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Embracing instincts

Local center trains canines to channel energy into herding sheep

Posted: November 13, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 13, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Two-year-old border collie Bill runs beside a group of short hair sheep during open field sheep herding training at the Dog Psychology Center in Saugus.

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Bill, a 2-year-old Border collie, shows the trainees how it’s done as he brings a herd of sheep down the hill and into a Saugus pen under the watchful eye of trainer Janna Duncan.

When trainee Cowboy, a blue merle Australian shepherd, nips at the sheep, Duncan’s voice darkens. She uses a “shaker” — a rattling plastic box on the end of a long wooden handle — to distract Cowboy from biting the sheep as he learns to guide them back to the herder.

“Herding is natural to all breeds of dogs, not just shepherds,” Duncan says in the Saugus sheep pen as she works with Apollo, an 8-year-old Rottweiler. “Herding takes nervous dogs, fearful dogs, aggressive and troubled dogs and channels all that weird energy into something positive.”

In the case of little Becka, a foot-long Pappion, it won’t be sheep but ducks that are herded.

And for the more ambitious — and larger — canine, cattle are also available for herding during the unique training sessions offered by Drummond Ranch in Acton that some regard as a sport, some as a training exercise and some as potential employment — all for dogs.

Duncan’s training is offered Wednesdays at the Dog Sociology Center ranch in Saugus, owned by well-known “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan.

“Many dogs are unemployed in America; my job is to create jobs for them and educate people,” said Millan, founder of the Dog Psychology Center.

“Dogs find pleasure and accomplishment in working, and sheepherding is one of the most complete activities for dogs to achieve their purpose.”

Duncan runs the Drummond Ranch in Acton and also trains dogs at a Malibu location.

The ranch’s website says sheepherding is among the fastest-growing dog sports in the United States. A Los Angeles-area dog training site identifies it among dog agility and “K-9 nosework” as popular Southern California activities for dogs.

Duncan doesn’t limit her training to just four-footed clients; their owners also get lessons.

First, Duncan tests the dogs, locking into their natural instincts. Watching the sheep mosey in different directions in response to their own movements, dogs think through a trial-and-error process.

“It’s all their natural instincts coming into play, and you get to see them figure it out,” Duncan said. It’s a great outlet because they get to think on their own.”

Fetching, or rounding up sheep to return to the handler, and driving, or steering sheep away from the handler, are the two main herding instincts.

“You’d be amazed at some of the dogs that you see the herding instincts come out of,” Duncan said, describing Pomeranians and English bulldogs that herded like pros. “Each one is an individual, and you can’t categorize based on breed.”

Owners also learn herding strategies, watching Duncan draw plans on a whiteboard before joining their pets in the pen to practice.

They learn the traditional voice commands developed by herders in the Scottish highlands hundreds of years ago.

Lessons in competitive sheepherding are also available.

For more information, visit http://www.drummondranch.net/

 

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