Letters to the Editor

Recent herding trials prove dogs are not sheepish on Vashon

For The Beachcomber

I don’t know about you, but the first time I saw a sign for “Sheepdog Trials” a year or so ago, my immediate thought was, okay, I get yelling “bad dog” when your dog chews up a shoe. But criminal proceedings? And what would a jury of his peers look like? But it turns out this is about sheep and the dogs that herd them. Who knew?

You see, in the neighborhood in New York where I grew up, there were very few sheepdogs. This, I think, was largely due to a distinct lack of sheep. But the woman lately known as my wife knows all about sheepdogs. This is because she is from England. The English have a thing for sheep, and I mean that in a good way.

As you no doubt know, the Lord Chancellor in Parliament’s House of Lords actually sits atop a “woolsack” when that house is in session. I have a lot of sympathy for the Lord Chancellor. Here he is, sitting atop this comfy pile of wool, listening to mostly senile lords wool-gathering endlessly about, I don’t know, fox hunting perhaps, and he has to stay awake. But the English like their traditions. They like them because, having lost their empire, that’s all they have left.

But I digress. Sheepdog trials, as it turns out, are a kind of contest. A small number of sheep — what would that be, a herdlette? A dozen legs of lamb? — are released at one end of a meadow (in this case Misty Isle Farm), whereupon they immediately begin munching grass which, as near as anyone can tell, is the only thing sheep know how to do.

At the other end of the meadow stands a shepherd, leaning on a crook — not a criminal, mind you; that’s just a term of art in the business for the cane they lean on.

In between them is a border collie, aka “sheepdog.” I don’t know whether you’ve spent much time in the company of border collies. I have. And it is humiliating. These leggy, black and white doggies are way smarter than you or I will ever be. They’re not permitted to join MENSA because they’d put all the certified geniuses there to shame.

The whole idea, as near as I can tell, is that the shepherd says to the dog, “See here, Angus (they must  have Scottish names), go on out there and bring the shaggy beasties home. Oh, and while you’re at it, I want you to split the group in two, run them through a collection of gates and obstacles and, even though they are the dimmest creatures on earth, I want you to do this in record time. Got it?”

Now, why these dogs agree to do this is a complete mystery. It is so beneath them.  Let’s face it: But for the absence of an opposable thumb, these dogs could be at a blackboard doing calculus. Chasing sheep is a piddling task. A rank insult. But the dog, bless its loyal black and white little heart, rockets off toward the sheep anyway. It does this in seconds.

The sheep, when the dog arrives, respond immediately: They do absolutely nothing. They are oblivious to anything but the grass beneath their noses. Armageddon could occur but, so long as there was grass, they wouldn’t notice. The dog crouches menacingly to get their attention and, typical of sheep, they scatter in multiple directions. Forget what you’ve heard about sheep being followers. To be a follower you need to be aware that there are other sheep to follow. A sheep has no concept beyond itself and grass. That is its entire universe.

The sheepdog, to rally the troops, quotes Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The sheep, naturally, haven’t a clue what the dog is going on about. For one thing, they have no idea when Saint Crispin’s Day is, which only deepens — if this is possible — their confusion.

While this colloquy is under way, the shepherd is madly whistling and calling to the collie to get a move on but otherwise doing absolutely nothing. In a sheepdog trial, the shepherd is called the “handler.” This, as far as I can tell, is because the shepherd does absolutely nothing but lean on the handle of his shepherd’s crook. You can almost hear the dog sighing across the meadow: “Once again, it’s all up to me with these idiot fuzz balls.”

A true champion sheepdog will get the idiot fuzz balls down to a pen near the shepherd smartly and in record time, at which point it will look askance at the shepherd and, with a tilt of a head, ask,

“Can we get back to the calculus now?

— Will North is a Vashon novelist. His next novel, “Seasons’ End,” is set on Vashon and will be published in October.

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