Sheep are curious creatures. In fact, I am sometimes amazed at how many risks they will take simply out of curiosity about some element of their environment. Take this morning, for example. After a heavy snow this past weekend, I finally decided it was time to “break ground” with the dogs for their morning run. The first time out after a snow is a rough one as we make our way across the quarter mile out and back: the snow is usually deep and often drifted, and the first pass through means using a lot of energy to tramp down a path. Each successive pass is a bit easier, walking on snow just a little less deep each time. Eventually there is a well-worn path—until the next snowfall.
For the dogs, however, the run is even more effective at burning their excess energy. With three border collies in the house, any excess energy can go into destructive behavior. From energetically pulling the toilet paper from the roll (and running through the house with it!) to opening the freezer and helping themselves to a meal, to opening the kitchen cupboards for a “snack,” our dogs know how to get into things most dogs would never consider. If they are tired out from a long walk or a period of energetic play, they are more likely to nap or just hang out—a much better option for when I’m hoping to keep that frozen chicken for dinner later in the week!
So I headed out this morning with all three dogs for our daily morning exercise session, complete with our soft Frisbee and 1/4 mile of fresh, unbroken snow across our fields, over a foot deep. The biggest trick to this walk is that when we begin and end, we must walk through the Pond Pasture where the bred ewes have access to the outdoors. I must move our highly energetic dogs through this area without them disturbing the sheep, otherwise the stress of sheep being chased by three happy-to-be-outside dogs could create a disaster, complete with abortions, broken legs, and a variety of other unwanted results throughout the flock. I’m always on guard and careful to keep the dogs focused on anything but the sheep.
As I moved our dogs into the Pond Pasture this morning, they were totally focused on the Frisbee in my hand. Due to the snowstorm, it had been awhile since they had played Frisbee, so they were eager to begin the familiar game. I, on the other hand, knew that as long as I had their attention on the red toy, they would likely miss the fact that there were sheep in this pasture—sheep that could provide an even more interesting game, if the dogs only thought about it. It was my job to keep their thoughts from wandering there.
As I moved them through the pasture, I noticed sheep pouring out of the barn behind me, interested in the dogs and our game—which, over time, has become a very familiar sight. The more sheep that poured from the barn door, the harder I knew it would be to keep the dogs focused on a Frisbee rather than herding, so we picked up our pace to get through the far gate.
We finally moved from one pasture into the next, and I threw the toy to begin the game that had been so eagerly anticipated by my three best friends. As the dogs ran for the Frisbee, I looked out over the fields towards the Sheep Barn where I could see most of the bred ewes standing outside, watching the four of us and our game, fascinated by this canine play that occurs daily. After seeing this game day after day, you would think that the ewes would have seen it all, that the sparkle of fascination would have tarnished long ago. Yet the majority of the flock stood outside, following our every move with their eyes, unwilling to leave before the game was finished.
The Frisbee took flight over and over again, and the dogs gave chase across the fields. The sheep stood quietly watching, as they do every day, heads following the flight of the Frisbee out and the path of the dog returning it to me. Back and forth their heads went—like spectators at a tennis match—watching every move. Our sheep know from experience that the dogs cross through their field for every game, yet there they stood, willing to take the chance of being chased in order to watch our game progress; ovine spectators to this human/canine interaction.
Our walk took us into the depths of the Timber Pasture, where the sheep could only glimpse the dogs here and there through the trees. But still they stood outside their barn waiting, knowing we would shortly return to an area providing them a better view. As we began our return trip, the dogs were getting tired, but the sheep were as eager as ever to watch our interaction. The final walk through the Pond Pasture held less risk this time, since the dogs were panting, ready to return to the warmth of the house and flop down for a nap, enthusiasm expended along our trek. The sheep, however, seemed disappointed. They watched from their posts until the last dog entered the garage, then—game over—the ewes slowly returned to their barn. Yet, we all know—dogs, sheep, and I—that tomorrow will be much like today: I will walk, the dogs will run, and the sheep will stand watching every move as we make our way to the Timber and back yet again.