From TLD, Whole Number 15 (December 19, 1996) 15.htm


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


A sheep's a sheep for a' that


This past summer I went to the Virginia Scottish Games to get in touch with my heritage. Actually, O Best Beloved, letting go of my heritage would probably save me a lot of psychic anguish. But then I'd be bereft of Pythonic insights to share with you.

The biggest audience-pleaser at the Games every year is a demonstration of sheep herding by a Pennsylvania dentist-turned-sheep-farmer who drives down to Alexandria with three Border collies and a horse trailer full of Scottish blackface sheep. He brings at least five sheep because they really are witless creatures whose panic quotient rises as their herd is reduced in number: One hundred sheep are a sort of placid, woolly, mindless entity; five to 10 are a skittish little grass-nibbling enclave liable to sudden mad dashes; and a sheep on her own, to quote the shepherd, "just goes bloody bonkers."

The good doctor brings three dogs, two more than he actually needs, because each of them has different strengths in sheep-herding skills that he wants to demonstrate. He describes the dogs as "controlled predators," natural fanciers of lamb chops whose hunting instincts have been subordinated to the loyal protection of the master's property. Like those other predators, the wolf and the coyote, the collie can stare his prey into paralyzed submission, moving toward the sheep in a crouching trot. If the dog's objective were dinner, he could leap at the sheep as soon as he got close enough to make the kill; with the more complex goal of making the sheep go to a predetermined Somewhere Else, rather more strategic planning is required. By circling the herd (or the single straggler), by drawing closer or pulling back, by suddenly dropping to the ground and eyeing the animals, one dog can drive sheep in any chosen direction; make them run, stop, cluster tightly together, or split off into two smaller herds; or perform any number of other maneuvers to ease the shepherd's work.

A dog is not actually trained to work sheep, and there is no set age at which a puppy is introduced to the herd. At some time late in its first year, the dog will simply decide to enter the workforce, as it were, and start attempting to make the sheep do something he thinks they should be doing. At that point, the shepherd teaches him a few simple commands, and the rest is up to the dog.

There are only four basic moves the dogs need to master; all sheep herding is accomplished with a judiciously selected combination of these concepts. The dog can be told to "come by," or circle to the left side of the sheep. The shepherd can tell him to "g'way to me," or circle to the herd's right; or to "lie doon," which translates into a fairly abrupt belly flop with the chin resting on the paws while the dog stares straight over his nose at the wary sheep. Or the shepherd can tell the dog, "That'll do," at which time the dog returns to the shepherd's side and waits to be told what to do next. (If, however, the dog thinks the shepherd is starting to let the woolly little inmates take control of the asylum, he's liable to get up and start bringing them back into line on his own initiative. Most collies observe somewhat Stalinist protocols of the amount of unfettered movement sheep should be allowed to enjoy.) In addition to voice commands, which don't carry well in the open air, the four basic moves can be signaled by whistles, which can be heard for miles in the country.

Usually a dog shows a natural talent for one of two kinds of sheep working. Some animals excel at "in-bye" work, or close-in tasks requiring them to weave through and around a tightly huddled mass of sheep. These dogs are used during shearing or when the herd is being scrutinized for health problems. The best in-bye dogs brook no nonsense from their sheep, who tend to be terrified into submission. Other dogs are selected for "out-bye" tasks and frequently work without direct human supervision. They're gentler, able to coax strays back into the herd and away from hazards of terrain, and they can take a herd of several hundred animals to or from various locations without stampeding or frightening them. An out-bye dog can cover more than a hundred miles in a day, much of it at a running pace over hilly terrain.

At the Alexandria games, the audience watches as the dogs herd the sheep into pens, move them in assorted directions on a field, separate one sheep from the rest of the herd, or herd them all back into their trailer. Once or twice over the course of a 30-minute demonstration, the sheep will panic at an unexpected move or noise from the audience and go hurtling off straight into a group of people or (as on one memorable afternoon) make a break for the parking lot. Without any move on the part of the shepherd, one or more of the dogs will collect them and bring them back to the center of the demonstration area.

On the afternoon I happened to be among the spectators, it chanced that I sat directly in front of a group who had driven up from someplace in the Valley of Virginia. One of the men actually owned a Border collie as the legacy of an unsuccessful attempt at gentleman-farming. As the shepherd explained what he was going to tell his dogs to do and how they were going to do it, the ex-farmer behind me was telling his companions to keep an eye on certain dogs or to watch out for particular movements, and he explained how some of the actions that seemed a little superfluous when there were only five sheep really played out in a larger herd. One of his friends doubted that what we were watching was merely the shepherd's utilizing instinctive animal behavior; he was sure that the dogs were all highly trained.

The ex-farmer ruminated for a minute before starting what sounded like — if you'll excuse the expression — a shaggy-dog story, which I will try to repeat exactly as I overheard it:

"You know my in-laws, Barb's folks? Well, a couple of years ago they had us over for this big party they were throwing in honor of somebody they used to know back when they were overseas at the consulate. Big bash, Chinese lanterns in the back yard, little kiosks with food and booze all over the lawn. Must've been almost a hundred people. Well, Skipper was just a puppy then, and we didn't want to leave him locked in our bathroom all day, so we'd brought him to her folks' place, and he was out in the yard with the guests, just sort of sitting there.

"I was in the kitchen getting another bag of ice cubes, and I dumped them into the sink and was going at them with an ice pick, and I was looking out the window over the sink and watching the people. It suddenly came to me that they were acting kind of strange; nothing really obvious, if you know what I mean, just a little bit off-kilter. So I stood there and tried to figure out what was wrong. And suddenly I saw Skipper, this little 4-month-old puppy, and he was sort of circling around the entire bunch of people, and they were all kind of drawing in toward the center of the lawn. They were talking to each other, and holding drinks and plates of food, and they were just all moving closer together without really seeming to be aware of it. All the time, Skip was moving around at the edge of the crowd, and they'd kind of edge closer in to the center of the lawn, and I thought to myself, 'Goddamn, he's herding them!' I mean, this little 10-pound puppy that was all ears and feet was getting all of these sophisticated cocktail-party types into a nice, easy-to-manage group that he could keep an eye on all at the same time. No stragglers, you know, just right there where he could keep them where he thought they should be.

"So I called to Barb, and I said, 'Honey, you're not going to believe this,' and I showed her. Her mouth dropped open, and she started laughing because here were all these fancy important people, friends of her dad, and it was like they were being brought in to the shearing crew by this puppy. I was all for going out and telling them what they were doing, but after we talked about it for a minute, we decided maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all. But after that, we couldn't look at each other or any of them without cracking up, so pretty soon we took Skipper and went home. Gave him a really fancy dinner that night, too."

Did you ever wonder, O Best Beloved, why Strakon calls them sheeple?

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where she shares her haggis with some anti-authoritarian cats who respect her personal space.

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