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Canine Trauma

Biography of a Sheeptender

By Ann Garner

I have owned and trained German Shepherd Dogs for over 16 years, training five of them to advanced levels in obedience, tracking and/or herding. Some of them have worked "professionally" as personal protectors or as farm service dogs. For the last eleven years, we have lived on a small sheep farm. My dogs had strong herding instincts and qualified at advanced competitive levels because of their practical experience.

However, I was not content to have dogs that depended so much on my commands in order to control the sheep. I wanted my dogs to develop the ancient skill of controlling sheep in open fields -- no fences -- relying on their own ability and not depending on commands from me.

For that reason, I siezed the opportunity to study for 5 days with Herr Ulf Kintzel, a German Government Certified Shepherd. I have continued to learn a great deal from Ulf, and I credit him with the fact that my shepherd dogs have developed the ability to tend sheep in the traditional Central European manner.

To illustrate how that tradition translates into "Northern California-ese," I will tell the story of one sheep-grazing session at my place........

Die Furche Lang! (Along the Furrow!)

The command for the sheep-tending dog to go all the way along the border of the graze in order to head and turn the sheep saves the herdsman many a step when he has a dog that performs the command well.

One of the most beautiful pieces of the herding work as done by sheep-tending dogs is the send-out to face and turn the grazing flock away from the far border of the graze. To understand this important task, we need to stand in the shoes of a herdsman for a while.

At let-out, a herdsman goes to the sheep hold with his trained tending dogs. He walks through the holding pen and makes sure that all the sheep are able to go out to the graze. The dogs assist in taking the sheep from the pen without bumping the timbers or wires and injuring themselves or damaging the pen.

When the sheep are out, the trek begins. The open field containing the assigned grazing plot is usually some distance from the holding pen. Sometimes it is so far away that the herdsman's boots wear blisters and then calluses during the regular trip to and from the grazing areas. (I speak here from personal experience -- ouch!) The sheep are always extra hungry when they reach their graze. It takes a while to settle them and the dog sometimes has to work hard to ward the hungry sheep off the nearby crops of vegetables or the trees and shrubs of the open landscape.

After several minutes, the dog convinces the sheep to recognize the boundaries of their graze and the flock settles into a pattern of drifting movement across their portion of the meadow. This pattern usually takes the shape of a fan with the flock's dominant sheep at the apex of the curve. The sheep methodically "mow" the grass as they move across the meadow. They maintain the fan shape most often when they are eating grass that is uniformly shorter than about six inches. If the sheep are grazing sparse patches of grass, a stubble field, lush tall grass or a planting of diverse species, the flock will not graze in a unified pattern. Instead, each member of the flock will be looking for the biggest bite of sparse or tall grass, and in the case of a diverse planting, each sheep will be searching for his favorite morsel.

Let us imagine that you are standing in the herdsman's boots (they pinch, ya?). Actually, you will be standing in mine, because I am going to describe one of our own actual working situations. On this day the grazing plot is only about a quarter mile away from the sheep hold. Our assigned plot is about 120 yards long and about 70 yards wide. The grass is around four inches tall and the ground is well-covered. The boundaries of the plot are marked by an open trench for irrigation lines that are not buried yet. The trench is narrow and deep, dangerous to sheep if they are pushed or panicked. The graze is located in a meadow that is bordered by our neighborhood airstrip. The airstrip is not fenced and the various meadows around it only have ruins of ancient barbed-wire fencing in some spots. The closest neighbor's unfenced vegetable garden is located directly on the edge of our graze.

The day that you stand in my boots, you will still do a lot of walking even after the sheep settle on the graze. The dog must be shown the long deep trench, the vegetable garden and the shrubs. The dog and I walk along the trench noting the vegetable patch, the shrubs and the likely escape holes to the traffic road.

You are working with a dog that already knows to stay out of the flock and understands how to ward sheep off the forbidden areas and back away from the trench. For the first two or three hours of work, the dog becomes familiar with the new grazing area, learns the flock's assigned grazing parameters, learns to avoid falling into the trench himself and learns that he absolutely must push the sheep off the vegetable patch.

After a few hours in the new area, the bolder sheep drift to the far end of the grazing area, tempted by the greener grass on the other side of the deep trench. Our feet are getting tired by now, yet those bold sheep need to be turned back away from that trench. Then another problem is noticed. You and I are standing in our pinching boots watching another group of sheep that are looking hungrily at the vegetable garden. The far end where the sheep are drifting out of the graze and the veggie patch are about 125 yards apart. We would have to be in two places at once in order to guard the vegetables and turn the sheep away from the trench at the same time.

But the laziest herdsmen have the best dogs, so we stay where we are, call the dog and have him push the sheep away from the vegetables toward the center of the graze. Then we send the dog along the outside of the trench; about 120 yards to the West of us, the trench makes a corner. We call "Die Furche Lang!" The dog runs all the way to the end of the South side of the graze, takes the turn and picks up the West boundary about 120 yards distant and goes out to face the lead sheep and turns them back toward the center of the graze to join the other members of the flock.

The dog comes back along the same boundaries, and the sheep content themselves with their assigned grassy plot. The dog reaches the shade of a shrub and stops on the boundary -- this is California and it is a very warm Spring day. The dog's work was not only beautiful to watch; it saved us many steps in those pinching boots. After all, we still have to lead the sheep back home.

Copyright 1997 by Ann Garner. No reproductions of any kind without permission from the author.

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