Life on the Farm with Gibson, Shepherd in Training

“Are you sure they didn’t send you a Holstein by accident?” joked a fellow workshop attendee who was pointing at Gibson—my then 4-month-old border collie pup. Gibson wasn’t interested in much besides roving in the grass. Just twenty yards behind him very serious dogs were circling sheep in a small pen. Gibson didn’t even turn around to smell the lanolin. He was all about the grass, his head buried in it. And, standing there against all that green grass, so abnormally large for his breed and all black and white… Gibson did look kind of like a cow.

This was at a Herding 101 workshop in June of 2010.

I had recently closed on my small farm in upstate New York earlier that April. It was a dream come true. I bought 6-and-a-half acres with a little house, a barn, and some pasture. I moved in with my three backyard sheep to start my own wool-and-lamb business. But I had a plan that by the end of the year I would be hosting a breeding flock of Scottish Hill Sheep, so needed to obtain and train a working dog to help me manage the stock. If was going to become a shepherd, an occupation that hadn’t seen much hype since the Bronze Age, I needed all the help I could get. What I really needed was a working sheep dog. I had been looking for the right puppy for quite some time. I wanted a rough-coated male border collie from strong herding lines. Enter Gibson: flown across the nation from Idaho’s Red Top Kennels. I picked him up on a rainy may night from the Albany airport and he slept in my lap the entire ride home. I didn’t mind sharing the front seat. That little eight-week-old fluff ball was more than a pet with jetlag: he was a business partner.

Gibson the pup
photo by Tim Bronson

Gibson, like me, is a fourth generation American. His great-grandparents all barked with a Scottish or Welsh accent. They were dogs trained and trialed by some of Britain’s greatest handlers. His father was the 2010 National Sheepherding Champion here in the states. This was a puppy with promise. He had the blood, but I would have to be the one to make sure he got the education to use it. That’s what brought me (us) to the Herding 101 Workshop.

Us workshoppers signed up to spend a day at this farm and work our green dogs under the eyes of an experienced trainer. The sheep were used to working with young dogs and the crowd of amateur sheepdog-trial enthusiasts was friendly and welcoming. I was watching the herding exercises and jotting down phrases and comments people around me were saying. Gibson, on the other hand, was busy ripping out dirt clods and shaking them until they were good and dead. His giant size (already 45 gangly pounds) and herbivorous tendencies didn’t bode well for us as a future trial threat, but they did bring smiles to the other handlers. They, and their dogs, were older and more experienced at this game. Gibson and I, however, were both beginners. Two new shepherds just starting out. We were so green that we didn’t even come to the workshop to train, just to watch. And the more I watched, the more intimidated I was at the idea of training my own working farm dog.

All around me pairs of owners and dogs meant business. The handlers stood in the sunlight, leaning on their crooks and talking about proper maneuvers, hay prices, and the health of the sheep. Their border collies’ eyes were locked on the goings-on inside the pen. They were brilliant. Gibson barked at a robin that had the audacity to fly above us and then threw up a pile of masticated grass and dirt.

We’ve got a long way to go, but we are certainly on our way. Getting Gibson changed the entire course of my life, and here on I’ll be sharing the story of my and Gibson’s education. Keep checking back and you can follow the adventures of two shepherds-in-training, learning an ancient sport and putting it to use on a small farm. From workshops and lessons, to chasing my own sheep out of their pens and into the driveway… I’ll share the how one new handler will take her pup from fluff-ball to sheepdog trials. I’ll leave the grass-seed bills out of it, though.

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