Country Living (UK)
Bess is a very talented teenager now, capable of acts of brilliance – and silliness
playing. (I believed this sincerely until I got back from a trip away two years ago to see Tan playing catch with a shepherdess friend. He looked a bit sheepish, as if caught in the act of slacking off work.)
When Bess was four or five months old, I started working her with sheep in controlled settings. Sheep can rough-up a young dog and ruin their confidence, so we like them to learn to chase and gather, and feel their instincts rise in them, in a setting where we can stop them, if needed, and protect them from harm. We make a circular pen in a large field, and put in half a dozen sheep; the pup then races around the outside, chasing the sheep without being able to grab them or get knocked down by them. I turn the sheep back the other way and block the dog to stop it going round and round endlessly. We use this to teach the dog some basic commands, particularly ‘away’ and ‘come bye’, which are basically go left and go right.
The art of training a young sheepdog is about converting their wolf instincts into a disciplined, controlled and useful thing. If you stop them obeying their instincts to chase sheep, they will stand confused, with plummeting self-esteem, and may become afraid to work. If you’re too soft, and let the urge to chase get too strong, they become too rough for the sheep and a danger to themselves. We try to find a happy medium – slowing a keen and strong dog down is, in my experience, easier than getting a cautious or shy one to work.
Bess is strong, and keen, and in her early lessons was a bit like a loose cannon on the deck of a ship, going off in all directions. If I took my eye off her for a moment, she would dart under a gate and gather up two ponies, or the hens, or 200 ewes belonging to my neighbour. She is a very talented teenager now, capable of acts of brilliance, but also moments of silliness and lapses of judgment. When she does something wrong, as young dogs do, the temptation is to get cross, but I scold her gently, and give her a cuddle and use my tone of voice to let her know that what she just did was clever, but not what I wanted. I’m slowly but surely persuading her to chill out a bit.
As the days pass, she listens more and more. She means to be my top dog. She already tries to beat the older dogs in gathering the sheep and is disgusted if they get praise from me. She loves me in the way that great dogs do, beyond reason, like it is the meaning of her life. In the next few months, she will learn even harder skills, such as how to gather in the open spaces of the fells. I suspect Bess and I will have our moments, but I believe she is special. They say a shepherd only has two or three great dogs in their lifetime. I have a feeling in my gut that Bess is one of those superstars in the making.