For one woman, her life revolves around border collies

CorrespondentDecember 12, 2013 

Robin French, a sheep herding fancier residing in rural Granville County, believes Bill is the best dog she will ever own.

In her many years of training and running border collies in herding trials across the country, she’s never experienced a dog quite like her 6-year-old Border Collie. She uses words such as “talent,” “powerful,” “balanced,” “cool” and “confident” when talking about Bill.

“He’s a very even dog; good at most everything he’s asked to do and on any type of sheep,” she said. “He’s very steady and puts sheep at ease but has the power for any challenge.

“He’s probably the best dog I will ever have. He’s been quite special since the day I got him.”

Sheep dog fever snagged French 20 years ago when she owned a mixed breed, which was part Border Collie.

“When the dog died, I decided I needed another smart dog,” she said.

French found a Border Collie advertised in the classified section of The News & Observer, and her life has never been the same. She went from rental property in Durham to owning a 15-acre farm near Oxford, populated with several border collies and a herd of sheep.

“It’s a pretty common story among people owning border collies,” she said. “You own one dog and the next thing you know you’ve got four and have moved to the country with a herd of sheep, and it’s taken over your life and you’re traveling all over the country to trials.”

French, 50, says border collies dominate her life with the exception of computer work. She has been at Duke University for 27 years, now as a senior research analyst.

Starting with obedience training, French’s dog skills have been honed to the point she is among the top echelon in sheep dog competition. She and Bill racked up eighth place in the national open dog competition in 2010.

“I’d love to win the nationals, but it’s hard to beat the handful of pros there,” she said. “My goal is to remain competitive. When you see my name, you know I’m capable of winning.”

Several organizations, including the American Kennel Club, hold herding dog trials for various ability levels. Robin is a member of the United States Border Collie Handlers Association, founded in 1979 as the sanctioning body for sheep and cattle trials in the U.S. and Canada.

In 1983, the AKC created the 25-breed-herding groups. Some of the more well known breeds include Collies, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, Old English Sheepdogs, Corgis and Shetland Sheepdogs. The AKC says “the vast majority of herding dogs, as household pets, never cross paths with a farm animal.”

French describes a wide split between working and show border collies.

“They don’t even look alike,” she said. “Show dogs have fluffy hair, shorter legs and bigger heads. I’ve had dogs bred for the show ring come to the farm for lessons who wouldn’t even look at sheep.”

In competition, a herding dog finds three to five sheep in a field from 300 to 900 yards away. The handler dispatches the dog in a wide arc to a spot behind the sheep. This is supposed to be done without disturbing the sheep.

Then the dog drives the sheep through a simulated fence opening to the handler located 100 to 200 yards away. Two more fence openings must be maneuvered before the dog separates one or two sheep from the herd and holds them at bay until ordered to return them to the flock. In the final stage, the dog drives the herd into a pen and the handler closes the gate.

French said the team starts with a perfect score of 100, and points are subtracted for errors. The run is accomplished, depending on the course, in 7 to 15 minutes.

“It’s all based on being a good shepherd, moving the sheep in a gentle, methodical workman-like way,” she said.

Trials are held in the fall and spring across much of North Carolina and Virginia. French worries the number of trials may be falling because of aging herdsmen and a decline in flock size. She tends 30 to 50 sheep on her farm.

“Sheep don’t require a lot of effort, in the winter mostly feeding, and keeping them healthy from worms in the summer,” she said.

French has four border collies, including two puppies. She rarely raises a litter, preferring to buy from a litter with top herding ancestors. Most of her dogs are retired by age seven and placed with friends who love border collies; otherwise her farm would be overrun with dogs. Bill is an exception and will not go to a retirement home.

“He’ll stay with me and my other dogs,” she said. “They all stay inside. I like having them around me. They’re my friends.”

So does she ever reach a point when a dog such as Bill needs no more training?

“Training never stops,” French said. “The longer I’m in this, the more I realize just how little I know. I wish I could go back and explain that to the beginner me many years ago.”

Her training philosophy revolves around drawing out the dog’s natural instincts. In a handout she gives novice trainers, she writes: “Remember training a herding dog isn’t so much about teaching him anything. It’s all there in the dog already. You’ve just got to figure out how to ask for it in a way he can understand and listen to him when he’s trying to tell you something. It’s all about teaching you and opening that two-way communication between you and your dog.’

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