My friend Dee Woessner wrote a haiku called "On Starting Dogs." It's about the experience of working with a Border collie puppy and the process of taking a little ball of fluff and raising it to be an indispensible co-worker and boon companion. I'm embarking on that journey with Fern, a split-faced bitch that I got in April from Maria Amodei.
Fern is the smartest pup I've worked with in nearly 15 years, and she's a joy to be around. If she's inherited the traits that I want from her parents, she'll be a hardworking sheepdog, working directly and taking control of her sheep. It's too soon to tell if she'll live up to her pedigree -- buying a puppy is always something of a crapshoot, although we try to load the dice by choosing pups from parents with a history of producing good workers.
In these photos, taken on June 30, 2007, Fern is roughly four and a half months old. She's just starting to "see" sheep -- by which a shepherd means that she's showing interest in them and starting to show some form and purpose in her approach to them. Although she can run like the wind, Fern doesn't have the physical ability to really work sheep yet. More importantly, she doesn't have the mental capacity to handle the pressure if she's challenged by the sheep or her handler, so there's really no training going on at this point. I'm just exposing her to sheep and helping her out when things get hairy -- mostly by getting her out of her own way!
In this photo she has just noticed that the sheep are moving away from her, and she has dropped her head and tail into the classic Border collie working pose as she continues to walk up on the flock. She's not showing any interest in circling the sheep to head them yet (although she did do so a little bit today when I didn't have a camera). She is looking purposeful and probably most important and unusual at this age, thinking about what's going on.
When these two lambs realized that they had been separated from the rest of the flock, all hell broke loose -- they were calling and running. All the activity caught Fern's eye and she went into chase mode. No harm came of it -- the lambs rejoined their mothers and Fern thought she had saved the day. But this sort of situation is why it's risky to work puppies on larger groups of sheep. If she had tried to head off the lambs, they almost certainly would have gone over her which could have rattled her confidence and put off the day when she's ready to start real training.
Hey, wait a minute! This sheep smells like a dog!
On Starting Dogs
By Dee Woessner
we incubate stones
Fern is one of the nicest stones I've ever attempted to incubate.