Carolyn Wilki told the five of us to spread out into a circle in her pasture, with our dogs. We were an odd group, a motley mix of dog lovers and our anxious border collies and shepherds arrayed near an aging stone farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania in the blazing summer sun.
The other four people did as instructed, along with their dogs. I didn’t.
Devon and I were in our third month of working with Carolyn, a respected and fiercely opinionated sheepherder and dog behaviorist. She’d suggested that we join this herding class in addition to our weekly lessons. So we had, with trepidation. I’m not generally a joiner; I don’t have a good history with groups. And Devon was not a dog who played well with others, either.
Once we were mostly in formation, Carolyn brought out her antique metal box filled with small figures of dogs, sheep, and fences. I groaned.
Carolyn was fond of her toy farm creatures, which she’d shown me on our first visit, and loved to demonstrate the ballet that constituted sheepherding–human, dog, and sheep all moving in relation to one another. She would haul her box out and carefully place the components in their appropriate positions on a picnic table or on the grass. Then she’d sketch out herding and training moves like an NFL coach diagramming complex patterns for offense. The papers she handed her students when class ended were filled with X’s and O’s, squibbles and arrows. The X’s were dogs, the O’s were people. If the X’s went here, she’d explain, then the O’s would go there. The sheep were usually the squibbles.
Devon and I were rarely where we were supposed to be. He herded sheep the way he herded school buses–forcefully, impulsively, explosively. At least the sheep could run.
This role-playing was not the sort of thing either of us was especially good at. I was allergic to being lectured to, had hated just about every class and teacher I’d ever had, and the favor had been returned. Poor Mr. Hauser actually wept in front of my mother when I had to take his math class for the third time. Neither of us could bear the idea of going another round. Authority issues continued to plague me through my adult life. One reason that being a writer suited me was that most of the time the only jerk I had to put up with was me.
Devon had similar issues with commands and obedience. Training seemed to either upset or excite him, and learning to herd sheep seemed unlikely to be an exception.
You are a ewe,Carolyn told me, pointing to an O on her diagram, and placing one of her tiny white plastic sheep along a toy fence. You will stand over here and wait to be approached by a dog, she said, gesturing to an eighty-year-old woman in a sun hat holding a terrified sheltie on a leash.
Everybody else seemed willing, even enthusiastic, about acting out these herding moves. But I didn’t want to be a ewe. Devon looked up at me curiously; I knew there was no way he was going to do this, either.
In fact, he suddenly charged after the sheltie, chasing him under Carolyn’s truck. I pulled him back, made him lie down, and he settled to watch the proceedings.
As Carolyn passed by, dispensing instructions, I whis-pered–hoping to avoid a scene–that I didn’t want to be a ewe, or to play this game. Carolyn did not suffer fools or rebels gladly. I don’t care what you want,she muttered.Do it. It will be good for you.
I couldn’t. No better at being submissive than this strange dog I now owned, I told Carolyn this wasn’t the right class for me. Devon and I retreated to our room (Carolyn’s Raspberry Ridge Farm is a bed-and-breakfast as well as a training center) to brood. I put Devon in his crate and lay down on the bed. Outside the window, I could hear the dogs and sheep going through their exercises as Carolyn offered suggestions and critiqued the proceedings. Much as I often wished for a more pliant dog, I also wished I were a more compliant human. Life would be smoother.
It’s an article of faith among trainers that the problem with dogs is almost always the people who own them. My dog and I were both impulsive, impatient, distractible, and restless. That was why we’d come.
Carolyn was an impassioned believer in positive rewarding training, a training method that emphasizes reinforcing appropriate and desired behaviors, and generally rejects negative or coercive methods like yelling, swatting, or even more abusive responses.
Positive reinforcement puts pressure on the human, rather than the dog, to suppress anger and impatience, and simply praise or mark good behaviors–with words of praise, food, clickers, whatever works. It asks a lot of people; they have to take a long view of training and curb some of their stronger instincts. For somebody who is by no means an all-positive person, like me, it was difficult–especially with a dog like Devon, who daily challenged one’s patience.
One afternoon he escaped the yard in New Jersey (I have no idea how), and soon afterward I heard the by-now-familiar screaming and tumult in the street and went running out. Devon had intercepted half a dozen Jersey teenagers on skateboards, rounded them up into a tight cluster in the center of the street–skateboards flying in every direction–and held everyone there until I arrived.
Carolyn would not have approved of my response, which was not positive in the least. I screamed at Devon to get away from the kids, apologized profusely, and retreated into the house, Devon in tow. The kids thought it was funny; when they got home, their parents might not.
Recognizing that I needed help with Devon, a far greater challenge than my mellow Labradors, I’d started bringing him to Raspberry Ridge, along with my younger border collie, Homer. Homer didn’t seem destined to be an ace herder, either, but he was much more attentive and controllable than Devon.
Carolyn often said she was surprised that I’d stuck it out with Devon’s lessons; in fact, she told me, she’d doubted I would come back after the first session. Which had been marked by Devon’s chasing her panicked sheep around a fenced pasture. The truth is, I never thought of leaving Raspberry Ridge. Eventually, we became regulars.
From the first time we drove down the long gravel driveway, I was drawn to the place. Carolyn had an old stone farmhouse, a giant barn and other teetering outbuildings, a junkyard, perhaps two hundred ewes and rams, an old donkey, a dozen or so dogs, and more than seventy acres of grass, meadow, and woods.
She lived upstairs in the farmhouse; guests and visitors occupied the B&B rooms downstairs. She kept crates tucked all over the house, in which her herding dogs–border collies and shepherds–slept while waiting to work, exercise, or play.
These working dogs, I’d come to learn, led lives very different from my dogs’. Carolyn let them out several times a day to exercise and eliminate, but generally, they were out of crates only to train or herd sheep. While they were out, Carolyn tossed a cup of kibble into their crates for them to eat when they returned. I asked her once if she left lights on for the dogs when she went out, and she looked at me curiously. Why? They don’t read.
They were happy dogs nonetheless, fit and obedient, sociable with dogs and people. From Carolyn’s example, I was learning to respect the true nature of dogs: they are wonderful, but they’re still animals, and not even the most complex animals. She didn’t see them as four-legged versions of humans, and woe to the student who did.
Still, they were everywhere. If you bumped into a sofa it might growl or thump. Some of her crew were puppies; some were strange rescue dogs.
The chief working dog was Dave, a venerable shorthaired Scottish border collie who efficiently ran the farm, moving sheep in and out of pastures and into training pens for lessons and herding work. This was an impressive fellow. I once saw a near-riot break out during a herding trial when some sheep crashed through a fence by the parking area, which was crammed with dogs, handlers, spectators, cars and trailers, and food stands. Carolyn yelled to me to run inside–Dave’s crate held the place of honor by Carolyn’s desk–and let him out.
When I opened the crate, Dave promptly rushed to the front door, pushed open the screen, and picked his way among the rampaging dogs and sheep and people. He gathered up the sheep and, at Carolyn’s direction, moved them down the drive and into the back pasture, maneuvering them around lawn chairs and tents, barking dogs, and all the paraphernalia of a trial. He held them there until Carolyn arrived to close the pasture gate. Then he trotted right back to the house, nosed open the screen door, and went back into his crate. Dave was the anti-Devon, as grounded as Devon was excitable, as obedient as Devon was unresponsive, as useful as Devon was difficult and unpredictable. I told myself he was less interesting, too.
Carolyn’s hallways were hung with crooks, ropes and halters, flashlights and rain gear. She loved dogs the way great trainers do, respecting their animal natures, understanding their simple and sometimes crass motives, accepting them as they are, rather than trying to recast them into versions of ourselves. The signs of her success with this approach were also abundant: the walls were festooned with trial ribbons and awards.
Yet she spent much of her time working with less heralded dogs and their desperate people. Troubled dogs from all over the country came riding up her driveway. I remember one pair of newlyweds who arrived with a schnauzer that had belonged to the bride. The groom was covered in bandages. It seemed that every time he tried to touch his wife, the dog bit him.
Why, someone asked, didn’t they get rid of the dog? The bride was incredulous. I love my husband, but this dog has been with me for years.
Carolyn prescribed an elaborate new regimen in which all food came from the husband’s hand, and only when the dog was calm and well behaved. Any growling or biting meant the dog didn’t eat. The couple stayed at Raspberry Ridge for a week, and when they drove away, the dog was dozing lovingly in the husband’s lap, marriage saved.
Often, I was appointed dog bait for a weekend: I approached an aggressive dog with a bag of meatballs to see how close I could get before the dog went off. Meatballs and other smelly stuff were a centerpiece of Raspberry Ridge dog training. When an aggressive dog was on hand, all of us armed ourselves with meatballs and began approaching the dog from a distance, tossing meatballs, getting a bit closer each time. The dog would begin by barking, but as meatballs began to rain from the sky, he’d calm down and likely rethink his hostility to people.
Staying at Carolyn’s bed-and-breakfast with Devon and Homer was an adventure. Sometimes, when I took the dogs out, I would hear Carolyn or somebody scream "Run!" and realize an aggressive dog-in-rehab was outside. We’d dive back inside, slamming the door as some ferocious-sounding creature thudded against it. These were exotic experiences for me, but useful for Devon, who became more comfortable on a farm and seemed rattled by fewer things.
The true heart of Carolyn’s farm was her kitchen, where sausages and pungent dog treats lay scattered over the counters, along with collars, magazines and books, trial application forms, checks from her students (Carolyn, not big on details, often left them lying around for months), leashes, and dog toys.
Pots of coffee were always brewing, and dog people could be found sitting around her big wooden table at all hours. Devon and I were always welcome there, and he grew to love going around the table from person to person, collecting pats and treats. Troubled dogs were familiar at that table, and appreciated. If we couldn’t bring our dogs many places, we could always bring them here. If Devon wasn’t always successful, he was always accepted.
So was I. Here, I could be me. I came to cherish more rural pleasures. I began staying at the farm overnight, combining our lessons with taking the sheep out to graze. I helped with lambing in the spring, tossed hay to the flock in the winter. I met and befriended a donkey named Carol.
I also started accompanying Carolyn to the Scottish faires held around the region on weekends. She got paid peanuts for these appearances, but she loved showing people the art of herding, keeping it alive.
We would pile several dogs and half a dozen sheep into her pickup, along with hay and water and some temporary fencing, and drive off to herding demos. Suburbanites loved to see Dave push the sheep around parks and fields; between acts, Carolyn and I, like old-fashioned carnies on the circuit, could lounge in lawn chairs BS-ing about dogs.
While faires were child’s play for Dave, the awed crowds responded as if they were at the Olympics. I understood: there is something profoundly beautiful and moving in seeing dogs do this traditional work. Devon could not herd in these situations–too dangerous–but he very much appreciated coming along, and was much hugged and admired. Even within the safer confines of Raspberry Ridge, his herding progress was uneven, to say the least. We had many frustrating and uncomfortable days, along with our triumphant moments.
Devon still wasn’t reliable enough to herd the sheep, but if I put him on a leash, the sheep would move ahead of us anyway. We could take them out to pasture, then take up positions between the herd and the road.
It was often freezing, or sticky-hot and buggy, but if we went very early in the morning when the pasture was often shrouded in dew and mist, we could sit side by side for hours, Devon as calm as I ever saw him, listening to the sheep crunch away at the grass.
But when it was time to herd back to the barn and I released him, he would bore straight into the middle of the flock, all training forgotten, scattering sheep in every direction.
Homer was more of a herding dog, calmer, able to slip in behind the sheep and move them. He had more protective instincts, too; he could locate a newborn lamb off in the woods, help gather the flock in the midst of a blizzard.
But he also had problems. Homer was small, not especially hardy for a border collie, so he had trouble getting out in front of the sheep to turn the herd. He tended to use his mouth instead, and when he got excited, he’d grip a sheep by the legs–a major transgression. And he was easily intimidated. It was his misfortune to grow up as the Helldog’s little brother. Devon relentlessly terrorized poor Homer, grabbing his toys and food, pinning him to the ground when he came near me. If his canine sibling could push him around, a cranky ram or ewe could intimidate him, too.
I knew neither dog would make a stellar working dog like Dave–they were already too old, too far down the path of pet-hood. And I didn’t know enough to train them well. If I ever got serious about sheepherding, I would have to get a dog from a herding line and learn much more.
But we kept at it. At Raspberry Ridge, we saw an astonishing parade of dogs who bit, chewed, barked, and otherwise challenged the limits of their owners’ love and responsibility. Carolyn took on one problem dog after another, stalking the farm in an Australian slouch hat and cape, pockets stuffed with smelly meat, analyzing behavior both canine and human, offering suggestions and instructions. Dogs paid attention to her. She understood them and their foibles, even as she often got frustrated with their humans.
Carolyn believed that in Devon’s case the world makes no sense to him.Ó I thought she was correct. Devon faced a constant tension between being himself and trying to be what the world wanted him to be. He was always struggling to figure things out, always making choices, usually the wrong ones. I felt that herding sheep might help steady him.
Carolyn kept our lessons brief and focused. We usually took Devon into a pen with a few sheep and tried to induce him to move calmly around them. Usually we failed.
We supplemented that with grounding and obedience exercises–lie down, stay, get back. Eye contact. Name recognition. Over and over. It got boring, frustrating. I wasn’t really prepared for how repetitive the proper training of a dog is, how long it takes, especially with an already-damaged student. I wanted training to be quick and painless.
Instead, it was difficult and challenging. Devon’s sheepherding skills improved only sporadically, and I could hardly call him obedient. But he loved working with me, and he did begin to calm down. I believed, though our progress was slow, that there was hope, that I was learning enough about dogs to train him and, therefore, to keep him.
I knew that my problems were as entrenched as his. I got angry and frustrated and yelled at Devon. Carolyn repeatedly pointed out that he wouldn’t settle down until I did, but that was a tough lesson to translate into word and deed. Dogs like Devon, I’ve come to understand, feed off our attention to them. The more apoplectic I became when he didn’t behave, the more I reinforced his misbehavior. Yet sometimes I found it impossible to remain quiet.
Once, out in the pasture, he tore off after a ewe, grabbed her leg, and tried to pull her down. Even from some distance away, I could see that he’d drawn blood, and I was horrified, enraged. I tore off after him, grabbed him by the collar, and screamed "No!" "Bad!" and the other useless things frustrated humans shout at their dogs. I knew by then that the right thing to do was to ignore the charging and biting, to wait for Devon to be calm around the sheep, then praise him. But I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to summon such self-control at a moment like that.
Devon froze, frightened and cowering, as the ewe ran off. When I saw the look on his face, I stopped yelling and pulled him toward me, as upset with myself as I was with him. I knew this outburst would undermine our work together. I knew he couldn’t help himself. I hated seeing the sheep bleed and limp, but I also hated screaming at him; I hated the rage and frustration I felt. Was this why we were coming out here? So I could bully him into submission?
I rocked Devon in my arms like a baby while he licked my face. "I will try to never do this again," I said. "I will try to be different."
I told Carolyn what had happened, and in her usual blunt way, she told me I had set things back months. "But it happens. You are, unfortunately, a human," she said. People, she pointed out, simply don’t grasp that dogs faced with anger and menace have only two options: fight or flight. When you pummel or intimidate them, they might do one or the other, but they do not learn.
Still, it was there, at Carolyn’s place, that I really got hooked on doing this ancient work with dogs, however haltingly we were learning it. And there I learned to love the rituals and routines of a farm. But it was also at Raspberry Ridge that I entered–or perhaps descended into–the world of dog lovers.
We would sit around her kitchen table for hours–Car-olyn, her friends and students, the ceaseless parade of dog people who came to the farm–gabbing about our dogs, our training, what worked and what didn’t. Almost everybody had a Devon-type dog, an animal they loved dearly but were struggling to live with.
We were outwardly different–rural and urban, men and women, old and young, doctors and farmers. We never talked about politics, work, or the outside world. Few of us brought spouses or kids along. These were dramas that involved just us and our dogs. We shared horror stories and triumphs; we argued incessantly about food and vets, leashes, litters and training. What worked? What had we learned that might be useful to others? How far were we prepared to go?
One morning at breakfast, I surprised myself by suddenly asking: "How many of you come from troubled families?" Every hand went up. We didn’t pursue the topic, yet it was occurring to me–along with the other things I was starting to understand out there–that the emotional geography between people and their dogs was complicated and intriguing.
Faith and commitment kept us all coming back to Car-olyn’s fields–sometimes wiltingly hot, sometimes icy and bitter–to work hour after hour, week after week, with our dogs. Some of them would come running happily when their owners called. (Mine wouldn’t.) Some would skillfully and instinctively herd sheep. (Not mine.)
But none of us were inclined to give up on our dogs. If anything, my love for Devon deepened as we struggled to work together and figure each other out. We attended weekly sessions, weekend sessions, and special weeklong training camps. We took the sheep out again and again.
I never managed to learn long division, but I couldn’t soak up enough dog stuff. From the first, Carolyn had challenged my notion of Devon as a rebellious adolescent, pointing out how stressed, confused, and aroused he was by all my bumbling gesticulation, yelling, and ignorance. I’d come to understand that training him was less about his obedience than about my ability to become a better human, less angry and demanding, more patient and clear.
I saw that there were many successes, but also lots of failures. In some cases, Carolyn could find a simple key to turning a dog around. Many dogs left the farm in a few days, their problems markedly eased.
But sometimes it took years. Sometimes it never happened. People ran out of money, time, or emotional energy.
Dogs disappeared, or were given away, or, in extreme cases, put down. Still, how hard we worked. We were generous, praising others’ dogs, cheering one another on, rooting for dogs and people to make it. Devon and I had joined a tribe.
The training began to take up a good chunk of my life, Devon and Homer and I whizzing back and forth along I-80. It took more than an hour just to reach the farm from our house, and training sessions took the better part of an afternoon or evening.
I had one measurable goal: that Devon win at least one herding ribbon before we were done. I didn’t really care about the trophy, but passing a beginner’s trial was something of a benchmark, a test of what I could learn and teach, of how much I could change. And I wanted Devon to be–and feel like–a winner, just once. Then, in my canine fantasy, we would retire to the normal life of a human and his beloved pet.
Away from Raspberry Ridge, my months with Devon remained tumultuous. He broke through a leaded-glass window when a UPS man came onto the front porch. He took off after dogs, cats, and wildlife. He somehow learned to open the door of our refrigerator, lifting containers of chicken and turkey burgers, neatly consuming the contents, and hiding the packaging strategically around the house, under the sofa or behind a chair.
One morning, out doing errands, I bought a sandwich for Paula at the neighborhood deli. Devon came along for the ride, as usual. After picking up the sandwich and stashing it in the car, I made stops at the hardware store and post office.
Back at the house, I discovered the sandwich was intact–ex-cept for the ham, which had vanished.
Our walks were dramas. For years, my Labs and I had ambled through the neighborhood, Julius and Stanley pausing to greet their many admirers and sniff the occasional bush, while I used our strolls to think about my writing. The dogs required little vigilance.
Devon, however, would wait until I wasn’t paying attention, then pop the leash from my hand and tear into backyards to snatch food from barbecue grills, herd terrified lap dogs, or run down squirrels.
Gradually, our house became a minimum-security canine facility. Child locks appeared on the refrigerator and cupboard doors, Plexiglas panels over the leaded glass, bungee cords across the closets. Peace finally came, to a degree, when I bought some dog crates and put Devon inside one whenever I left the house.
It was hard to stay angry, anyway. He was extraordinarily loving. In the car, he loved to ride with his head on my shoulder, as if navigating. While I worked, he curled up at my feet.
He was always watching and studying me, aware of my every move, insistent on being only inches away. Yet our many moments of attachment and affection were punctuated by recurring outbursts of demonic behavior.
His first year with me provided nearly a lifetime of dog experiences. My Labs, Julius and Stanley, both died, Stanley of heart disease, Jules of cancer. Homer was my attempt to fill that void. But by year’s end, I was starting to wonder whether I could live a peaceful, happy existence with Devon.
My first attempt to win Devon a herding-trial ribbon did not go well. Stirred up even more than usual by the crowd, the other dogs, the competitive tension, he managed to knock over the judge. The panicked sheep busted through the corral gate and ran for their lives.
"Thank you," said the judge–code for "Get lost, you are disqualified."
I was also reprimanded for giving improper commands, like "Get those fucking sheep"–considered unsuitable for family sporting events. We regrouped and decided, despite our mortifying debut, to try again at the next trial, six months later.
It was during one of our innumerable and largely unsuccessful efforts to get Devon to lie down around sheep and stay calm that Carolyn noticed something: Whenever I gave Devon a command by name, he reacted by wincing, panting, cringing, or blinking–all signs of canine stress.
Devon didn’t take to training sessions, even when undertaken with food or with that chirpy voice many trainers recommend and I hate. Some obedience-trained dogs, Carolyn said, associate training with unpleasantness, and Devon looked like one of them. Training made him anxious, as if he expected something bad to happen to him.
What about changing his name?
"Let’s start over," she suggested. "Then you can train him in a more positive way, without any baggage."
It seemed a strange idea. Change my dog’s name? Wouldn’t that just confuse him?
"Not at all," Carolyn said, pointing out that millions of rescue dogs were happily re-homed and renamed every year.
I didn’t really see Devon as an "abused" or rescued dog. I thought the term overused, I told her, often an excuse for people who didn’t train their dogs, preferring to regard them instead as piteous, helpless creatures.
Devon wasn’t piteous, I argued. He was ferociously independent, athletic, bright, and intense. Though he’d had his share of trouble, I didn’t want to think of him (or myself ) as crippled or pathetic.
"Look, he shows every sign of stress when you talk to him," Carolyn replied.
"Most of that is probably what happened to him before you got him. Some of it you and your big mouth and your impatience and anger. It all comes through to him; he’s not a stupid dog. Let’s begin again."
In fact, she was so high on the idea, she suggested it to the owners of a sheltie, shepherd, Bouvier, and border collie who were also at the farm for training that weekend. They all instantly shook their heads; it just struck them as extreme. But Carolyn was nothing if not an outside-the-box thinker, a quality I respected.
Why not change his name? Devon had always sounded a bit Martha Stewarty to me, anyway.
What should I call him instead? I’ve always admired Orson Welles, partly because he seemed another example of sadly unfulfilled potential.
"Okay," I said. "Let’s go for it. How long will it take?"
Not long, Carolyn said, smiling, reaching for her meatball pouch. Devon knew exactly what this pouch was and always focused when her hand neared it. I’d gotten one like it, attached to my belt, usually stuffed with liver treats. Devon was staying much closer to me on walks these days.
Carolyn and I took out our pouches on a breezy, beautiful spring day, and as the wind ruffled the meadow and her sheep grazed peacefully, we took turns standing over this intensely focused and suddenly quite happy dog, taking turns saying Orson, and popping a meatball or a liver treat into his waiting mouth.
We only had to empty her pouch and mine once to make the switch. Within twenty minutes, his name was Orson. He answered to it, made eye contact when I said it, and more significantly, associated it with nothing but good stuff.
If I kept my voice normal and cheerful when I said his name, there was no wincing, flattened ears, or averted eyes. Suddenly, training was about meatballs and liver treats, not about anger, disappointment, stress, or failure.
I can’t claim he became a well-behaved dog in that pasture, but he began to be a different one. He looked at me more readily when I spoke his name, came when I called him, walked more closely by my side. Training began to be something he seemed pleased about and wanted to do, rather than something that made him cower and skulk.
His name became a good thing, something likely to bring reward and praise, not punishment and recrimination. It was an opportunity for me, too, to make good on my promise to do better by him.
So he became a dog called Orson.
In the fall, I entered Orson in a beginner’s herding trial conducted under American Kennel Club auspices at Raspberry Ridge. The judges flew in from all over the country, and entrants and their dogs assembled from everywhere.
The beginner’s protocol was fairly simple. You and your leashed dog entered a small fenced ring–perhaps seventy-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide–with traffic-type cones at either end. Unleashed, the dog had to lie down and then, at your command, go behind the five sheep in the pen and move them to the other end. After you and the dog had steered the sheep the length of the ring and around the cones three times, the dog had to lie down and stay; then you leashed him up and left the pen.
The trick was to get the dog to lie down and stay while you headed for the first cone. The dog had to be still, but the human had to keep moving, since dog and sheep had no idea where to go otherwise and couldn’t get into a natural rhythm.
Beginner’s trials were looser, less formal than other trial levels. Judges, if they were in a good mood, would cut you some slack. Or so I hoped.
Sheep can read dogs quite well, and when they see crazy ones, they move quickly. This was one of the big problems in working with Orson–the minute you walked through a gate, the sheep took one look and started running. That got him excited, and moving too quickly. Then I would start yelling, and things would deteriorate from there.
Still, I’d mailed in applications for both my border collies. Homer, less antsy, had a reasonable shot at fulfilling his herding destiny, at least at this introductory level. Orson was always a question mark, but I thought we’d take another shot. A ribbon–if we earned one–would be emblematic of my love for him, a recognition of the hard work Carolyn and I and Orson had been doing.
Even with a grounded dog, herding sheep is a tough thing to do. With a dog like Orson, it would be a milestone for both of us.
Homer, scheduled for the first trial day, had, true to form, acquitted himself fairly well. We’d gone through our paces quietly. I had trouble getting him to lie down, and he’d missed one of the cones on the third pass, but he was unaggressive and eager to please. I swear he actually seemed proud when he got his green-and-white ribbon that meant he was a qualified, though novice, herding dog.
But I was nervous on the second morning, when Orson’s trial was scheduled. About a hundred people and thirty or forty dogs had gathered around the ring.
Orson normally would have gotten distracted and overexcited being around so many people and dogs, but he was relatively calm. In a funny way, he really did seem reinvented, or perhaps reincarnated, after his name change. He was less tense. My communications with him had changed, too, and were less fraught. Since "Orson"was free of unhappy associations, he paid more attention to me, responded more quickly, and seemed to even enjoy our training sessions and the rain of treats that often accompanied them. It wasn’t so much that he had become a different dog but that the dog Orson really was had begun to emerge. I had more confidence that he would listen; he had more confidence that he could succeed.
But this would be a trickier and much more public test, with no treats allowed. We entered the gate, Orson on a leather lead, my number, 261, affixed to my shoulder with an elastic band. The judge nodded, and took a good look at Orson. "Pretty dog," he said.
"Lie down," I said, quietly, to Orson. He did. Then he stood up. Then he lay down. We went through this two or three times, until I lightly flicked his butt with my fingertips and said, "Hey! Lie down!" The judge smiled. Unlike Homer, Orson didn’t seem at ease in the ring, but at least he wasn’t out of control. So far, reasonably good. Then I told him to stay, went out to the sheep, and, since my voice often aroused him, used a hand command to tell him to come toward me. He took off like a rocket and headed for the sheep. Remembering Carolyn’s injunction to keep moving, I scrambled from one orange cone down to the other, hooves and paws clopping behind me. The sheep whizzed past, followed by Orson-on-the-run.
"Yo," I yelled, and he turned and stopped. "Down." To my surprise, he dropped. Then I ran to the opposite cone, turned, said, "Okay, you’re free," and dashed back toward the first cone, then around again. The sheep were shuttling along, though I thought I saw Orson bearing in on one of them.
"Orson,"I said, holding up my hand. "Stay!" He looked at me, then at the sheep, then at me–and he stayed. I came around, slipped the lead back on him, and headed for the gate.
It was not an elegant performance–the judge was struggling to keep from laughing–but it seemed to me that we had done it: had lain down, stayed, moved the sheep three times, lain down, stayed, left. And nobody, human or animal, had gotten injured. Still, it was hardly textbook herding. I wasn’t sure it qualified as herding at all. I had seen judges fail more-polished dogs for lesser infractions.
This judge said nothing, so I didn’t know until after all the entrants had finished how we’d fared.
When the results were announced, the judge said "261" and handed me another green-and-white ribbon. Orson, too, had passed the beginner’s test. He was a herder, sort of. I gave him a big hug, and he gave me a sloppy slurp. He seemed happy to get away from the trial ring.
Carolyn came running up, gave me a squeeze and critiqued my performance. I’d moved the wrong way and too slowly, she said, but not bad. On to the intermediate trials, she said.
I told her, thankfully, that this was the first thing I’d ever won. It was definitely my first victory together with Orson, who was enjoying pats and praise from the spectators. Yet I, too, was happy to get away.
Afterward, I put Orson on a long leash and we took Carolyn’s sheep out for some grazing. We climbed the rise overlooking the far pasture, and the sheep spread out to eat. From my backpack I took a plastic bowl and some bottled water. I poured him some and drank some myself, then gave him a biscuit while I ate a cookie.
Orson sighed, and stretched out next to me, his head resting on my thigh. He paid no attention to the sheep, who crunched steadily ahead of us. He was soon asleep, and at peace.
I didn’t see as much of Carolyn or Raspberry Ridge after that trial weekend. Carolyn saw herding trials as important yardsticks of training progress, especially for working dogs, but I didn’t like trialing, and I don’t think Orson did, either. He tensed up when he saw gates and fences and crowds of anxious people with dogs by their sides. Name change or not, he knew potential trouble when he saw it.
Besides, trials can sometimes inject an unappealing element into the relationship between human and dog. People like me tend not to simply enjoy the experience; we want to win. When we lose–sure to happen eventually–how can our disappointment and frustration not be apparent, especially to dogs, who read us skillfully?
I liked Carolyn’s ideas about positive-reinforcement training, yet I was growing increasingly resistant to particular philosophies for training dogs. No single idea seemed appropriate for Orson and me. My own frailties kept me from being positive and patient enough, for example. Yet I was curious about the process. I was coming to have my own training approaches and wanted to explore them on my own.
Besides, I’d been bitten by another bug, once I realized how much I loved working on Carolyn’s farm. I owned a tiny cabin in upstate New York and was hearing a great deal about the dairy farmers going under all around. Real estate in Washington County was still remarkably affordable. Why not pursue my ideas up there, on my own farm, with my own sheep, battered truck, fences, barns, and dogs?
I came up with several reasons why I should get my own small farm. Our cabin was too small for Paula to work in, with little space for my daughter or her friends. The property, with just two steeply sloping acres, was too small for sheep, too. And the cabin was geographically so cut off from the nearby town that I hardly knew anyone around me. I hadn’t found lasting community in New Jersey or most of the other places we’d lived, but I still hoped for it. Perhaps up there.
Besides, on our own farm Orson could learn to herd, could have all the space even a demented border collie could want, could be far from school buses and sirens. He would, at last, learn to make sense of the world.