Country Living (UK)
A SHEEPDOG CALLED BESS
Lake Districtbased James Rebanks explains what’s involved in the making of a great working dog
It was blowing a snowstorm outside when they were born. Ten slick black-and-white pups wriggling in a box by the fire in the farmhouse. Their mother, Floss, licked them and snuffled them towards her teats, doing her best not to roll on them. The pup’s father, Tan, and I worked outside bringing the sheep down from the worst of the blizzard. When I got back to the house, my children had named two of the pups Stormzy and Apple Chunk. I explained that they would get their ‘proper sheepdog names’ at their new homes. They are meant to have monosyllabic names that can carry in the wind or rain on the fells. I think they should have a different-sounding first syllable than their workmates, so they know a command is for them on the ‘B of the Bang’. Why my neighbours have a sheepdog called Rhubarb remains a mystery to me.
Floss doted on the puppies for the first few days, and then grew tired of them constantly feeding and crawling all over her. She begged to go with me to work each day. And after a week or two, I gave in. When we got back, the pups would be sleeping in a warm heap. Floss would jump in and the pups would explode in all directions and probe the darkness with their noses to find her milk. From a few days old, one of the pups stood out for me. I called her Bess. She had a white face, wrinkly ears that folded over the top of her head and skyblue eyes. She would sleep on my lap in the evenings while I watched TV or read a book by the fire, and when I spoke, she would hold her head on one side as if trying to work out what my words meant.
When they were four weeks old, we moved the pups to a stable, and they got their first experience of the farm. Most of them were disinterested, preferring to play rough and tumble in the straw,
Sheepdogs are meant to have monosyllabic names that can carry in the wind or the rain
but Bess would listen to my every move. I would peer over the stable door and she would be sitting up, looking at me, head cocked to one side. And when I opened the door, she would barge through it and follow me wherever I went. She was determined to be my dog.
When she was six weeks old, we met a curious sheep in the doorway of the barn. Bess crouched down and crept towards it, barking gently with the most intense look I have ever seen in a puppy. The sheep bolted and Bess gave chase; before I knew it, she’d stopped it in its tracks, fixing it with her steely blue gaze. She seemed quite surprised at what she had done and ran back to me to see what I thought. I made a fuss of her, and she looked at me as if to say, “Should I go and do that again?” and I said, “Yes, but not until you’re a bit bigger.” I love a dog to have the ability to control sheep through a determined stare. We call it having good ‘eye’. It is a sheepdog superpower. Bess had that sheep mesmerised with her ‘eye’ and she barely came above its knees. The experts say that most puppy selection theories are old wives’ tales. Most pups from good parents can become good working dogs. Perhaps, but all I knew was that no one else was having Bess. The other pups went to farms at eight weeks old, and Floss seemed pleased to get a rest.
I started ‘training’ Bess early, teaching her to come to me when I called her name, building trust with her and showing her how to earn praise. Every sheepdog has been different. Floss was the quickest to train – she came almost pre-programmed and I simply had to show her what I wanted for each command. A sheepdog is, to me, a very different thing to a pet. The work gives them an outlet for their energy, agility, intelligence and instincts. They live to work, and many of them are fairly disinterested in