Gibson, The Rookie

Written by: Eric Rickstad


Gibson stares down the sheep
Photo by Jenna Woginrich

Gibson’s first time with his own sheep didn’t go as planned. I was herding under the influence, drunk on the excitement of herding my own sheep on my own farm. To walk out into that pasture with my collie and my crook, I felt like my heart was stitched together with wool and tweed: a hill shepherd to be. When you get glossy-eyed at 28 at the idea of a life of a sixty-year-old Scottish Farmer, you know you’re in trouble.

I had selected two of the older dog-broke, Blackface ewes to work with, and had Gibson on a lead. We had been training for weeks, so I planned on doing what I did at Barb and Denise’s farms, this time here in my backyard. I walked up the hillside and Gibson seemed focused but calm. When things seemed okay, I let him circle the ewes. His peaceful stride soon turned into an all-out chase. The sheep were running away from the young dog, who had no interest in hurting them but had a lot of interest in seeing who could win the race down the hill. He was right on their heels.

Gibson was nothing but pure glee, running up and down the hill after one sheep at a time. I however, was not sharing in the euphoria. A sheepdog is supposed to be subtle, move the sheep with his eye, suggestion and what not. They can (and do) use force when needed but not on a small 1/4 acre paddock. Thinking my area wasn’t that much larger than the training pen at Denise’s Farm, I had foolishly thought I could control the situation as I had with a trainer on hand. But this was Bedlam. Gibson was digging his claws into the ground with each joyous lope. One ewe flew past me and like a deer vaulted over the gate into the driveway. The other one slammed on the brakes in front of the fence and then turned around and stomped at Gibson.

I’d seen this before, and so had my orthopedic specialist. A knee of mine has been damaged by a sheep that stomped at a dog right before I shoved my right leg in front of the dog to protect it from a head butt when it was backed into a corner. Not wanting to repeat history, I told Gibson to stop, come here, and lie down (which he did, happy to listen now that one sheep was backed into a fence and the other was trotting around the driveway; his work was clearly done). I shooed away the ewe, and grabbed Gibson’s lead and stuck him in the back of the station wagon. “That’ll do,” I told him as I shut the car door. He barked the canine version of a cuss word.

Seasoned as I was now at the antics of runaway sheep, I went right for the grain bag and decided honey would bring my a fly better than vinegar. So I filled a small wooden box with grain and tried to bribe her back into the fence from which she’d just vaulted. She just looked at me from half an acre away, then trotted off around the back of the fence.


Gibson cried and barked as I got more grain and convinced the other seven sheep to join me for a nosh. This got the loner interested and she came around to about five feet away from me and the free buffet. When she was between the garden fence and the pasture fence, I decided my honey days were over, and jumped her. I pulled her rump and head the way I was taught in Sheep 101 from the Vermont Extension and flipped the horned gal on her butt. With one hand on her horn, the other on a dogsledding x-back harness, I created a halter and slowly walked her back with grain to the pasture gate.

I still hadn’t had any coffee. I was beat.

I came inside and Gibson drank a gulp and sprawled out on the kitchen floor, he was in pure Nirvana. I emailed my trainer and explained I’d taken on too much work too soon. She explained that all Gibson did was exactly what he does at her farm: starts out frantic, but since he wasn’t in a controlled environment like her round pen, he panicked the sheep and they fled. I needed to be in control, not Gibson. I needed to be able to have him work for me. I simply expected too much.

The good news is no one got hurt. Not me, not the sheep, and not Gibson—and while it sounds like chaos, it really was just a few ewes being scattered around for a few frantic moments and then fleeing the scene. Then it was just a hassle to get the world back in order again. But it’s a good lesson, all this. Just because you have a border collie and a few sheep doesn’t make you Aled Owen. You can’t expect to have a great training session when you’re new at this game, the dogs new at this game, and the sheep have only been here one week. But I am glad I gave it a try, that I know what not to do, and that while I was frustrated I’m not detered from training myself to train this dog. His father might have been winning Nursery Trials at 10 months old, but he was trained by a pro. My crook cost just twelve dollars.

It’s only up hill from here, right?

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