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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... lifestyle#
By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS
BATTLE GROUND, Wash.—Sue Foster knew what she needed to do when her border collie, Taff, was expelled from puppy school for herding the black Labs into a corner.
She rented some sheep.
Then she bought another border collie and rented some grazing land. Then she bought some sheep of her own. And a third border collie. Now, like the old lady who swallowed the fly, Ms. Foster keeps a llama to chase off the coyotes that threaten the lambs that go to market to finance the sheep that entertain her dogs.
More photos and interactive graphics Once upon a time, Americans got dogs for their sheep. Now they get sheep for their dogs. "I never dreamed it would go this far," says Ms. Foster, 56 years old.
Border collies, first bred along the frontier between England and Scotland, are compulsive herders, with instincts so intense they sometimes search for livestock behind the television when sheep appear on screen, says Geri Byrne, owner of the Border Collie Training Center, in Tulelake, Calif. Left unoccupied, they'll dig up the garden, chew up the doggie bed or persecute the cat.
Herding experts—yes, there is such a thing—say it's increasingly common for people who get border collies as pets to wind up renting or buying sheep just to keep their dogs busy. "It's something that's snowballing all the time," says Jack Knox, a Scottish-born shepherd who travels the U.S. giving herding clinics.
Each day, an average of 18 dogs visit Fido's Farm outside Olympia, Wash., their owners paying $15 per dog to practice on the farm's 200-head flock of sheep. Herding revenue at the farm is up 60% over the past five years, says owner Chris Soderstrom, who bought the farm in 2004.
"We get many people sent down here from the dog park in Seattle," says Ms. Soderstrom, 63 years old. "They need to get their dog a job." Newcomers get a 30-minute herding evaluation, to weed out biters and ovinophobes. One crucial test: Does the dog instinctively know it should circle around the sheep, not charge into the center of the flock?
Ms. Soderstrom runs the sheep-rental operation on the honor system. Owners sign in, noting how many dogs they brought. A map on the wall of a shed shows where flocks can be found that day—perhaps grazing in the clover field or the east lambing pasture.
Bob Hickman, a 69-year-old retired Army officer, is a regular at Fido's Farm. Mr. Hickman drove a Volvo station wagon and was living in Tacoma when he got his first border collie. Now he has four border collies, a house in the country and a 23-foot camper trailer he uses to transport his dogs to herding competitions.
"I try to come early to beat the crowd," he said during a recent visit to Fido's.
With that many dogs, his sheep-rental bills were getting so high that he cut a deal with Ms. Soderstrom to swap fence-building, deworming and other work for time with the flock.
Mr. Hickman trains his dogs at a variety of sheep-rental outfits. He doesn't want his dogs getting too accustomed to particular sheep. Sheep that spend too much time being herded become "dog-broke," nice for novices but boring for a more experienced dog and owner who want the challenge of wilder stock.
When faced with the reality that herding is deep in their dogs' DNA, many owners of border collies wind up on a farm, renting -- or buying -- their dogs some sheep. WSJ's Michael M. Phillips reports.
Mr. Hickman likens herding to his old hobby, golf. Both are addictive, he says. And he wouldn't just play the same course over and over. "You get very good at that course, but if you leave that course you might not be able to handle it," he says.
Border collies, usually svelte, black-and-white dogs with pointed muzzles, control sheep with a relentless stare.
Using whistles and voice commands—"come by" for a clockwise run and "away to me" for counterclockwise—Mr. Hickman typically sends Mojo, his best herder, on a long, fast sweep to the far side of the sheep. The dog then turns back and approaches the flock in a crouch, head down and tail low, dropping to her belly if the sheep get too frightened. Gradually, she pushes the sheep back to Mr. Hickman.
A well-trained dog such as Mojo can split a few sheep off from the flock, drive them through gates and corral them into pens. A novice will send them fleeing in all directions, or even grab a mouthful of wool. When the work is done, Mr. Hickman quietly releases Mojo with the traditional command: "That'll do."
At sheepdog trials, handlers compete for cash and glory. The dogs have simpler needs.
"You don't have to treat the dogs with food," says Ms. Foster, 56, an expatriate Briton. "Their reward is the sheep." When Dot, her youngest dog, misbehaves by running straight into the flock, Ms. Foster penalizes her by standing between dog and sheep.
"They're my sheep—not hers," Ms. Foster explains.
Ms. Foster and her friend Karen Combs, whom she met outside of a PetSmart store, now own 48 sheep between them. They pay $500 a year to rent seven acres of grazing land, selling a few lambs to help defray the cost of feed and rent.
Ms. Combs, 64, owns a border collie-Australian shepherd mix and five border collies, one of which, Tex, she says suffered a nervous breakdown at six months of age. He was being drilled on challenging maneuvers and simply shut down, refusing to leave his handler's side. "He lost his confidence," Ms. Combs says. It took months for him to recover his will to herd.
More common are physical injuries, from unseen holes or collisions with sheep. Lisa Piccioni, an Oregon veterinarian certified in animal chiropractic, travels to sheepdog trials and clinics, adjusting canine spines as she goes.
"They're going to blow through the pain and not stop for it," she says.
Border collies appear willing to herd until they drop. In fact, they never appear to grow bored of organizing sheep. If they do, for an extra $5 dogs at Fido's Farm can also herd ducks.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org