Gibson Gains Ground in His Sheep Herding

Written by: Eric Rickstad


Gibson training
Photo by Jenna Woginrich

I could not pass yesterday up. The combination of mild weather, melting snow, safe roads, and a border collie-in-training, meant I would make the drive to Denise Leonard’s Farm for a herding jaunt. It was the perfect day for a lesson. And anyone who trains animals knows you need to keep the dogs (and sheep) in the practice of work. Keep minds thinking, legs moving, and my heart rate up. So I packed up the Subaru, and before dawn my pup and I were off to learn how to be shepherds.

The lesson started with Gibson chasing in circles, and Denise asking if this is how he acted when I let him herd at my own farm. Yup. She then walked up to him smacking a training stick on the ground at him. Don’t fret. The stick isn’t used to hit dogs. It’s used to smack on the ground next to them, or guide them, or block them, or pretty much make it clear that in this team the handler is the one holding the big stick. I love her admonishment “get out of it” which means “knock it off, jerk.” I now say it all the time.

Within minutes his tail was down, his head low, and while he wasn’t perfect, he was starting to look and act like a proper sheepdog. What a difference a few months make! Gibson did so well at 10 months compared to his frantic first encounters as a seven-month-old. He was still a little wound up to start (he always is), but his frenzy died so much sooner than last time.

I was starting to look like a proper handler. I too need to learn how to move with ovines and canines in this crazy dance. I need to know what Gibson is doing and if it’s right or wrong. You learn as much as you can from book charts and videos…but when it comes to the ordered chaos of the training pen most of that leaves my head and it’s the voice of Denise, the training staff, and the lambs that I have to teach me.

As the lesson went on, Gibson was calmer, balancing the sheep with me, and laying down and stopping on command. By the end of the lesson we were working on a fence line, far outside the pen in Denise’s upper field—and while it was a long way from the trial ribbons—our trainer was confident that if both of us stick with our training and goals, Gibson could be a fully-trained working dog by the ripe old age of three. It takes a while for the new kids to catch up…

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