased after I had moved my ewes onto their land and they became smitten with owning sheep, themselves. Therefore, I was actually offering assistance by working their dog to retrieve one of their pregnant sheep. I saw that as my only saving grace.
On my command Radar took off to the far end of the field. A dip in the pasture carried the dog out of sight deep to the edge of the shadowy woods. Radar was in the infancy of his herding training. I so wished that I had my dog Sham with me, instead. We had a few years under our belts as shepherdess and sheepdog. I understood him and he understood me. While I had helped start Radar’s herding training, he was Gary’s dog and we did not have the sort of bond that is so useful in times such as the one we found ourselves. In spite of this, the weather was turning worse so I stopped by the farm on my way home from work and Robin brought Radar out for the job.
Eventually, we saw a couple of ears pop up over the little hill. A ewe was making her way towards us with Radar trotting slowly behind her. When she saw us, the sheep stopped, shot a look back towards Radar, looked down, bleated, stepped forward towards us a few yard, and then repeated the odd dance several times. Although we couldn’t see the little thing in the darkness, it became clear that the ewe had a lamb in tow and was both wary of making her way up to us humans and permitting Radar too close to her babe.
I could tell that Radar was lacking confidence. He had never been asked to work mama ewes. It was a dangerous endeavor and one that required self-assurance and conviction. The herding dog must put pressure on the ewe to move forward without pressing too hard and spooking her. He must not get too close to the lamb, and he must not create a situation which separated lamb from mother. The shepherd can impart a significant influence on the dog in such times. Coddling tones can be interpreted as weakness or lack of support. A poorly timed correction can break the dog’s motivation to continue to try.
I have found that a “suck it up and get ‘er done” approach is most helpful in letting the dog know that I believe in him and I expect him to strive towards greatness, even though he cannot fathom having such ability. At the same time, it is the shepherd’s job to do everything possible to reduce the chance that the dog might be injured, especially when placing higher demands on the dog than had ever been previously imposed.
The distance that the dog holds between itself and the sheep is critical to success. If it moves too far into the ewe’s personal space, she will turn and fight. If the dog lays back too far, the sheep can choose her own path of travel and go awry, miss the barn door, even double back down the hill to her beginning position. This is especially likely to happen if the ewe loses sight of her baby. Her instinct will be to retreat to where she gave birth. Trying to convince a mama ewe to leave the place where she lambed can be impossible. It often requires catching and carrying the lamb as a way to convince her to follow. With a green dog such as Radar, judicious handling was essential.
At one point, things appeared to line up perfectly. The ewe was facing the opening of the barn door. The other woolies were bleating her home. The lamb was tucked tightly by her side and Radar was holding the proper distance to maintain progress. Suddenly, the barn door banged in the wind causing everyone with a nervous system to startle, hold breath, then recover. I could sense the air slowly releasing from Robin’s lungs as she accepted that the little bobble would amount to nothing more than that – a tiny glitch. After having gone alert to the banging door, Radar’s ears tipped back to their more docile working carriage. His body unwound. Then, as if it were connected to the ewe through some sort of invisible bond, his relaxation moved into her body, too. He held his gaze upon his charges. We were nearing the finish line and a safe, warm abode for the ewe and her little babe.
Unexpectedly, the black and white dog took one step too bold and pressed an inch too deeply into the mama’s flight zone. The ewe twisted around, snorted and stomped her foot.
“Radar, lie down!” I exclaimed.
He did – without hesitation or thought.
I winced – realizing what was coming.
Rather than removing the excess pressure he had caused, the ewe saw Radar’s behavior as weakness. She charged, and then pummeled him into the ground.
Having been struck with great force, Radar rolled and let out a disturbing groan followed by a woeful whimper. He shook the stars from his head and promptly got to his feet. The plucky little dog assumed the crouching position he had been holding before the assault and briefly flashed a glance my way. We locked eyes for just a moment, and then he turned his focus back on the ewe. It was as if a thousand seconds of questions, answers, disappointment and understanding transpired in that brief flash of time.
“Why did you tell him to lie down?” Robin flung her arms into the air as she screeched at me.
The first and only thing that I could think to say was, “why did he lie down?” And yet, I refrained because I knew how silly that would sound to her.
That event illuminated for me what I had come to know, but not yet fully appreciated about dogs and the complex relationship that we can forge with them. Our association cannot be based on absolute obedience to authority, nor can it be left to laxity of purpose, undisclosed boundaries or unidentified expectations. It must be developed over time and must include many tenors of connectedness and yet also maintain clarity of intention and definition of rank.
To be accurate, I wasn’t as perplexed that Radar obeyed my direct order as much as I was surprised that he didn’t disobey and do what the situation required. That gap in his proficiency defined the extra couple of years of relationship building that I had experienced with my own dog, Shamaron. It took a great deal of patience on his part, but Sham had finally taught me that he was inherently more competent at reading and working livestock than I might ever hope to be and that I could trust that he would obey me as long as it was the right thing to do. We had held the dialogue that I believe all dogs have with their people when they question, “Can we hunt buffalo together?” That is what Radar and I pondered as we caught each other’s eyes on that cold December evening.
I found myself asking, “how could we hunt buffalo together if you are going to get yourself killed?” On the contrary, Radar most probably wondered, “how could we hunt buffalo together if you are going to get me killed?”
There is a conversation that exists between two individuals that engage in a social interaction. It can be held between two humans, two dogs or that incredibly incomparable relationship that exists between a human and her dog. It is often a silent discussion that transpires in between all the words that we project towards our hunting partner. At its roots, the partnership that we forge with another must be built upon trust. Whether we are interviewing for a new job, going on a road trip with a friend, or attempting to train a dog, we evaluate the other. We ask the ancient question, “Can we hunt buffalo together?”
If you enjoyed reading about my life training herding dogs, you may enjoy my book: Shamaron – Dog Devoted.