While a dog may be a man’s best friend, it’s also “a valued partner,” treated better than even a pet, said Judy Snell.
Snell has been farming for around 25 years. A retired CPA, she spends her time on her 48-acre farm with her husband, Stuart Brunderidge, raising market sheep.
While one set of helping hands can go a long way, paws can double that.
Among the hired paws are Mo, Becca, Bess and Skye. The latter two, now retired, are not as fast as they used to be but “still get the job done,” said Snell. A puppy will also be joining the farm soon.
The farmers, the four border collies and the approximately 170 sheep live in Cowichan Valley on Thistle Dew Farm, which the couple purchased around ten years ago. Before this, they had a smaller farm near Shawnigan Lake with around 20 sheep. Snell’s interest in sheep farming began as a child after seeing her uncle’s sheepdog farm in Saskatchewan.
While training a sheepdog is a process, it’s “basically guiding that natural instinct,” said Snell.
“You create a partnership and communicate to the dog what you want her to do,” which involves pressure and release training–preventing the behaviour you don’t want and encouraging the behaviour you do.
For Snell, this involves using her body to block the dogs or move them in a certain direction. When training, she discouraged using hand signals.
“You don’t want the dog looking at you too much. You want him concentrating on the sheep so that he’s watching for their tiniest, little move.”
Naturally, sheepdogs should go around the sheep as opposed to directly at them, which would terrify the sheep, causing them to scatter and run, explained Snell. Depending on the dog, starting them in a small pen may be easier so the handler can better guide them.
“Most dogs, all they wanna do is control the movement of the sheep, and they’re just trying to figure out how to do that. So you’re helping them figure that out, but they have to ultimately figure it out on their own.
“It’s like a person learning to ride a bicycle. You can tell them and show them everything, but they have to feel it and that’s the same with the dogs.”
Along with farming, Snell hosted the Thistle Dew Sheepdog Trial in June, her second time hosting the competition. In the past, Snell has driven up to two days to attend events, from Dawson Creek in northern B.C. down to Oregon.
The two-day trial involved around 100 of Snell’s sheep, 30 or so handlers and about 50 dogs. Each team started with 100 points and was docked points when a dog made a mistake. The dogs had to guide the sheep toward and away from the handlers through different panels. Contestants placing first through third took home prize money.
“It’s awe-inspiring. The things [the dogs] are able to do and how incredibly smart a lot of them are, it just takes your breath away.”
The competition classes can vary, depending on the number of teams and their backgrounds. There may be a nursery class for dogs under three, a novice-novice class for green dogs and handlers, a pro-novice class and finally, an open class with experienced handlers and dogs, said Snell.
While organizing a competition is a lot of work–from finding the judge to setting up the infrastructure–the dogs are ready and waiting.
Unlike at a dog park, where dogs frolic in the wind and mud, tongues hanging out in the pursuit of balls, other dogs or their own tails, border collies ”sit at the fence and watch the sheep.”
“They don’t run around barking and being goofy like other dogs do. They’re interested in what’s going on in the field … They’re quite smart and they need to problem solve and think.”
Border collies live to be around 15. While they’re prone to health conditions like eye and joint problems, Snell said that their own worst enemy is probably themselves.
“They’re really hard on themselves and they don’t know when to quit. So you have to really be mindful of that, especially in the heat.”
For Snell, she doesn’t trial her dogs past the age of 10.
Sheepdog competitions can be complex and hard to get good at, Snell explained. The equipment may not move around, but you’re still dealing with three unknowns.
“You don’t know what kind of a mood your dog’s going to be in that day or you’re going to be in or the sheep are going to be in, right … It’s very interesting that way. It’s very humbling as well.
“There’s so much to learn that you just never get bored with it.”
Come find the sheepdogs by visiting facebook.com/moandbecca.