A late-Summer ferry ride across Puget Sound takes you to Vashon Island, 20 minutes West of Seattle. Every year, the Vashon Sheepdog Classic draws thousands of spectators from Seattle and beyond, to witness a quintessential example of humans’ ancestral relationship with dogs.
A diverse crowd of people lay on blankets spread along the gentle green hillside of Misty Isle Farms, and watch teams from all over the world compete in one of the country’s friendliest herding trials. Handlers and their dogs (mostly Border Collies and some Australian Kelpies) work together to bring in a flock of five sheep from the opposite end of the course (about 800 yards away) back to the starting point.
Human and dog start side-by-side, and time starts when the light, but strong dogs burst away from their handlers and glide over the soft rolling hills. The dogs, moving at impressive speeds, swing out to one side, pass a small flock of sheep, and turn around to approach them from the back, and “lift” them to move back toward the handler who is waiting at the start. Teams compete one at a time and the dogs follow distant, directive whistles from their handlers and herd the flock through targeted gates back to their humans. But their job isn’t done here! Handler and dog work together to complete a handful of tasks before the team attempts to corral the flock into a small pen. Time stops if the handler is able to close the gate with the flock in the pen, in under 10 minutes. Otherwise, time is up.
Judges keep score along the way of each performance. The teams are ranked based off of the quality of the run and the quickness with which the tasks were completed.
In the end, there is a champion.
Tina Shattuck, the event’s producer, told me that herding is a woman-dominated sport in the U.S. “Why are there so many women in this sport?” she asked, during an early planning meeting. Tina asked me if I would write an article to address this question, and I lit up at the invitation.
After many months of contemplating this question, I remembered a publication I sited in the book I’m currently writing about my experience with women, dogs and feminine power. The title of the publication is Women and Power by Jean Baker Miller, M.D., from the Wellesley College Centers for Women.
I remembered what I read about how women generally express their power and what cultural factors weigh in on the topic. I knew that I could make a connection to working with dogs and herding sheep.
What is it about competitively working herding dogs and livestock together that organically attracts women? What do women love about this sport? Why is it fulfilling to females?
Dr. Jean Baker Miller wrote, “Women can bring a special set of abilities to many situations because they are able to attune themselves to the complex realities that are operating.”
It really is incredible to witness human and dog work as a single unit to communicate with a third species effectively. To call running five large animals using a dog you trained through an open course a “complex reality” is an understatement! Working with a dog as a team, and accomplishing such a remarkable feat together, is a powerful experience. But the power witnessed is a gentle power. The overall sense of natural harmony at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic is part of why it attracts such a large crowd.
Teams works together on perfecting communication so as to move the flock with as much precision and speed as possible. The human sends direction to the dog via designated whistles and verbal direction like “Go By” and “Lie Down.” There are also plenty of times where the dog works independently from the human. There is mutual trust and respect and the exercise is wildly fulfilling for both two and four legged competitors.
The question about women and sheepherding brings up a larger question about the dog industry at-large, especially the realm of training and behavior. That is: “Why is the world of dog training and behavior dominated by women?” (No pun intended). This led me to contemplate intuition.
Dogs are unique individuals, just like people. Working with dogs, communicating with dogs, and navigating a relationship with a dog requires a wide skill set. In my own work with dogs in the capacity of training and behavior, I rely heavily on my intuition to guide me through any given interaction with a dog.
Dogs are not verbal creatures. Sure, the average dog can learn hundreds of words, but words are not their language. Well then, what is their language? Dogs communicate with a complex combination of physical movement, muscle tension, or “posture”, energy, emotion and much more. For a human to effectively communicate with a dog, she must speak the dog’s language.
Here is where a combination of experience and intuition add up to what I would call finesse. Finesse is key in making sure your intention in communication is realized when it lands “over there,” with the animal you are interacting with.
We all, men and women, have our own unique combination of masculine and feminine energies. Our society has historically expected that men are masculine and women are feminine. This, of course, is extremely limiting to everyone, but to generalize: women tend to have more feminine qualities than men. To generalize. If we had to qualify “intuition” as either a masculine or feminine trait; it would definitely fall under “feminine.”
OK – so intuition tends to run stronger in women and women occupy most of the population of the dog industry as a whole. Is this why women have taken over the world of working with dogs in the U.S.?
I can’t help but think of the culture of modern dog training and behavior. With widely spread beliefs around techniques and training tools, the topic of working with dogs is a hotbed of passionate discussion, to put it mildly. Again, the population is weighted heavily with women and I see the overall conversation of working with dogs as a reflection of society as a whole.
Marianne Williamson wrote in A Woman’s Worth: “The world is currently set up according to masculine models of thought and structure, and it has been for thousands of years. Aggression, force, domination, and control have been at the heart of our social agreements…During this time, the feminine principles of nonviolence and surrender and the values of intuition, nurturing, and healing were pushed aside. We forgot the power of a tender touch.”
The story I hear all the time about the dog training industry is that decades ago, the industry was overly harsh, and now the techniques and philosophies have swung way in the other direction – overcompensating for a harsher past. I’ve also heard that this isn’t really true, and that the “all-positive” methods that are popular today, came from heavily marketed techniques derived from marine mammal training, and that the overly harsh past of pet dog obedience training isn’t really true.
I wasn’t there. We are talking about a culture that existed when I was born (1977) so I can only listen to the perspectives of the people who were there. Regardless of the past of dog obedience training; women share a long history of disrespect and harshness with the rise of patriarchy. Perhaps this is why the woman-run dog training industry is so reactive when it comes to topics of correction and boundaries.
Williamson continues, “We have the power to affect the attitudes and behavior of the people around us, at work and at home. We have the power to set a tone of honor, to create an energy around ourselves that says, ‘I respect myself. I respect you. Let’s respect each other.”
Women and men are working hard to create an environment of mutual respect in the human-dog relationship and in the standards we are setting for dog training and behavior techniques. We must remember to keep a balanced perspective and to ultimately remember that every dog is a unique individual. Best results come from trainers who are equipped with all the tools available, and who can mix and match to meet the dog’s individual needs.
As women and men work to create a standard in a largely unregulated industry, we must all keep in mind to respect each other, not just the dogs. I think we all can agree that few of us have the intention of being overly harsh or abusive with animals. We can widely agree that dogs deserve to be respected as the individuals they are. That not one training technique can possibly fit every individual dog, much like how not one style of teaching fits every human child.
Canine science has already established that dogs have different learning styles. I’ve interviewed Dr. Brian Hare on The Dog Show with Julie Forbes. Dr. Hare is the co-founder of Dognition.com, a website that allows you to run your own dog through learning games to discover what learning styles your dog relies on, as an individual.
We are all right. We can learn so much from each other when we realize that fundamentally we all agree. We all agree that anyone who is disrespectful to animals and is motivated purely by their own ego, simply shouldn’t work with animals at all…regardless of whether you believe you should say “No” to your dog, or not.
Working with dogs values intuition, depth of relationship and patience. These are areas that women generally excel in. There is also a lot that can’t be measured about the success of communicating with animals. Perhaps the mystery is part of the draw.
In a massive book titled Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Dr. Christiane Northrup wrote, “Intuition is the direct perception of truth or fact independent of any reasoning process. A very good example of intuition is when you walk into a dark room and somehow you know that someone is in there, even when you can’t see them and haven’t been told they are there.”
Comparatively, Caroline Myss, Ph.D. wrote in Anatomy of the Spirit that intuition “senses the connections among all living energy systems.”
We can see how our intuition helps us work with dogs and sheep. In sheepherding, handlers are keenly attuned to the interactions between their own energy and the energy of their dogs, and also the sheep.
In sheepherding, women and men express their intelligence in the form of intuition, and otherwise, and experience power in a way that is gentle and peaceful. This softer expression of power isn’t recognized much in our society, but I think we are gaining ground, as women’s voices are heard more clearly.
Sheepherding is referred to as a sport. Sports teams generally have captains and coaches who hold leadership positions, but sports teams aren’t obsessed with hierarchy and dominance within the team. Everyone is expected to share the same goal, which is to perform at the best of their ability to reach a specific outcome, together.
There is a lot to think about and a lot to be sensitive to, as we navigate the conversation of establishing what power and leadership mean in our relationships with dogs, and in general.
Why do you think so many women are drawn to the sport of sheepherding? See for yourself at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic this year on September 10-13. Live music, a beer garden, local food, artists, vendors and trainer interviews will be going on all weekend.
Join me there!
Visit vashonsheepdogclassic.com for more information about this very special family-friendly event.
Julie Forbes, Dog Training and Behavior Specialist and Host of The Dog Show with Julie Forbes.