In 2003, every Friday for an entire summer and fall, Ocean and I would get in the car at 4am, drive about 100 miles to a friends farm, tend to and work sheep, do some farm chores, and then come home. I was so addicted and loved every minute of that journey and adventure.
My husband never said we couldn’t have sheep of our own, but he also never made a move to help it happen either. So this was as close as we were going to come to living on a farm with sheep! So I made the best of it.
I reached a point were I wanted to learn more, so I started to ask around about herding clinicians and/or stock dog handlers that would be willing to take me on, a ‘sheepless’ border collie owner!
And then there I was, a full days drive, maybe a bit more. Ocean and I were standing on the outside of a round pen and talking ‘sheep’ with a couple of other handlers. It was my first big clinic, and I was so excited to learn more. Ocean already had an expert grasp of her job, now it was my turn to learn so I could be a partner in our new herding hobby!
Ocean was a soft and cautious dog, spooky even, in our daily lives. Her safety was in her work that I proposed to her, and that was the only place she felt safe. But on sheep, I saw a side of her that was elegant, breathtaking, and unbelievable. She questioned nothing, she put herself out there, and it was like magic to my novice eyes. She had some tendencies to hold sheep and not let them move sometimes, kind of a ‘sheep police’, and she didn’t like picking them up off of a fence line, but hey, we had only been at it for six months at this point, and she was 15 months old. I considered her freaking brilliant!
I paid, I hooked up our pop up camper, stocked it with food, coffee and water, lots of warm clothes, and away we went.
It felt so tribal to me. People, border collies, and campers, from all over, gathering in a field that was miles and miles away from anything. We didn’t know each other but we had a collective purpose. To learn more about herding, sheep, our dogs, and build our skills. My only fear at the time was that I knew how to pull our camper, but I couldn’t back up worth beans. Luckily the fields went on for miles so I never had to put anything into reverse the whole weekend. Literally that was my only fear at the time.
We started with a long talk, some stock handling stuff for safety, and our dogs job. We went into a round pen, one team at a time. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, we were going to learn! I thought it went pretty well, I was happy with Ocean, the sheep, and OK with my end, some minor mistakes, but nothing major.
After this first round, we were asked to put our dogs away. For the whole rest of the day, seven more hours, we walked up and down a dirt road, it was long, but still. We practiced switching emotions, leaving emotional spaces, for real not just faking it, and being able to see what was around us, but stay balanced and even. Our body language had to change with each emotional shift, for real, feeling it, not faking it.
We were asked to get really angry, not to difficult in that moment really, and then let it go, for real, feeling the release. We were asked to get really happy but to contain it inside, then let it go, we were asked to walk with balance on the inside and breathe. Walk tall with shoulders squared off, walk soft with a slumped back. Walk fast. Walk slow. Jump to the side but keep moving forward. What…the…hell…?
My enthusiasm for the weekend started to take a giant nose dive. Why am I out here walking while my dog is in the camper, and the sheep are getting fat in the fields?
I was here to learn about stock handling and to get a better idea of my job with my dog. I did not sign up for, well, this!
The next morning we all got our dogs out, there weren’t as many smiles, and for sure some trepidation when we approached the morning meeting area. Coffee went around, and I for one, and I think a couple of others, were hiding behind the steaming cup secretly hoping for ‘more sheep time’. And we heard, “Good Morning, I see you haven’t learned to let go of emotional spaces yet. Don’t worry it takes time, and practice, but it will make you better as a stock handler, or really what ever you choose to do. But you have to be aware of it, and practice. Let’s go move some sheep”
We got a bit of time on the sheep that morning, but we were more observers while the clinician handled our dogs. I was a bit crushed. Then we hit the dirt road again. “you need to practice, work through your mistakes without your dog, and practice some more. If you can’t be honest about how you feel, and then let go of it, how can your dog trust you. Why are you all holding on to anger right now, lets work.” All…day…long…again…seriously!
It took years, yes years, to realize this valuable lesson. Maybe one of the most important life lessons I have had in or out of the dog world. It stuck with me, and I ended up thinking about it a lot, pretty much everyday, which I think was the whole point.
A handler has to know more about themselves, how to achieve emotional balance, and work efficiently, effectively, and with as little hoo hah as possible. Once again, the lesson was not about ‘teaching our dogs’, but about handler handling. It’s a tough lesson, so often over looked (almost always), and so incredibly important.
Sometimes what we really want to do with our dogs should not be our starting point at all, in fact we need to start some place else, a simple place, maybe down a dirt road. Taking care of who we are as a handler, improving those skills, makes a world of difference that lasts our life time, not just one activity.
Simple can be a super hard pill to swallow, so often it’s the explosive and dynamic activity that ignites us, feeds us, but there are no skills to be learned there, it’s more of a hold on for the ride type of thing. Simplicity is where we actually learn.
If at any moment you think training is about the dog, you need to stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and tell yourself (kick yourself if you need to), “I need to do better and learn more”. It isn’t about the dog, it is about the handler, always. Finding a long dirt road wouldn’t hurt either.