One morning, as I watched Kiera and Graidy zooming around the backyard together, it struck me how much of Kiera’s play was really herding behavior. Graidy would float around the yard like a piece of newspaper blowing in the wind– fluttering this way and that, skipping and hopping, twisting and twirling. Kiera would conserve her energy as long as Graidy stayed within a certain range. She’d stay in a semi-crouch position with neck stretched out and down, watching. Once he’d move outside Kiera’s invisible boundaries, she’d spring into action and dash after him to round him up. He’d zig and zag trying to shake her loose, but she was unshakeable, flanking him within inches the whole time, persistently herding him back into the rather large area she’d designated as his. Then she’d relax again, and if he charged her, she’d play with him. Until he’d move outside the zone again, at which time there’d be an instant herding replay. This could go on for hours.
Watching Kiera that morning, I wondered if she had what it took to work sheep. I decided to find out. Having gone as a spectator to one of Debbie St. Jaques’ herding trials in Argyle, NY a few years earlier, I knew who to call to get Kiera tested. Debbie not only herded sheep with her own dogs, she also taught students, and judged at trials. In other words, she knew what she was doing. When working with her students, she did so with confidence, patience, and kindness.
That first time, for Kiera’s instinct test, Debbie took her into the paddock to work her alone while I got to sit back and watch. Kiera walked through the gate and waited calmly for Debbie to unclip her leash. Debbie took the crook and started walking. She tapped the crook to the ground in front of Kiera to change her direction to go to the back of the sheep, and Kiera took off like she’d been doing this her whole life. Circling around to stay in counter-balance to Debbie, cutting back to pick up a stray, keeping her eyes on the sheep and and her ears on Debbie for instructions.
My whole body tingled as I watched her. I was glad nobody was watching me because tears had sprung to my eyes. It was the same sensation I’d experience looking at a beautiful painting, or listening to incredible music, or getting to witness anything out of the ordinary that would lift me up and fill me with joy and appreciation for being alive. I was as thrilled for Kiera as I would be for any human who’d found an outlet for a natural talent.
While Kiera was smart and athletic enough to pick up agility with ease, this was different. I could actually see Kiera’s instinctive drive kick in–this was in her blood. It was what she was born and bred to do. How could I not let her continue? That day would mark the beginning of our lessons together.