‘Cadillacs of sheepherding’ – Border collies superstars on the farm

By KATHY ANTONIOTTI/AKRON BEACON JOURNAL



The closest most urban dwellers get to viewing an actual sheepherding trial is in a 1995 motion picture about a pig named Babe.

“That’ll do, pig,” deadpans the dour Farmer Hoggett, played by Academy Award nominee James Cromwell, after Babe, who narrowly has escaped the slaughterhouse with the help of a spider, usurps the job of a border collie to win the contest.

But at Spicy Lamb Farm near Peninsula, the border collies are the real superstars, said shepherdess Laura DeYoung, who noticed that visitors flocked to the farm to see dogs moving her herds, which include about 80 sheep.

“We couldn’t believe how many people wanted border collies,” DeYoung said after she began holding workshops and herding demonstrations at the farm about a year ago.

As many as 250 people attended the daylong sessions, some with their dogs, to see border collies do what they are born to do. Many of the visitors wanted to know if their dogs could be taught to do the work.

“The dogs [border collies] are born with this instinct and then we breed them for the work,” she said.

She owns several border collies, “considered the Cadillacs of sheepherding” dogs, she said.

Dogs are paired with other dogs that can work well together. A sheepherder is always on the lookout for a pup that can move into the role.

“It’s hard to get a good team of dogs to respect one another,” DeYoung said.

DeYoung, whose border collies move her ewes from one field to the next each day under the watchful eye of a “guardian” llama, said her biggest helpmate is Tip, a border collie that gave birth three weeks ago to five puppies.

“Tip is my No. 1 helper. I couldn’t do it all around here without her,” said DeYoung, a mother of twin 15-year-old boys and a 6-year-old daughter.

“I could put my twin sons out there and they couldn’t do as well as she does,” DeYoung said with a laugh.

Tip controlled the herd right up to her delivery date, took a few days off, and was back on the job soon after giving birth, DeYoung said.

“She needs a break from them [the puppies] once in a while,” she said.

DeYoung, proprietor of the farm she leases from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park as a part of the Countryside Initiative farm lease program, was raised in the United Kingdom after leaving Akron when her father accepted a job transfer. She learned to love the green, open countryside where she saw her first herding trials.

After returning to the United States to complete her education, DeYoung eventually earned a master’s degree in nonprofit business and her doctorate in urban and regional planning at the University of Akron. In 2007, she started operating Spicy Lamb Farm, where she raised Dorset sheep for meat and wool.

DeYoung realized she could help dog owners, particularly those with common herding breeds such as the Australian shepherd, kelpie, cattle dog and the New Zealand huntaway, to learn to herd sheep. The Welsh corgi and Shetland sheepdog are also good herding candidates.

“Most people don’t have the sheep or the land needed to train them,” she said.

Training dogs

There was so much enthusiasm for the demonstrations that DeYoung brought in a seasoned trainer to give lessons and assess individual dogs’ herding instincts.

Marshallville resident Debbie Kindig, who holds training classes at the farm, said she was hooked on competitive trials after seeing her first one 30 years ago in Burbank.

“The first thing I had to do was get a farm” to pursue her newfound interest, she said with a laugh.

Kindig holds group clinics and provides individual instruction by appointment after testing a dog to determine if its herding instinct is strong enough for trial competition. Dogs need to be at least six months old to be assessed.

She charges $50 for an assessment that may take one or two sessions. Individual classes are $40.

“We are really training the owners,” to train their dogs, she said.

DeYoung will rent a flock of sheep and a fenced-in area for people to practice with their animals. Rental sessions are $20 each.

People who are couch potatoes should never buy or adopt a dog such as a job-seeking border collie that would challenge their lifestyle, she said.

“Do your research,” she advises. “You have to commit to exercise them every day. They need training and it must be consistent,” she said.