The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 11, 2002

Features

Carlisle Comments Spencer Brook Reservation's herding dogs have personality

The Mosquito asked Tim and Nancy Fohl to tell us what it was like to have a herd of sheep just next door, munching on the weeds growing on conservation land.

This summer's flock of sheep has just left the Spencer Brook Reservation land next door to us on South and West Streets. While they are picturesque, and we are certainly grateful that they cleared out the poison ivy on both sides of the stone wall that separates our land from the reservation, the sheep are rather dull. All they do is eat. It is actually the dogs that accompany them who are much more interesting. There are three of them, and they take their roles very seriously.

It was Gordo the guard dog who protected the sheep in 2001. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
The large white one is the guard dog who stays with the sheep inside the electric fence at all times. He is quick to bark at every passing bicyclist and jogger and keeps a wary eye out for possible marauders. The shepherd last summer told us about a former guard dog who was a bit more committed and determined to chase intruders far away. That dog spotted a coyote about a quarter of a mile away. Despite the fact that he had a tire chained to his neck to keep him with the flock he leaped the fence and chased the coyote through the woods until he and the tire got hung up on an obstruction. I imagine word went out in coyote circles not to mess with that bunch!

The other two dogs are Border collies who herd the sheep when they are being moved from one field to another or rounded up to get into the truck that takes them to another location. The shepherds use whistles and voice commands, rather than hand commands, because they want the dogs to be watching the movement of the sheep, not looking back at them. The dogs are extremely obedient and very focused. Most dogs, when they come down our driveway for a visit, trot around sniffing and exploring everything before they decide if they want to take a swim in the pond. These Border collies, once they have been allowed to jump into the pond on a hot day, head straight for it without ado. On one occasion, the pond was already occupied by a pair of geese with three goslings. The geese were preparing to assert their territorial rights when the shepherd called a dog back. Even though it was clear he was longing to herd the geese, he obeyed, which is probably a good thing since the geese are pretty fierce, especially when they have goslings.

The only time we saw one of the dogs disobey was last summer, and he was very subtle about it. The shepherds were putting the sheep into the big truck to take them to Towle Field, and the dogs had been herding them towards the narrow fenced area leading to the ramp up into the truck. When they were where he wanted them, the shepherd called his "halt" command, "That'll do, dogs, that'll do," and they both obediently lay down. One of them, however, really wanted to keep herding. Staying flat on the ground, and keeping an eye on the shepherd who was busy guiding the sheep up the ramp, he inched his way very gradually forward with his paws. He kept going until the sheep started to move a little, but not enough to catch the shepherd's attention. It was a masterful display of pushing things almost, but not quite, to the limit.


2002 The Carlisle Mosquito