Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Let me start out by admitting I’m no Little Bo Peep. Sure, I’ve herded cockroaches out of a Brooklyn apartment, but sheep? Not. Fortunately, this isn’t about me—it’s about Sierra. It was her behavior at the dog park that led me to believe she might have herding instincts. Often, as a dog waited inside the double-gated entrance for the owner to remove the leash—especially a friend like Jack the husky or Cleo the Dalmatian—Sierra would lie perfectly still like a border collie, watching and waiting, then spring up and run over to pounce on the other dog in greeting. And whenever a group of dogs would get to racing madly around the park’s large inner perimeter, there was Sierra, lightning fast, curving around the outside of the pack—surely a herding behavior, right?
My friend Laura had taken her own mixed breed dogs to a woman named Judy for herding lessons. Laura spoke very highly of Judy’s skill and instructional prowess, but also of her kindness to students both four-legged and two. As my Jeep Cherokee followed Laura’s truck up the narrow, winding mountain road, I wondered what Judy would think of Sierra. I had visions of her proclaiming, “She’s got herding instincts, alright! That’s a natural if I ever saw one!”
Upon seeing Sierra, Judy asked what breed she was. I asked what she thought she looked like. Without hesitation, Judy said, “She looks like a wolf.” I explained that we’d just gotten Sierra’s DNA test results back, and for what it was worth, she’s allegedly a mix of malamute, husky, and keeshond. I wondered what the sheep would think, and silently gave Judy a lot of credit for even allowing us to try the “instinct test.”
Like any good instructor, Judy first took the time to make friends with my dog. She stood with Sierra in a pen containing three sheep, stroking her and talking to her gently. Judy then led her on leash to walk around the pen behind the sheep, maintaining a safe distance. I’m no expert in sheep behavior, but the sheep seemed scared. Really scared.
“Sheep tell you a lot of things about the dog,” Judy said calmly. “These sheep are deathly afraid of her.”
“Is that normal with a new dog?” I asked.
“No. It’s different with every dog. But look at her. Again, she could be coyote, she could be anything. There’s coyotes up here that come and sniff through the fence. So you gotta think like a sheep.”
I might not be able to think like a sheep, but I could see how Sierra might look like she’s got a little something wild in her.
While I couldn’t argue with the sheep’s assessment, Sierra looked a bit worried about them, too. And when she wasn’t busy worrying about the sheep, her nose was on the ground, busily sniffing out every piece of poop she could find. And eating it. Perhaps this was her technique for conveying to the sheep that she was not a threat. See? I eat your poop! I would never harm you! The sheep did not look convinced. (Here’s a short clip of Sierra in the arena with Judy and the three sheep. The sheep had calmed down a bit, but you can see one stamping when they’re in the corner.)
Judy kept walking Sierra around the pen, and once she felt assured that Sierra was not going to go after the sheep, she let her off leash. Sierra kept right on looking for poop. After a while, I called from the sidelines, “Uh…I guess she really doesn’t have much of an instinct for this, does she.” Judy said kindly, “Oh, I wouldn’t count her out. You’re welcome to bring her back up sometime and try again. A lot of dogs are a little scared, but all of those behaviors, all that poop eating, that’s because she’s afraid.” Although sniffing definitely can be a stress-relieving behavior in dogs, and Sierra was a bit nervous, I’m pretty sure she’d eaten the poop because it was there. On hikes, her nose is constantly on the ground, and anything that smells like a critter sends her into an ecstatic trance. The sheep pen might as well have had a sign over it proclaiming it “Doggie Disneyland.”
Undeterred, Judy brought more sheep into the arena. Maybe now that their numbers had been doubled, their fear would be halved. She asked me to come in, too. Now I was nervous. Laura had related a story earlier about how a bunch of sheep had once pinned her to the wall, and she’d been calling and calling to her dog to come and move them. Apparently, sheep aren’t so easy to move if you don’t have four feet and a tail. But in I went. Judy had wanted me in there because she thought it would give Sierra more confidence. Although the sheep seemed calmer than before, it became obvious that Sierra was still more interested in their excretory product than in the sheep themselves. Finally, raising the white wooly flag of defeat, we left the arena. A sheep in the next pen over, who no doubt had been amused by the whole debacle, pronounced very clearly, “Baaah!” I had to agree.
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