Lost cattle, sheepish sheep? Get a dog
By Melissa Murray
Herding sheep is like a drug for border collies.
Thatís what Nathalie Labelle, a sheep farmer near Alfred, says about her dogs when allowed to do their job.
"They just want to do it," says Labelle, while holding back her dog Nan, who she bought from a breeder in Wales. "They are like a Mercedes. If you donít know how to drive it, you wonít be able to handle it."
"Quite a few farmers still use dogs for herding sheep, but some are afraid the dogs will hurt and scare the animals," says Labelle, who insists that with monitoring and proper training, the dogs are very capable.
About half her business is sheep farmers. But you can call and hire her dogs to move your cows.
Labelle trains her border collies to control her flock of sheep and she also shows them in competitions in Canada and the United States.
Labelle bought her first border collie 16 years ago and sought out a trainer in Hudson, Quebec who taught her everything she knows about training dogs to bring in sheep and balance a herd. She was hooked.
She passes on her knowledge by training three to four dogs a year for farmers that want their dogs to herd cattle or sheep and she trains for owners that want their dogs to participate in competitions. For four to six weeks, she keeps them on her farm and teaches them the basics. Precision training can take about four years.
Her dogs, she says, are a huge help around the farm, taking the place of extra employees. "During chores, they can do the work of three to four people." If Labelle is feeding the sheep, she takes a dog with her so she can get the feed to them and get back away from them without being surrounded.
"I vaccinated about 240 sheep this week and it was just my dog and I and it only took two hours," she says.
Labelle always chuckles when she sees someone with a handful of grain trying to bring their sheep in.
"Having the dogs do it is so efficient. You just tell them to go get the sheep and then wait," she says. "It becomes their routine."
Stacey Rember, a friend of Labelleís, can remember trying to get a herd of sheep in for the fall and inviting friends and neighbours to help her. Now, through training her dog, she can just watch and wait for the dog to bring the sheep toward the barn.
"Sheep arenít stupid and they respect the dogs," says Rember. "But you are teaching the dogs a stalking and hunting behaviour, so they have to be controlled and have to be really well watched."
Labelle gets quite a few calls from people to manage a herd. Every so often, a neighbour whose cows have slipped away and need to be reined in will call Labelle. She was also hired a few years ago to control cattle on a movie set. "I learned a lot about cows through that process," says Labelle who adds that part of the movie took three weeks to film.
Labelle and her dogs act as a team for any job they do whether it be on their farm or someone elseís.
"I donít know how Iíd do my job without them," she says.