Mykey & Me (Part 1)
I have had a lot of people ask me where I got the idea for the Mykel & Me stories. I would love to take credit for them, but it was actually my mother, Glenda Smith, that had the original Mykey & Me chronicles. My Mykel is named after my mother's first fully trained Border Collie, Mykey, and their adventures in learning were just as entertaining. In honor of a great stockwoman and her dog, I am republishing her original articles that she written for Brock McElroy's magazine, Farm & Country. Enjoy
Mykey huddled against my leg and pressed his cheek against my knee. His brown eyes were animated, his body rigid. Being here at Robinson's Arena was a big adventure for my young country boy.
My fellow students and I formed a large circle. Half of the people attending were farm women. One by one, we introduced ourselves and our canine partners. All too soon it was my turn.
"My husband and I have a ranch 45 miles south of Prince George where we background feeder calves. We also raise Border Collies. Mykey..." When I said his name, Mykey straightened his back and wagged his tail. Like his father, he was mostly black with snazzy white socks pulled up to his chunk knees. "Mykey is nine months old and one of our pups."
I wondered if I could, or should, tell about his wonderful pedigree. Too late. As if they had guessed my intentions, my neighbor was quickly asked about his dog. Like most of the dogs at this Stock Dog Obedience Clinic, it was also a Border Collie. In fact, 10 of the 14 dogs at were Border Collies. An Australian Kelpie, a Golden Collie, and two German Shepherds rounded out the class.
Most of the dogs, like Mykey, lived on farms. A well trained stock dog is a very useful companion on a farm, but getting them trained can be frustrating to a novice handler like me. I hoped these weekly night classes over six weeks would help Mykey and me learn how to work together.
A good stock dog should quietly round up and bring livestock to his master who merely has to open and close the correct gates. For years, the kids and I had done the rounding up while my husband handled the gates and yelled orders. I hoped this would change when I bought a pair of Border Collies several years ago (also Mykey's parents).
These two well-bred dogs, Sam and Tess, had a natural instinct to circle the stock and bring them to us. However, we soon browbeat this out of them. We were constantly pushing cattle. Pushing them onto range. Pushing them out of the front yard. Pushing them out of the garden.
Even though Sam and Tess liked doing these chores at high octane speeds, cheered on by my husband and kids, I suspected that there was a better way. So I decided to keep a pup and start over. Wisely, I kept Mykey in a kennel and away from his rowdy family. And away from mine.
After the introductions, the evening started with an hour long obedience class instructed by Pearl Maxfield who used her husband's Kelpie for demonstration. During this first class, we learned how to teach our dogs to Sit, Stay, Lie Down, and Stand. With the exception of the Stand, Mykey knew every command.
So we promenaded around the arena, reviewing what we knew, and practicing what we didn't with our dogs. I was bundled up for the January cold, but it felt good to keep moving.
After the obedience class, those of us who belonged to the Central Interior Stock Dog Association were invited to stay and work our dogs on sheep. This portion of the clinic was taught by Sandi Peterson and her red Border Collie, Buck. The Petersons also provided the four sheep to be used for the class.
As Sandi led the first two sheep into the arena, Buck trailed after them, head low as he tracked their movements. Gracefully, he shadowed their every step.
Ten handlers and their dogs lined up against the wall closest to the heated observation room, eager to learn.
"First," Sandi said. "Your dog must learn to circle the sheep. The dog's command for a clockwise circle is Go-Bye and the command for a counter-clockwise circle is Away. Don't worry about teaching your dogs these commands for awhile, but watch and I'll show you how to do it."
Buck loped in a large circle around the sheep. Our dogs strained at their leashes, eager to help. Buck only had eyes for his sheep though. he instantly responded to Sandi's commands, circling first one way and then the other. If he tried to tighten his circle, she yelled "Get Out", and he would swing out, instantly widening his circle.
After the demonstration, we were invited to have a try.
"Don't worry if your dog won't circle both ways at first," Sandi said. "Let them circle either way, but keep them back off their sheep. Don't let him grip."
The first of us to go was a woman with a red Border Collie who was a daughter of Buck. This dog circled the sheep as if she had been in training for the past six months.
"This is her first time out with sheep," someone to the right of me said.
The dog instantly clapped down to the ground on command. She circled left, and then right like an old pro.
"She's only 9 months old," someone else noted nearby.
I glanced done at Mykey. He was eyeing that gorgeous Golden Collie next to us and she was coyly watching him from the corner of her eye. I tightened my hold on the leash.
The next dog started out with a vengeance. He charged at the sheep and they bolted straight for our corner.
Or tried to.
Leashes tangled. People cursed. Sheep scrambled through frantic dogs.
One ewe spotted an opening in the tangled melee. Ducking her head, she decided to try to bolt through.
That opening was between my legs.
I bobbed into the air, thrashed around, and somehow landed back on my feet with Mykey's leash wrapped several times around my ankle.
As everyone got untangled and resettled again, Mykey cuddled close to my leg. Laying his cheek against my knee, he wrapped his leg around calf and hugged me. I almost expected him to start sucking his thumb. As I didn't think his "Lassie" girlfriend should see him like this, I gently unwrapped his arm from my leg and firmly foot back on the ground.
Meanwhile, the handler and Sandi had regained control of the situation. Sandi gave him a home-made swatter of a tattered old grain bag that was twisted tight on one end and bound with tape to form a handle. The other end was splayed out and frayed. This loose, floppy end was flapped in the dogs face when he came too close to the sheep and encourage him to push out on his circle.
Soon the dog stopped charging and started circling the sheep who kept behind the handler, using him as a shield from the dog. After the dog had circled the stock quietly a few times, it was a good time to quit and the handler called "That'll Do", the command for the dog to leave the stock.
One after another, my classmates pushed themselves off the wall and strode into the center of the arena with their dogs. Although a couple more dogs tried to chase the sheep, their handlers quickly got them under control. One dog barked and bounced the sheep. Another merely frolicked around, unconcerned with herding the stock. But most of the dogs, with heads low and tails down, circled their sheep in the time honored tradition of stock dogs.
As the evening wore on, the cold crept through my snow pants. Mykey laid on my feet, keeping them warm as he watched the sheep being moved around the arena. Occasionally, he rose to his feet when things got exciting. He was eager to have a go. Finally the cold drove me forward and I volunteered for action.
Nervously, I looked down at Mykey as we walked towards the sheep. Would he attack them? Would he circle them? Or would he just trot off and sniff the horse apples?
I glanced back at the observation room. There weren't too many people left to witness the glory or the disgrace.
Slowly, I removed Mykey's leash.
"Down," I said rather gruffly.
He flopped onto the ground and looked up at me with shining eyes.
I backed away from him until I stood next to the sheep. The glared at him as they huddled around me, stamping their feet and bobbing their heads. Okay. God hates a coward.
I chirped at Mykey. His ears popped up, but he didn't move. I shifted back and forth. The sheep were dog-wise and made a point of keeping me between them and Mykey. Whenever I moved, the sheep moved with me. Mykey stood up. I chirped again and he started to circle.
And successfully circled several more times.
"Down," I said. Mykey flopped to the ground again. I could have kissed him. Instead, I walked to him and praised him as I turned him around so he could circle the other direction.
Returning to my position by the sheep, I chirped again.
Mykey rose to his feet, turned 180 degrees, and circled the sheep in the same direction as before.
"As he circles," Sandi said. "Dance sideways around the sheep, but keep your position on his hip. It will push him around. If you want him to change direction, then speed up and get ahead of him. Once you get to his head, he should turn and go in the other direction."
We tried a few more times, but either Mykey preferred travelling in a clockwise direction or I misjudged my position when going the opposite way. Staying on his hip was hard work.
"Times up," someone called.
I didn't have to be told twice. i was blowing like a steam engine.
"Down," I puffed.
Mykey flopped down for a moment, then bounced back up, and circled wide around the sheep. And even wider around me.
I was persistant though. It took a few laps, but he wound down and eventually took his "Down" command. When I clipped his leash on, he yawned and his eyelids drooped. I patted his silky head. It was time to take the young man home and tuck him into bed.
Like most of my classmates and our silent partners, we have our work cut out for us in the weeks to come. As we head for home, I'm already looking forward. Forward to next summer. Forward to the time when I operate the gates and my new sidekick fetches the cattle to me.