Wolfie and I had our weekly herding lesson today. Or rather, he got to do what he wants and knows to do, and I tried to learn to guide him, and then get out of his way.
In many ways, these lessons are the highlight of our week. Addicted as I am to them, however, I find them challenging.
Here\’s how it goes. We drive some twenty minutes to Sarah\’s place (Sarah is our instructor). I let Wolfie out of the car ONLY after he makes eye contact with me—which can take a while since he needs to take in all the smells that have settled over the place since the last lesson.
We greet Sarah, then go through the sit, make eye-contact, release ritual through a series of gates until we get to the pen where the sheep are. We\’re talking only three or four sheep here–not herds of hundreds–wise and experienced and not easily rattled.
I take my place at the head of the sheep, who are wide and woolly, and who for some reason seem to want to follow me (so unlike goats!). I start walking them around the perimeter of the pen, then tell Wolfie to “walk up.” With Sarah holding a long leash, Wolfie “puts pressure” on the sheep from behind. If he puts too much “pressure” by following too quickly or too closely, I\’m supposed to stop him and make him sit.
How am I supposed to know when he\’s putting on too much pressure, if I\’m facing away from him? By the way the sheep act. How am I supposed to make him sit from a distance, when all he wants to do is run after the sheep? By sheer force of will, power of personality, intensity of intention.
If you haven\’t been around sheep a lot, it\’s not easy to discern the moment at which they “feel the dog” and alter their pace. Nor is it easy to get your sheep-obsessed dog to drop to a sit at twenty paces. My first obedience class was somewhere in the late 1970s. My last one was a couple of months ago. During all those intervening decades I heard “if your dog doesn\’t comply with a command instantly, go and enforce it,” i.e., walk up to him and MAKE him sit.
But in herding, if you walk back to your dog to enforce a “sit,” you are abandoning your sheep, which makes your dog want to rush in and take care of them himself.
The only option for me, then, is, the moment the sheep alter their gait, to whirl around and, calmly and masterfully, project such laser-like energy with my command that Wolfie will instantly drop into a sit. (The reward for a herding dog who sits, BTW, is neither treats nor pats, but a “walk up” command to go after his beloved sheep again.)
In desperation, I thought I would try visualizing Wolfie in a sit as I gave the command. I\’d read and heard about visualizing your dog doing whatever you wanted him to do, but had never thought it as efficient as a good “snap and release” on the leash.
This morning, having nothing to lose, I decided to try it. “Sit!” I said, while staying with my sheep. I pictured Wolfie sitting ten feet behind us, and by golly, he did. “Walk up,” I said, and started walking with the sheep. The minute they began to speed up, I whirled around and said “sit!” to the thundering Wolfie. Just in time, I remembered to visualize, and he sat.
This worked amazingly well for a while. Then I started to lose it, and inevitably, so did he. Something happened to my focus, my concentration, my will. I got distracted by the sheep, the sweat running down my face, the bugs. It wasn\’t working anymore. My mind was mush. It was time to quit. Sarah nicely got Wolfie to drive the sheep into a corner so we could tell him “that\’ll do!” and praise and pet him, and the lesson was over.
I came home exhausted. I couldn\’t understand why. The exercises we\’d been doing in the relatively small pen were not physically challenging. It must have been the mind part, the visualization, the part that made Wolfie do what I wanted him to do without an outward sign. The weird part.
Why did it work so well, and why did it take so much out of me?