A Man and His Dogs
Herding sheep is the object, but the art of it lies in rigor, affection, practice, and respect
BALLANTRAE, SCOTLAND — COWS moo distantly. Birds sing in the fresh morning air. The autumn sun makes the grass sparkle. And shepherd Jock Welsh stands in the field by his farmhouse, issuing a succession of whistles: sharp and high-pitched, soft and low. His whistles intermingle with strange clicking sounds and quietly coaxing -- or suddenly urgent - - word-commands that are instantly recognizable as the language of sheep-dog trials.
This is not a trial, however. Jock is simply putting one of his dogs, four-year-old Craig, through his morning paces on this farm on the southwest coast of Scotland.
''Get up! Craig, Craig ... Get up! ... Come on! Get up! Come on, boy .... Come bye, come bye. Lie down.... Get on your feet, Craig! ... Craig, come on, get up, man!''
His border collie crouches low and fixes the dozen sheep, closely huddled, panting hard, with a concentrated stare. Nobody moves. An impasse.
''When he gets that eye on, see,'' Jock explains in Scots speech unmodified for the uninitiated, ''when he gets that eye on, some people think he -- Come on, get up!'' This last self-interruption is a fierce growl, and Craig, who has an occasional tendency to freeze the sheep with his eye when a move is required to keep them going, responds by shifting position. The sheep take the hint and move along as intended.
''He's not really a sticky dog,'' Jock says. ''Plenty o' push, ken, plenty o' push.''
The sheep are now being maneuvered quietly until they are up against the fence.
''That's the pace you win trials with,'' Jock comments. ''Aye -- nice and steady.''
A couple of the sheep, now cornered, show disapproval by stamping their feet. Craig is unimpressed. Jock commands: '' 'Way to me! 'Way to me.... That'll do.''
One might hope that this opportunity to meet one of Britain's much-respected sheep-dog-trial competitors and judges -- Jock has been at it for about 33 years at local, national, and international levels -- would unlock some of the deeper mysteries of this rural art-form. Jock put his finger on certain essentials long experience has taught him, but the invisible threads spun between man and dog by rigor, affection, practice, and mutual respect remain largely intuitive.
A dog must obey, of course, but it must also have a mind of its own when necessary. Such things can be demonstrated more readily than analyzed. Jock (like, I suspect, most shepherds), is a practitioner rather than a theorist. He has learned by doing.
''The dog needs to be at the right place at the right time,'' he says. This might seem obvious, but to achieve this rightness, the dog must have inborn instinct, Jock says. Much emphasis is put on breeding the border collies, the dogs shepherds mostly employ (and these dogs are trained primarily for work, not just competition), on knowing a pup's parentage. ''All my dogs are related,'' Jock says, ''back to the great-granny.''
He goes off to the barn where he keeps the seven dogs he is currently working, leaves Craig behind, and comes through the gate with Cap -- a pup ''coming seven months.''
''Now don't look for too much,'' he warns. With some pups he waits until they are a year old before working with them. And some trainers view this as a matter of principle. But Jock will start a pup like Cap ''because he's so eager to work.''
''Sit down! Sit down! Cap! Come bye!'' The pup is excited, and this disturbs the sheep, their feet now thundering over the field. But in spite of his extreme youth, this dog already knows his role. He calms down a little, and the ewes (who, like all Jock's sheep, are used to the dogs) become more organized.
``That's a good pup, ken. I don't know how it'll finish.... Sometimes the ones that start early don't finish the best 'uns. A lot o' people'll think he's too good too young.''
The first thing Jock attempts with his pups is ''to try and get them away from the sheep.... If you can get that job done, and get them to come into their bed, to tie up, then I think you're half-road there. So that you don't fall out with them.''
Jock's dogs are all friendly. Intimidation is obviously no part of his training technique. Cap was reared in the house by Jock's wife, Christine. ''Knows every word she says.''
Now Cap is learning to know every word he says.
One of Jock's tips to would-be sheep-dog-trial competitors is: ''You've got to study the sheep. There's always one ... that'll give you more bother. Sometimes she's the one that'll go by herself.'' As a judge, he says, you can't allow too much ''for bad sheep.'' If the sheep misbehave (sometimes they even start grazing in mid-run) and the shepherd and dog find they ''have work to do,'' then it means ''they're very often not winning.''
Sheep, it seems, are inclined to be imponderable, however good the combination of dog and man might be. But when a trial is going well, the pace is steady and the sheep are moving in lines that are ''keen and straight.''
''Straight lines and tight turns'' -- these are the ideals Jock pinpoints. And it is true. When a trial is going well, it all looks incredibly direct and easy. But, Jock chuckles knowingly, it is ''not always simple.''