The sun is shining, the fields are clear, and the sheep — a jittery trio of fluff — are just getting comfortable.
Selkie, a border collie recovering from a tennis ball addiction, gets her cue. She cuts a wide curve around the field, hunches low and creeps in. Bleats of protest are useless. The sheep stiffen and get moving.
It’s a good day to be a dog.
Selkie isn’t really a stock dog but she plays one at Drummond Ranch, which isn’t really a livestock ranch, but a 40-acre haven an hour outside Los Angeles. There, city dogs escape their leash-and-lounge existence and learn get in touch with their inner herder.
The ranch is part of a trend that mixes training techniques, a back-to-basics ethos and a hint of dog (and human) therapy.
“It really, really seems to center the dog and give the dog a sense of confidence and fulfillment, a good assertiveness, a good energy,” said ranch owner Janna Duncan, who has taught dozens of canines and their owners the art of moving livestock.
“It’s almost as if the dog needs a job. And when they discover, ‘This is what my job is supposed to be,’ then everything falls into place.”
The American Kennel Club says new herding clubs are popping up across the country, although it does not track exact numbers. Nearly 200 clubs held herding trials last year. More than 10,000 dogs competed, a roughly 10 percent increase over 2006.
Owners describe the practice as an antidote to tighter leash laws and disappearing dog-friendly spaces in U.S. cities. They talk of their dogs’ first time in the arena with the pride and amazement usually reserved for describing a child’s first day at kindergarten. Many also acknowledge that herding was a last resort.
“I’d been through about three trainers and was getting nowhere,” said Ann Preston, patting her panting, post-workout Selkie. “I had two vets tell me she was stark-raging mad.”
Preston acknowledges Selkie’s problem was really an owner problem. As a border collie, she was bred to herd. She needed mental stimulation and as well as a physical workout. As a couch companion for Preston, a 65-year-old sculptor, she was a poor match.
“I’m gentle. I just want to play and cuddle my dog and scratch its tummy and, you know, have my face licked and maybe my feet licked on occasion,” she said.
Selkie wasn’t interested. She was sensitive to noise, pushy and obsessive. She wanted her ball thrown. All day. And tomorrow.
Experts say the dog-owner mismatch is common. People spend too little time researching a breed’s temperament and habits before choosing their family’s new addition. A fluffy Saint Bernard, for example, is a working breed that may protect your kids — against the letter carrier. Then you’ve got a lawsuit.
Preston said she’s lucky she found Drummond Ranch and Selkie found sheep. One look and the light bulb went on, Preston said.
Duncan’s clientele isn’t limited to the traditional herding breeds. She’s trained huskies, Labrador retrievers, even a four-pound Yorkie from Malibu.
On a recent morning, a hulking Bernese mountain dog named Kerry thumped around an arena cajoling the sheep on cue to Duncan’s screeching whistles and clipped calls.
Each breed, Duncan explained, has its own persuasion technique.
Referring to Kerry, she said, “The guardian dogs get to know their flock. They befriend the sheep and the sheep feel safe. They’ll follow them anywhere.”
Herders vs. non-herders
But not all breeds have such charisma.
Trainers use an instinct test to suss out the herders from the non-herders. Placed in a small pen with sheep and a trainer, the dogs’ reactions are evaluated for style, temperament, responsiveness to commands and use of force.
At Drummond Ranch, those deemed trainable continue with classes. A four-week series cost $165.
Carol Delsman oversees the American Kennel Club’s herding program from her cattle ranch in Baker City, in rural northeastern Oregon. Delsman is happy to see urbanites discovering their dogs’ hidden talents but considers her primary job preserving a lost art.
Herding breeds have spent centuries as companions for shepherds and ranchers. In Scotland and England, border collies are revered for their ability to disappear into the hills and come back with a herd unharmed.
“But as people decide not to have kids but to have dogs, breeds actually get altered. If we alter a breed too much, it can’t do what it was bred to do,” Delsman said.
The challenge is less about training dogs to handle sheep than about coaching humans to properly handle their dogs, she says. The dogs already know how to herd, they just need to learn to do it on command.
The new communication can be transformative for dogs and humans.
Preston says Selkie is a different dog — though it took work and weekly visits. She also says she’s a different human, with a new understanding of obedience and control, and an appreciation for the power of finding a calling.
Selkie, of course, just pants. Her tail flaps furiously. Preston can guess the thought inside that black-and-white head: This is too good to be true.