Until recently, Border Collies were bred specifically to work livestock. Now, they’re getting more popular as pets, but sometimes people who have a Border Collie find themselves accommodating the dogs’ natural instinct to herd.
Keeping a Border Collie busy can become a new way of life for some dog owners.
Jim Valley of Ann Arbor got his first Border Collie 13 years ago. The dog was smart, energetic, and athletic. Valley tried dog sports such as fly ball and agility, but then he went to his first sheep herding trial and got hooked.
“Watching a dog lie down at 600 yards away, moving sheep around the field or walking them around the field, under calm, quiet conditions,” says Valley. “It just catches you. You just get absorbed into it.”
Valley started coming to Windswept Farm in Williamston for sheep herding lessons. He’s now working with his third Border Collie named Dot. This group with more advanced dogs meets every week, to practice and learn from Jeanne Weaver, who’s been teaching for more than 30 years. She says she works with a dog’s natural instinct to control livestock.
“If you just put a pup out with sheep, depending on the style of the pup, they would do several different things,” says Weaver. “One is to hold them on the fence. One would be to circle them in the middle, and one would be to split them up and put them back together and split them up and put them back together.”
Ann Lamar lives in Ovid, where she has some acreage and a few sheep. She’s here with her dog, Ty. He’s 7 years old and has been training with Weaver since he was a puppy. Lamar and Ty are top level competitors in herding trials around the country.
“We’re in the Open Class now, which is the highest class that they offer,” says Lamar. “It’s been a long, hard road, and the other two dogs that I’ve had in herding trials before have not quite made it that far. They’re insecure, a little bit worried about everything. He’s taken me this far, and it’s been a really fun time.”
Kris Navarre-Brown is not interested in competing. She needs a dog to help her on her sheep farm in Durand. She’s new to sheep herding, but her 8 year old dog Daisy was trained years ago.
“She lived with an elderly couple who had a sheep farm,” says Navarre-Brown. “They got older and sold their sheep, and she was miserable. She gained weight. She was not a happy dog. So Jeanne thought that we would make a good match, me being in my status as rookie, just learning. She’s taught me so much.”
Navarre-Brown sends Daisy on an outrun to pick up the sheep, while Weaver gives directions on a walkie talkie.
“OK, now flank her around and start driving them back towards Jim," Weaver tells Navarre-Brown. "You want the sheep’s heads looking in the direction you want them to go. So just flank her far enough to get the sheep looking at Jim.”
“Kris is a beginner,” says Weaver. “She’s learning, and her dog was well-started, not finished, but started when she got her, but she thinks she knows a lot more than Kris, which she does. So, Kris has a hard time controlling her sometimes.”
That’s also the case with Mark Megel, who has a sheep farm in Brown City. He says his dog, Leeann, knows a lot more than he does about herding.
“She knows everything,” says Megel. “I don’t. So I’ve been making a lot of mistakes. I tell her one thing, and she’s doing something else, and I should have said that instead, because she knows what to do more than I do.”
The whole experience has been life-changing for Jim Valley. It started him on a new path that for some, can lead to financial ruin.
“I started out in a small home just outside of town,” says Valley. “Now we have a huge farm, a hundred head of sheep, two tractors, traveling equipment, which means a trailer to haul the sheep in, and a camper to go to sheep dog trials all over the United States. It escalates, and you can get into your pocket quite deep.”
Valley says everyone has different goals when they’re working with Border Collies, but for many it becomes a way to preserve the working tradition of the breed.