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Feature Story

Basic Instinct

How I Found Out Whether My Shepherd Can Sheep-Herd

Sam Holden
That'll Do, Dog: Molly Rath and canine Jack keep the flock in line.

Sizzlin Summer 1998

Sizzlin Summer City Paper's Summer Guide

Moons Over San Diego Butts Aplenty, Wankers in the Rocks, and My Literary Hero in His Birthday Suit | By Suz Redfearn

The Great In-Between Finding Sustenance Between Home and the Ocean | By Geoff Pevner

Coming in Hot, Hot, Hot Baltimore's Reggae Community Makes Summer Come Alive | By Natalie Davis

Pie in the Sky A March Up Maryland's Highest Peak | By Brennen Jensen

Basic Instinct How I Found Out Whether My Shepherd Can Sheep-Herd | By Molly Rath

Summer Campy Hot Stuff for the Hot Season | By Larry Nichols

Big Birds Checking Out the Emu Trade in Baltimore County | By Eileen Murphy

Major League Too Boys of Winter Try to Recapture Their Summer | By Ronald Hube

Auction Powers There's Nothing Like Buying From a Fast-Talking Man | By Heather Joslyn

By Molly Rath | Posted 5/20/1998

We've been at the farm for maybe three minutes and Jack is in heaven. He's scurrying around, sniffing and snorting, and he's already found something fabulous to roll in. (And this has never been a rolling dog--until now.) Meanwhile, the farm's owner is prepping me for what we're about to attempt, the reason why we drove an hour and 45 minutes in the wee hours of a Sunday morning to some remote corner of Virginia while the rest of Baltimore was in bed. We're about to find out if Jack can do what his kind was bred to do: herd sheep.

The farm, dating back to the 1850s, sits on a small road off a slightly bigger small road, some three or four roads removed from the nearest highway, and seven miles from the nearest McDonald's. It's in a very small village called Philamont that, from what I can gather, is somewhere way outside of Leesburg. It's the home of Sue and Marc Mesa, their two small sons, every kind of four-legged livestock imaginable, and 14 dogs.

We've landed in Philamont because Jack is an Australian shepherd, a breed of tail-less work dogs created to herd sheep, and because my husband and I are consumed with Jack. (Some have used the term "obsessed," but for the record, they're all cat people.) Far too caught up in all things Jack-related, we had to know: Can he do it?

So we're at this farm and our $20 herding experience--which Sue Mesa tells us could last up to 55 minutes but will more likely last five minutes because Jack is a novice--is about to begin. The one thing you have to remember, she begins telling me, is that your dog is a dog. No matter how you treat him, how you talk to him, what human behaviors, thoughts, and needs you project on him, he is at the end of the day a dog, and a dog he will always be. And he will hunt and he will kill, she says, recounting for emphasis gory tales of golden retrievers all but ripping her sheep to shreds. This, I ask myself, from the dog who spends the night sprawled halfway across a queen-sized bed? The dog who can distinguish between the sound of an ice-cube tray and an ice cream pint leaving the freezer and only slides down off the couch for the latter? More likely, I think, the sheep will kill him.

"You can't make assumptions about him based on human behavior," Mesa says. "You wouldn't go around eating sheep puckies. He, on the other hand, would." As if on cue, Jack happily begins chomping on a big clod of sheep poop. In the city, I'm proud to say, he doesn't eat poop; he sniffs it, but it's not one of the 101 disgusting things I've yanked from his mouth in his four years. Suddenly I'm not so sure I'm digging this country stuff.

żo on to the demo. Mesa and her 8-year-old border collie, Puck, standing in a fenced-in field with three sheep, are going to show us the tricks to herding. It's an extension of the hunting instinct, she explains. When dogs hunt in packs, there's an alpha he and an alpha she, and then there are the rest--the ones who herd the prey toward the alpha pair, who make the kill. "In here I'm the alpha bitch," Mesa bellows, "and don't you forget it." Her job is to get the dog to bring the sheep to her.

Standing on the other side of the fence, looking down at my sneakers and my T-shirt with the grinning dog from a pet walkathon, I'm wondering if I can muster this bitch thing. As for Jack, I can't even get him interested in the sheep. He's checking out a couple of little corgis nearby and trying to stay out of the way of a mammoth Rottweiler named Caesar who, incidentally, is a herd dog too. Bred as butcher dogs, Rotties were used to herd animals to slaughter. And seeing a 180-pound Rottweiler lumbering after a couple of sheep is something to behold.

All too soon, it seems, it's our turn to feign that we somehow know what we're supposed to do. Since we're beginners, Mesa has chosen for us three shorn sheep that are "broken"--sheep so overherded that they're all but immune to being corralled by humans and their citified canines.

In Jack goes, straight for the sheep, his nose headed right for their rear ends. He's particularly drawn to a small, black 6-week-old lamb, the only one remotely his size. But because he chases it relentlessly, and because pursuing one sheep pretty much defeats the purpose of herding a plurality of sheep, Mesa tosses the lamb over the fence and grabs another one.

Meanwhile, I'm standing there, mouth open and immobile, until Mesa yells at me, "Get with your sheep." So I start chasing the sheep too. Then she tells me to stay between Jack and the sheep, so I start chasing Jack, trying to shoo him away. But that's not right either. "He gave to you, so now give to him," she yells. I've no idea what this means.

At this point I can only assume the sheep are seeking some kind of refuge from me because they're up against the fence, prompting Mesa to tell me to keep them away from the fence because it makes them an easier target for a kill, which is not the point.

It's a big confusing muddle, with Mesa shouting instructions and me yelling, clapping, and running in circles, all the while trying to avoid getting stampeded by Jack and three bewildered, bald ovines. This is nothing like the herding I've seen and read about, and never before have I felt so out of my element.

Mesa, now at my side, grabs my arm and pulls me back and forth, here and there, trying to position me as she describes the dynamic taking place: Jack is drawn to the sheep, but they're repelled by him, and he's repelled by me, she says. So we've got all this repelling going on and somehow it's all supposed to come together. Go figure.

By now we've been in the field for maybe 10 minutes and Jack, Mesa tells me, is getting tired--herding is both physically and mentally exhausting for dogs, especially "a suburban dog trying to do a country thing.

"So get him excited," she shouts across the field, having backed off to observe my utter lack of understanding from afar. "Pick up a sheep and shake it at him."

OK, here I'm drawing the line, I tell myself, still wincing a bit from that "suburban dog" barb. There's no way I'm picking up a sheep. I know a thing or two about nasty goats and llamas and I'm not taking any chances. So I just stand there and Mesa comes over to do it for me. She hoists up a sheep, yanks at its hind leg and shakes it in Jack's face. As soon as she sets the sheep back down, the Jack I know responds by hoisting himself on top of the sheep. My dog, known in the neighborhood for his indiscriminate mounting--male, female; human, dog; head, tail--is trying to hump a sheep twice his size. Yep, he's excited.

I decide it's probably easier to excite Jack with the word "kitty," and on we go, me chasing Jack, who's chasing the sheep, who have no clue about what's going on. When Jack leaves the sheep for a corner to squat in, we call it a session.

Now, outside the pen, Jack can't take his eyes off the sheep. One taste of it, and he wants back in. We watch a Welsh corgi make a go of it while we await our second round, only this dog's owner, who's clearly been here before and experienced the humiliation of first-time herding, stays on the sidelines filming his dog instead. But the corgi isn't into it. With legs the length of my fingers, I figure, he's too short for sniffing.

We get one more chance inside the fence, only this time we get big, burly sheep who are a little spryer than the last batch. Once again I'm slow on the uptake; Jack is off and running before I jump into the fray. But when I do, it's as if everything kind of clicks. I can hear Mesa praising us, and suddenly I realize Jack's buried instincts are surfacing. My dog is actually herding sheep--despite my own spastic "help." And it's the coolest thing. I've seen him herd dogs, chasing them around in figure eights and butting them in the rump with his head. He's also chased his share of cats, squirrels, and household flies. But until now, he's never laid eyes on sheep, and somehow he seems to know what to do.

We go for about 10 minutes the second time around. Leaving the pasture, huffing and puffing, I'm feeling pretty smug--this, the dog that would last five minutes! So smug I let Mesa talk me into a few more sessions and out of another $40. n

If you want to take your dog back to its roots, contact Sue Mesa at (540) 338-3130, or E-mail her at The cost is $20 a session.

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