So I’m working Will, my young Border Collie, last night, asking him to push the lambs into a corner so that I could catch and treat a sick one. (Lambs get diarrhea just like people and dogs do, I suspect it feels just as bad for them as it does for the rest of us. Poor little guy looked miserable.) Willie is doing really well at this kind of task, even though he can be the kind of dog who is “sticky” and won’t push the sheep forward when it’s needed sometimes. But he seems to love real work, when the sheep really have to get into the truck, or the lambs have to be pushed into a corner so that we can catch and treat one. How do I know? Well, I don’t for sure, but his eyes seem brighter, he looks especially animated when we are done and most importantly, he is much braver when we have “real job” to do than he is when we are “training.” Don’t get me wrong, he loves to work sheep anytime, he seems to live for it, and generally he works beautifully. He’s extremely biddable, especially for a young dog, has great natural balance and perfect flanks.
But, sometimes when we are up the hill practicing his outruns or his flanks (going left or right around the sheep), he is hesitant to push the sheep forward. He’ll stop, sit down (silly looking for a working Border collie) and have to be encouraged to walk up on the sheep and get them moving. Not so when we have real work to do. He is much more apt to put pressure on the sheep, facing down a balky ewe or lunging at a lamb to force it to move away from him. Last night he came away with a fluff of wool in his mouth–a first for him in a year and a half of work. (That is not encouraged, but the lamb was not injured in any way, and I was glad to see him get a little pushy at this age. He’ll learn finesse soon enough, right now he needs to learn to take charge when he needs to.)
So here’s the question: is Willie braver, more willing to take charge when we have real work to do because he understands that the exercise has a goal, or because I change and relax my standards, and am focused on the goal myself, rather than on Willie doing it perfectly? It’s hard to say. I’m a pretty benevolent handler, I rarely raise my voice (don’t have to) and have never touched him except to pet him, but I am nothing close to perfect and I know my voice can change if I get frustrated. So is his change in behavior because of mine? Or because he knows we have a job to do, and he is as goal oriented as I am? My guess is that it’s a little of both. It’s always seemed to me that Border collies know when they are being ‘schooled’ and when you have a real job to do. I’d love to hear other thoughts on that… from BC folks or from those who work dogs in other functional jobs…
Scottish handlers have always told me that what a dog really needs is to do real work as much as possible. Will and I have the usual problem, common in the states, of a small flock (24 at the moment) and a small farm (14 acres), and a limitd amount of work. Someday maybe I can retire and get more sheep, and Will and I can herd to our heart’s content.