A couple of years ago my husband and I took a trip to visit his brother who was then working in Tokyo. Prior to our visit, I had started a correspondence with a Japanese sheep herding enthusiast who had asked a training question on an internet list. This led to some great adventures in Japan watching a couple of trainers, and even working with one, and finally it culminated with me giving a sheepdog training seminar this spring.
My first experience left me with a feeling of amazement at the dedication of the handlers in Japan and the surprising number of them, especially considering there are only 20,000 sheep in the whole country!
Some time this past winter I was contacted by my hosts, Minori Kigawa and her husband Shin, about journeying to Japan to work with some sheepdog handlers there. After working out the logistics, including finding an interpreter, I was on my way to Japan.
Arriving in Japan with no sleep for about 24 hours, I was met by my hosts and driven across Tokyo (which is a huge city!) to their house where they picked up a second vehicle and their dogs. Off we went to the Asigiri Highlands. After a wonderful sushi dinner where I met my interpreter, Hiroshi Nakagawa and his wife Akiko, we headed off into the night. All I could see was that Mt. Fuji was getting closer.
Along the way I learned that we were going to a campground. Okay, I grew up in a family that loved to go camping, but I just hadn’t thought about it in Japan. We arrived at the ‘lodge’ which had been a dormitory for the Agriculture College before the University sold the land to a private owner. We unpacked and went to bed. The next morning for some reason I awoke quite early and wandered into the communal kitchen to find Minori cooking breakfast. I looked outside and saw IT, Mt. Fuji – WOW! It was close and so beautiful and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – very unusual.
Japan has had about two trials a year for several years now. One of the top handlers ran a dog in a trial in Wales last year. After the seminars, I was to judge an Open trial without a shed, and a beginner’s course which I designed.
The first seminar consisted mainly of very beginner handlers. I was soon to learn that most had very little knowledge of sheepdogs, trials, nor training. Working with an interpreter was an interesting experience, and I found I had to break down things to the tiniest detail for a good interpretation. Talk about a learning experience, and that was just for me. I think I must have been clear enough because I got some good questions and everyone seemed to comprehend.
By day two, Hiroshi and I were working together better and things flowed much easier. This seminar ended up covering more basics than I had thought it would have, but it was information necessary for these participants. Most of the dogs were show Border Collies and some had never seen sheep before. There was one Australian Shepherd and a couple of sport bred Border Collies. The Japanese categorize the Border Collies over there as Show – mostly Australian show lines, Working – with some of GB’s finest working lines, and Sport – a mixture of the two usually used for agility, flyball or disc.
After a two-day break where we did some sightseeing and some private lessons, we started seminar #2. This group of handlers were, for the most, already familiar with much of the basic terminology and background information on trials and were more interested in the training aspects.
For those who haven’t tried herding, it can be a quite complicated venture. First, there is all the jargon, and this varies from place to place so it makes it even more confusing. Then there are the sheep. Sheep are the most important aspect of a trial, for without them (or similar stock) there would be no trials. I tried to impress upon everyone to have a great respect for the sheep, as on my last visit I had seen sheep which had been badly managed by having too many dogs work them too poorly.
Anyway, herding is difficult, and explaining the training can be equally difficult because there are so many variables. First, there is the handler and his abilities, mood and relationship with his dog. Then there is the dog, his innate ability, his trainability and willingness to obey, or biddability. Finally, there are the SHEEP! This is a whole month of information and trying to condense it into two days is almost impossible. Let’s just say, to be good at working sheep with dogs, the handler has got to know as much about sheep behavior as he can!
The second seminar consisted mainly of working bred Border Collies, and there were some very good dogs. Most had major glitches in their training, but were things relatively easy to fix if the handler knew the right procedures. With such a complex subject, I tried to outline a step-by-step procedure for training the dogs, stressing that training was not linear.
The main method I use usually takes up to five days to see real progress; it is primarily positively based; however, you have to respect that sheep are living creatures so some negatives may be necessary. We saw real progress in a couple of dogs in two days. Fortunately we had a wide variety of dogs/problems and it gave everyone opportunity to see various techniques and how to apply them. At last trial day arrived. The weather was chilly and threatening to rain all day, but fortunately the rain held off for the entire day. There were eight competitors in the Open class. The field gave us about a 200m outrun, with about 80m on the drive legs. The handlers had to bring the sheep through a gate into a smaller field for the pen. I held a handler’s meeting, as is usual, and when the first competitor ran I realized my big mistake. The handler didn’t realize that in Border Collie trials you only get ONE attempt at the ‘gates’ and he was retrying and running sheep back and forth in order to make the first set of gates! Okay, give him a rerun and have another handler’s meeting and explain the “only one attempt” rule. Back to the trial. Handling is not up to the usual USBCHA level, but it did bring back memories of early trials I attended in the U.S. many years ago. In spite of the novice status of the handlers, the runs went well and we had three top finalists. My host, Shin, wanted to have the top three compete in a special trial later in the day.
Next we held the beginner’s trial. This was in an arena about 70m x 120m. I had set up an XYZ course consisting of a Y chute, a Z chute and a Maltese cross. I left the openings wide enough to make it easy. I decided to judge this on a points system, with the competitors earning five points/head through each obstacle. What I thought easy, most found difficult. Finally we had a couple competitors get some sheep through each obstacle. Everyone was supportive and had a very enjoyable time laughing as the handlers tried to get the job done.
After the beginners, ran we held the challenge cup. For this course, the top three from the morning’s Open course were to run a silent fetch trial on ten head of sheep. Most of these dogs had rarely worked ten head, and the handlers were skeptical. More daunting was the idea that they could only give ONE command to send their dog without major point penalty. To the great surprise of the competitors (and part of the lesson from me), was that the outruns were MUCH better without the handlers constantly trying to direct the dog and distracting the dogs from their job.
This trial was won by a very quiet handler (even before the silent fetch) whose dog did a wonderful job bringing the sheep quietly to her master’s feet in a nice steady pace, although she did have one rogue sheep and needed an extra command to wait for the recalcitrant sheep, which cost her five points. I think all the handlers and spectators were impressed with how well the dogs did when given the opportunity to use their own natural instincts.
That night we held a farewell dinner with much talk about sheepdogs, bloodlines, breeding and training with some unusual and wonderful picnic food Japanese style. Sadly I had to leave for the airport the next day as my hosts had to start back to work the next day. I am looking forward to next year!