While traveling recently in Scotland, we were invited to a sheep farm to watch how sheepdogs work. I’ve seen sheepdog trials many times and have also watched a friend’s dogs work. I’m always amazed at the intelligence of the dogs and the bond they have with their shepherd.
This visit sounded interesting though. Our guide told us to not get upset by the shepherd, a man named Neil. He has won many titles and awards, and his dogs have won even more. People come to him to have their dogs trained, or to purchase dogs from him. But we were told to not get upset if he came across as abrupt or curt. He showed people how dogs work sheep on a regular basis but it was clear that humoring the public was not part of his agreement. He didn’t like people much, we were told. He preferred dogs over humans.
Hmmm…sounds like someone I live with. My kind of non-people people. I liked him before we even got there.
When we arrived he was out in a pasture, holding a young dog, with several around him poised for action, knowing what was coming. The sheep were also poised in a flock, knowing what was coming. Our arrival was slowed slightly by my not paying attention (too busy watching the dogs and thinking of my favorite border collie, Jax) and tumbling to the ground in a grand entrance. But once we were gathered, Neil sent out the dogs.
He explained each whistled command as the dogs worked, herding sheep out into the pasture, bringing them around, and singling one to return to Neil. The young dog he’d been holding was let loose to work. The pup was rough around the edges but very game.
I sidled closer to Neil.
I asked politely if I could ask him a question.
His eyebrows shot up.
I asked him how he knew a pup would be a good working dog.
It was like he was suddenly illuminated in the brightest of lights. He told me all about blood lines and parentage.
I then asked if there was a dog that had been the best to work with. And we were off on a long, wonderful story about a ‘soft’ dog. He sang the praises of this dog, who had lived to be quite elderly. Soft with lambs and puppies and children but spot-on dedicated and focused when working.
Others sidled closer.
I then asked about the worst, or hardest dog. Again the stories poured forth of a young dog brought to him for training, whose confidence was destroyed before he arrived. The poor dog tried and failed repeatedly, with extreme lack of self-confidence. Neil said he refused to continue training because he couldn’t stand seeing the dog’s heart broken every time he came in from the pasture after failing yet again. The dog became a family pet instead.
After the stories, Neil abruptly left. Our guide said she was shocked at how talkative he’d been, and suggested we head back. But here he came around the corner of an outbuilding. And lined up in his arms was a row of tiny, ten-week-old puppies. Coming right up to me, he handed me squeaking and grunting fat puppies, talking about their blood lines and telling stories about their parents.
When we left, I thought about the contrast between what we had been warned to expect and what we’d found. And it was obvious what made the difference. Who wouldn’t light up when someone asked questions about the things they are passionate about, and love deeply? I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I think others would have asked similar questions if they hadn’t been intimidated by the guide’s warnings.
Me? I simply wanted to hear the stories.
And what wonderful stories they were.