Herding Lesson #1: tell the truth

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There is an interview with the playwright José Rivera in an old American Theatre magazine where he offers tips on playwriting. One stuck: In order to get to page 46, you cannot lie on page 9. If you do, you have to go back and fix the lie or page 46 is not possible.

I have thought of this as a metaphor for many relationships over the years… 

After my divorce, for a long while, I was the only heartbeat in the house… it gave me time to consider what it means to partner…

After a sabbatical that took me to Pretoria, through the Karoo down to Grahamstown and along the tip of the continent up to Capetown South Africa, back to Indiana, down to South Carolina up through Maine of and then back to the midwest… something finally quieted in me and this is when another heartbeat came into my home.


If you don’t know this about Belgian Tervurens, they are natural herders. They’re known for their intelligence and ability to partner with their owners. I’d only experienced great Pyrenees and a Newfoundland… this was an entirely new breed to me, and in order to understand his world a bit more, I signed us up for herding lessons.

I’ll briefly outline the basics (from my amateur understanding). There is a fenced ring. Inside the ring, there is a herd of sheep, the dog, and a handler (a human with a rope leash loosely held in one hand, and in our case, a child’s mini-plastic rake in the other - used only to point at the dog’s shoulder in order to signal him to keep more distance from the sheep).

The goal is to move the sheep from one point in the ring to another point, without the herd splitting.

Everything in the space has its own energy: the fenced ring, the handler, the dog, and the herd. For example, the herd has a collective comfort zone that is called a “bubble.” And when a sheep stomps his leg, this signals you are at the edge of the herd’s “bubble.” One step closer, and the herd will split. The way to keep them from splitting is to move around that energetic bubble, based on where the heads are pointed. (A sheep will point his head in the direction his body is soon to follow.)

After about 2 minutes in to our first lesson, I realized I had no idea what I was doing - what I was supposed to value, what this was supposed to look like. 
We stepped out of the ring to observe a Samoyed, a Great Dane, and an 8-year old competently work with an Australian Shepherd... 
There are 3 basic commands:
  • “go around” (the dog and handler walk either clockwise or counter-clockwise around the periphery of the ringed fence, always keeping distance between the dog and sheep);
  • “there down” (leading the dog away from the sheep and having him lie down);
  • “there walk” (taking the dog in a direct line to the sheep in order to move them as a herd to a desired place).
We began with "go around." Since he is a periphery dog, this was innately familiar to him and he was quite confident - it was a matter of us balancing (i.e. me keeping the rake at his shoulder) to maintain speed and distance between us and the sheep. 
The first "go around" went well, but on the second, Yoshi completely broke the bubble. Ferreh told me to bop him lightly with the rake. I refused because it was my mistake of miscommunication not his. 
What ensued next was a 10 minute conversation about keeping balance between us, what it means to be fair in a response, and understanding consequence.
We went back into the ring to go again and this time Yoshi was perfect. Ferreh laughed and said, 'You changed because you didn't want to use the rake' - and I said, "yes." I'd completely adjusted my energy because there is no way I will ever bop this dog. 
Wanting this relationship to be something healthy and meaning-full for both of us, I recognized Yoshi and I were writing page 9...Yoshi was fully willing to partner with me, I just needed to show up and tell the truth so we could get to page 46 together. 

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