First-time Herding Experience

Notes on a First-time Herding Clinic Experience
by Andrea Campbell

protrainingA couple of months ago the USKBTC website announced a herding clinic to be offered in early August in Pawling, NY. Having read that Kerries had been used in Ireland as herders, I was interested and decided to sign up our Kerry, Ch. Heritage The Artful Dodger, to see how he’d fare.

My husband, who’s an actor and a pretty funny guy, teased me and said, in effect, “You’ll be sorry! I expect major vet bills for ‘damaged livestock.’” In my heart of hearts I thought he might be right, but I forged ahead with my plan to test Dodger’s shepherding abilities against his prey instinct.

On Saturday morning, August 7th, just before the alarm was set to go off at 4 a.m., Dodger and I crept quietly out of bed and went downstairs (Bill had a major golf tournament that day and I didn’t want to disrupt his timetable). We both had a little breakfast, a short walk and were on our way by a bit after 5. After only one wrong turn, we arrived at the mountaintop estate just west of the Connecticut border, where the clinic was to begin at 8 a.m.

The moment we arrived, I was afraid I’d made a big mistake. The 10 dogs registered for the clinic were predominantly the well-known herding breeds – Border Collies, Australian Shepherds – with a Briard, Belgian Malinois, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog – and Dodger. The trainer, Tenley Dexter, gathered all the owners in one of the barns for some preliminary information. The very first thing she said was that “barking dogs would absolutely not be tolerated,” that if you put your mind to it, you’d be amazed at how well you could discipline your dog. Of course, Dodger was in our van – barking. I posted myself by the barn door so that I could periodically go back to the car and tell him, as firmly as I ever have, to KEEP QUIET. He kind of listened.

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At about 9:30 we all went outside so that Tenley could begin working with the dogs and their owners. Eight of the dogs were novices, but Dodger was the only first-time participant. I was happy that we had been assigned slot #7, so that I’d have time to do a lot of observing before it was our turn in the pen. Then we moved to the area beside the pens, and I took Dodger out of the car so that he would have time to acclimate himself to all the other dogs and settle down a bit before he was called. He adjusted quickly and even though there were lots of new dogs to check out, he actually seemed to be interested in what was going on inside the pen.

The format of training was that each owner and dog first worked together on the basic commands: “Get around” – which meant taking your dog around the inside perimeter of the herdingrakepen, in both directions, with the dog always on the rail; and “Walk up” – which involved bringing the dog in toward the sheep, but slowly, and under complete control. It was interesting to see how various dogs reacted. Some seemed like naturals, a couple were tentative and shy, one was unruly and one wasn’t very interested. What I liked was that Tenley was encouraging and positive with everyone, but at the same time she was very clear in her expectations.

Finally, it was our turn. Dodger, who thinks that everything in life is fun, entered the pen with aplomb. As was her custom, Tenley spoke not only to the owner in question, but also to the onlookers, remarking that she’d never worked with a Kerry, and since he was a “Terrier” I gathered that she wasn’t sure what to expect. She put us through the paces I’d already observed and Dodger was doing what he was supposed to. I had to be corrected a few times because I was jerking the lead instead of using the rake to indicate when I wanted him to stop. (She explained that she uses a very lightweight plastic rake, instead of a pole, on novice dogs because it’s much easier for them to see and more effective.) But all in all, things were going well and my confidence in myself and in Dodger was improving. I began to think, “This might be fun!”

outsidedgeAfter about 10 minutes it was her turn to work with him alone, and I stood by the rail and watched. The short version of all this is that he did very well. Having never in his life seen sheep, he didn’t know what to expect. Tenley, whose sensitivity to each dog’s personality was really impressive, pointed out to everyone that he was clearly trying to communicate to the sheep that they should be afraid of him! She added, “He doesn’t know this yet, of course, but they are already afraid of him – they’re afraid of everything!” He caught on really quickly and within a few minutes was doing just what she wanted him to do.

The last two dogs she worked were veteran herders and they did some impressive maneuvers, which awed everyone. I couldn’t imagine getting a dog to that point, and when I learned that each had been at this about five years, I don’t know whether I was reassured or discouraged!

Eventually, we all took a lunch break and then during the afternoon everyone was given another 20 minutes in the pen. We were told that the dog’s second turn would be quite different – that now they knew what to expect. Dodger was no exception and Tenley remarked that he was really interested! This time she pushed him a little harder to see how obedient he would be – and that’s when the Terrier in him surfaced! Eventually though, he acquiesced to her desires and followed her commands.herding 1

As we left the pen, she told me that if I wanted to pursue this I’d have a lot of fun with him. “You can see,” she said, “that he loved very minute of it.”

It’s true. He did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have more fun. All in all it was a great day. Everyone there was most cordial and they all thought Dodger was really cute (he was!). That was nice, because I was afraid that there might be some sort of “writing him off” because he wasn’t one of the “officially recognized” herding breeds. But he did himself – and Kerries in general – proud. We arrived back in Delhi around 8 p.m., tired, but pleased.

I’d definitely try it again.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more about herding on the USKBTC website, just click the link below.
Devil the Kerry Blue Heeler

Last Updated: 08/14/2004, 7:57 am