Let me say a few things about Lily: She has never tried to herd people, children, cats or dogs. She does not look like a classic herding dog. You wouldn’t mistake her for Lassie or the border collie in Babe. And we have no particular reason to think she’s been yearning to herd sheep.
But she is a proud adoptee from a shelter called Herding Dog Rescue, so we in her family have always had two basic, interrelated questions: Which breeds are mixed into her mongrel lineage, and if she ever met a sheep, what would she do?
We’ve had Lily six years, and she has never had a chance to lift her nose in a pasture, take a sniff, contemplate her destiny — and either chase some livestock or turn away perplexed.
This summer, I set out to remedy that. I found a place called Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. Several times a year the farm invites dogs for “herding instinct tests.”
Carolyn Wilki greets me with a hearty welcome. She describes herself as the “resident chief shepherd” of Raspberry Ridge, which she founded 20 years ago. On 67 hilly acres near the Poconos, she has 100 sheep, 100 ducks, 13 dogs, two cats and one camel. She offers many different training classes for dogs, and some involve herding.
Lily and I start by walking around a small pen, maybe 20 square feet, with three sheep inside. They’re chewing the grass indifferently — until Lily pauses outside the fence, sniffs and barks at them.
“Yell, ‘Good!’ ” says Wilki. So I do.
The sheep start retreating to the other side of the pen. Lily races around the fence after them. They go back and forth for a minute or two, like a pendulum. Wilki calls this choreography “wearing.”
After this warm-up, we open the gate and go inside the pen. We replace Lily’s workaday leash with a 20-foot rope. “It’s there just so we can catch her if things get too crazy, that’s all,” Wilki says. “We don’t want the dog to take down a sheep and have lamb sushi.”
This has never happened, but Wilki takes no chances: In addition to the rope, she makes dog owners sign a waiver saying they’ll pay the replacement cost for a sheep — $150 for ewes, lambs and wethers, and $450 for a breeding ram.
Wilki is not really evaluating how determined a dog is to protect sheep from, say, wolves and rustlers, it turns out. Dogs have no such innate instinct. They actually start out as the wolves in the canine-sheep relationship.
“What we want them to do is to take their predatory actions and control the livestock,” Wilki explains.
So, once inside the pen, Lily and I are instructed to converge on the sheep, “like two wolves.”
Lily has several advantages here. Being faster than I am is an obvious one. So is being relatively unencumbered with recording equipment.
Lily quickly kicks into high gear, chasing the sheep, cornering them, pausing, backing off and starting again.
“That’s good!” Wilki shouts. “See how she stays in their ‘flight zone,’ not getting too close? That’s very good!”
We do this a few times. It’s all pretty blurry for me, but it seems like everything is coming into sharp focus for Lily. She’s having a blast.
And then she stops. She sits on her haunches and takes in the scene, as if to say, “What the heck just happened here?”
Wilki decides Lily has had enough for one day. My dog is off to an auspicious start, but Wilki doesn’t want to push her. And I am delighted to report that she passed the test. Wilki writes up extensive notes, but despite my cajoling, she declines to give Lily a letter grade. This is a pass-fail exercise, Wilki insists.
Still, any dog parent would be pleased with the write-up:
- “Responsive to direction/control.”
- “Keeps stock grouped.”
- “Readily adjusts temperament.”
- “Has good bite inhibition.”
- “Nice herding candidate.”
Wilki estimates Lily is “more than 50 percent” border collie. She doesn’t have the breed’s characteristic bark, but she does have its “fetching tendencies” and “sensitivity to [sheep] ‘flight zones.’ ”
How far could Lily go? Could she score a blue ribbon in one of those herding trials? Wilki says it can take up to four years to gain that level of mastery, at least for the part-time shepherd.
“The dog will tell you, with further training, whether it really likes and wants to do this or not,” she says. “Right now, she’s saying, ‘All systems go — let’s do it!’ But it’s totally up to you.”
Now that we’ve figured out something about Lily’s nature and her DNA, we need to decide how much nurturing we want to invest in letting her realize her full potential — whether there will be any more herding in Lily’s future.
A fair number of city slickers regularly make the 90-minute trek for training at Raspberry Ridge. It’s a time-consuming and expensive habit. Then again, how you gonna keep a dog down in the big city, once she’s been to the sheep farm?