Farmer’s canine companions run sheep with ease

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DIAMOND, Ohio – Nearly 20 years ago, Portage County sheep herder Jay Campbell had a pretty big problem.

In the middle of the night, someone was stealing young lambs from the pasture just across the road from his house. Coyotes were also a threat.

Working full time off the farm and needing precious sleep prevented him from holding nighttime watches for either predator.

He had no way to stop them, so he resorted to moving the flock from the pasture to his barn every evening. He would herd them back to the pasture each morning.

Therein laid an even bigger problem.

On their walk to the pasture, the sheep stopped to nibble on the lawn, the flowers, whatever was available.

Just before reaching the gate, the animals would split left and right, along the fencelines and ditches, the sheep eating lush green grass there.

The farm’s pasture abutted state Route 18; wandering sheep were in danger near the highway.

Chases ensued. Frustration set in.

Needing help. Jay, his wife Emma, and children Jim, Charles and Brenda, decided to look into their options, figuring there had to be something out there that would solve their dilemma.

A trip to the Farm Science Review did just that. Stock dog trials there amazed the Campbells.

“They were running [dogs and sheep] this way and that way. I figured if they can train a dog to do that, I could definitely get one to keep the sheep out of the ditch,” Campbell said.

And he did.

Since that first dog, Campbell figures he’s been through six or eight excellent herders over the years.

Top dog. His top dog now is Casey, estimated to be 10 or 12 years old. The dog is Campbell’s right hand when it comes to the sheep, too.

“If you leave that gate open and [the sheep] get out, she’ll run them right back in.”

The dog has helped make drenching, once a two-person job, something easily handled by one person.

“When I’m driving them through the chute, I can holler for her to walk up and keep the sheep moving. Otherwise they’re back out of there and I’d be here all day,” he said.

Natural instinct. Campbell trains all his dogs himself with expertise that has come in the form of reading specialized magazines and books.

For years, a book on border collies and training was a sure bet underneath his Christmas tree, he said.

Although he prefers border collies, there are several other breeds that make good herders including German or Australian shepherds and corgis.

Most shepherd dogs’ instinct is to bring the animals directly to the owner.

According to Campbell, a border collie’s natural instinct is to circle and group livestock first, then bring them to the human master.

Instinct also pushes the dogs to hold the herd to the owner, so the sheep are always between the dog and the human.

This important characteristic makes pups easier to train.

“Training is 90 percent instinct and 10 percent commands,” Campbell said.

His key to successful training is 10 minutes every day, no questions asked.

Training. Though stock dogs are known for their high energy, Campbell cautions against letting the dog run off some of its energy after it’s let out of its box or kennel.

Training has to start the second the dog comes out of the box, Campbell said, so the dog gains respect for humans as boss. Otherwise, the owner will end up working for the dog.

Training usually starts when the dog is 4-6 months old, or when the pup starts “showing an eye” for the sheep.

“As soon as I see him eyeballing the sheep, I know it’s time to start,” Campbell said.

Showing progress. To get his latest trainee, 6-month-old Jake, acquainted with the flock, Campbell takes the pup with him to the barn.

Though he’s not able to work with Jake as much as he’d like every day – he works long days off the farm as a heavy equipment operator – Campbell puts in extra time on weekends.

Jake is showing progress, but he’s still kept on a 20-foot leash with a plastic spool on the end. The spool acts as a stopper so Campbell can step on the leash as it drags the ground when Jake is uncooperative or disobeys commands to lie down.

“Once he sees those sheep, it’s mighty easy for him to forget everything he’s learned,” Campbell lamented.

Other basic commands the pups are taught include “come bye” or circle clockwise; “way around” or circle counterclockwise; “walk up” or approach the animals; and “grab hold” or “grip” to force a sheep back into the flock.

Campbell says “that’ll do” at the end of each roundup, a way to let the dogs know their work is done.

Start small. Campbell also works the young herder with small bunches of sheep until the dog seems comfortable with its duties.

The smaller flock of sheep – about a dozen – gives less distraction than a flock of more than 100 would, he said.

Later, once the basic commands are mastered, the dogs are taught to “look back” and split the flock into two, and to drive the sheep.

Driving is more difficult to master: It opposes part of the canine instinct that leads the dogs to keep the flock between them and the human.

“In teaching driving, you’ve got to realize that you have to go through the gate first. You have to be in the front and you better move fast,” Campbell laughed.

But above all, this trainer knows the importance of repetition, work and rewards.

“Trainers and owners need patience. You’ve got to keep from hitting the dog and knocking the confidence out of him,” he said.

“And most of all, reward the dog when he comes to you. Never punish him for doing what comes naturally. They’re herders.”

Like clockwork. Campbell hollers the commands across the pasture to the team of Jake and Casey. The two dogs start their outrun – leave from their master’s side and approach the flock in a circular pattern, from a distance – and circle opposite sides.

Campbell is careful to call each dog’s name before its specific command, and the team of three talk, watch and listen like clockwork.

The sheep know they must follow the dog’s directions.

Soon the flock is gathered into one bunch and moving quickly toward the barn. They’ve freely left green pastures and are soon resting inside the barn.

“That’ll do,” Campbell says to his trusty sidekicks as they approach and lie by his feet.

And indeed, the dogs will do. They’ve proved their worth.

“I surely wouldn’t be without them,” Campbell said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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