Why, oh why, do I have to learn so many lessons from sheep? I don’t even like sheep. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of wool.
I have cause, you know. This isn’t just baseless species-ism. We went to Peru several years ago with a humanitarian group, and one of our jobs was to immunize something like a thousand of the dumbest sheep ever created by the hand of God. These sheep had just one guiding principle: Make humans look as stupid as possible, and perhaps poo so much one of them slips in it and nearly falls off the Andes.
But there we were, at the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Championship, watching dogs that I’m pretty sure are smarter than most public officials attempt to put a flock of sheep through medical school.
Wait. That doesn’t sound right. I think I was delirious from the heat, given that Utah has decided to pretend it’s Arizona, which means it was precisely eleven degrees cooler than the sun that day. I keep wondering why we moved from Las Vegas, where at least we had a pool, and no one thought twice if you wore your bathing suit to the bank.
Anyway, back to the sheepdog trials. Interesting word, ‘trials.’ That was exactly what they were, for everyone involved. I never would have believed I could become so invested in the successful corralling of six cantankerous, oversized Q-tips, but I’m telling you what: there are moments up there in the stands when you just want to dart onto the field and smack those sheep upside the head with your rolled-up program.
Here’s the way it works, basically. The trainer is required to stand by a post, the sheep are way up on the hillside, and the dog starts out with the trainer but then runs up to the sheep when he’s told to do so. The trainer blows her whistle in a series of specialized toots, and the dog responds by circling left, dashing right, holding still, and so forth. Already, this dog has out-obeyed 90% of the humans I know.
First, I couldn’t believe that, despite all the distractions—the crowd, the other dogs, the stands bursting into flame—the competing dog stayed incredibly focused. When he was tooted up the hill, he didn’t once deviate from course. He ran full-out to where the sheep were busy exchanging gang signs and plotting mayhem, and immediately set about the task of moving the flock down the hill toward the first set of gates.
Most of the time, the sheep made it through this first step. But if they didn’t, neither the dog nor the trainer fussed about it for long. After all, the entire course has to be completed in under twelve minutes. So, whether they went through the gates or not, everyone just soldiered on.
Now they were closer to the trainer, and the next task was to loop around the trainer’s pole and then head back up the hill to another set of gates. I’d have thought that being so close to the gal with the whistle might have inspired the dog to ease up a little, let the trainer handle those stupid sheep while the dog grabbed a Diet Coke and maybe caught a few Z’s. But, no! Nothing changed. The dog kept maneuvering around the flock, and the trainer kept blowing her whistle.
Up the hillside the sheep went, this time through a narrower set of gates. The course got trickier, so each time the sheep made it through the opening, we in the stands would clap and cheer like crazy. On the other hand, if they wandered off (as sheep are wont to do), we would sit there muttering helpful things like, “Get back there, you dumb sheep. No, don’t eat that grass. The gate! Go through the gate! Gate! Gate! Gategategategategategate!”
Oddly, this didn’t have the anticipated effect. It turns out, the audience doesn’t really get a vote—not in how the sheep behave, not in how well the dog does his job, not even in the quality of tooting from the trainer and her whistle. When it’s time to give a score, the judges don’t ask for a raise of hands. They know what they’re looking for, and they’ve got a much better view of the course.
There were more obstacles, and more whistle-blowing, and more useless advice from the audience, until finally it was time to corral the sheep in the pen you see artistically portrayed in the above photograph. It’s the white sheep pen-shaped thing. You’re welcome.
This was the most intense part of the trial. By this point, the dog was down to a minute or two on the clock, and the sheep had really just had it up to their woolly ears with the whole ordeal.
But here’s where it got interesting, and where I learned a lot about leadership, parenthood, patience, and a whole bunch of other stuff I’ve since forgotten. The dog isn’t allowed to nip at the sheep, nor does he hardly ever bark. And perhaps the most interesting part was, the dog did some of his best work just lying down in the grass. If you had glanced over at that moment, you might have thought the dog had given up on ever getting the sheep into the pen.
But a closer look showed that the dog was still fully engaged.