Dedicated training turns stock dogs into valuable workers
Dog handler: 'We reward them by letting them work'
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Ten sheep were child's play for one border collie. As Bob Hickman stood in the middle of a 12-acre pasture, Mojo responded quickly to a series of whistles and vocal commands.
Not making a sound, the dog guided the sheep exactly where Hickman wanted them, then separated out three individuals, then a single sheep, exactly the one the handler wanted.
"A good border collie is worth three hands," he said. "You got 30 lambs in 6 acres, the dog will get them from here."
Hickman, president of the Washington State Dog Handlers Association, was demonstrating Mojo's skills at Fido's Farm, a sheep farm and dog training facility in the Evergreen Valley, between Olympia and Yelm.
The longtime dog handler said it's impossible for him to be objective.
"The border collie is considered to be the premier herder," he said. "It's bred to herd differently from other breeds."
He said Mojo never barks at the sheep. Instead, the tireless 6-year-old presents the body language of a predator, with an intense stare that never lets up.
"The hardest part is to get them to stop. We reward them by letting them work," he said.
Hickman said a good border collie puppy sells for about $600; a well-trained one, $6,000.
"In Red Bluff, Calif., a few years ago, a rancher paid $23,000 for one. That's the record," he said.
Fido's Farm is owned by Chris Soderstrom, who has owned the farm since 2003, providing sheep and ducks for dogs and their handlers to learn the ways of herding.
"I teach lessons three days a week, and I always have a dog or two I'm training for someone else," she said. "We have 15 to 20 people out here on a weekend. I've got different sizes of fields and different kinds of sheep -- different temperaments, with more or less experience in being herded. We teach any stock dog, any breed, any level of achievement.
Soderstrom sells about 100 lambs a year in the direct market and is part owner in a new USDA-certified kill trailer.
She said she manages the former dairy and horse farm organically, but it's not certified. "It's not humane to raise sheep here without worming them."
Debbi Humble, president of the All-Breed Herding Club of Western Washington, said different breeds of herding dogs have different attributes.
"Australian cattle dogs work well with cattle. They can read when they're about to get kicked and they can get out of the way," she said. "Other breeds aren't so quick.
"Border collies use the eye and stance to move stock," she said. They're more inclined to a ranch setting, moving stock through farm-type obstacles.
"German shepherds, bouviers, briards and Belgian shepherds are tending or trotting dogs, developed to move stock to feed," she said. "They act as a moving fence."
Humble, who works in clinical research for a pharmaceutical company, raises German shepherds and has been working in stock dogs "in a small way" for 10 years.
"Time of training is very individual," she said. "Each breed has its own ways of learning. Also it depends on the handler's experience and what the end goal is. These dogs are always learning. It takes anywhere from six months to a year to begin to be effective."
Fido's Farm: www.fidosfarm.com
Washington State Dog Handlers Association: www.wastockdoghandlers.org
All-Breed Herding Club of Western Washington: http://allbreedherdingclub.homestead.com