Maggie’s still counting sheep after
dreamy trip to pastoral Ewe-topia

By Ranny Green

Photos courtesy of Shibaguyz Photography

As we headed down the remote gravel driveway on an early July morning, Maggie reflected an anxiousness and an inquisitiveness in the car as she was about to embark on an engaging new adventure.

Maggie and owner-handler Ranny Green are marching to the beat of a new drummer, namely instructor Joe Kapelos, during a getting acquainted with sheep-herding session at Ewe-topia in Roy (Pierce County). "I'm teaching the owner more than I'm teaching the dog in the introductory classes," says Kapelos.

Maggie and owner-handler Ranny Green are marching to the beat of a new drummer, namely instructor Joe Kapelos, during a getting acquainted with sheep-herding session at Ewe-topia in Roy (Pierce County). “I’m teaching the owner more than I’m teaching the dog in the introductory classes,” says Kapelos.

Maggie and owner-handler Ranny Green are marching to the beat of a new drummer, namely instructor Joe Kapelos, during a getting acquainted with sheep-herding session at Ewe-topia in Roy (Pierce County). “I’m teaching the owner more than I’m teaching the dog in the introductory classes,” says Kapelos. [/caption]

The 3-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi’s nose twisted skyward in her crate as she whiffed new odors on what was clearly foreign pastoral turf – Ewe-topia in Roy (Pierce County). By the time our visit was concluded a couple of hours later, she had earned herself a Herding Instinct Certificate, from owner/instructor Joe Kapelos, and added a new word – steady – to her growing vocabulary. Steady implies slow down, power down, back off. Its urgency is reflected in the tone of the handler’s or instructor’s voice.

She was in corgi heaven and savoring every minute of it with these creatures her ancestors corralled in the pastures of Wales centuries ago. After acclimating to the grounds, we stepped into the round training ring (it was designed that way so the sheep would not cluster in a corner of a square ring, making it more difficult for the dogs to continually have to nudge them out), where the 27-pound dynamo assumed this bring-‘em on attitude while I kept urging her to bring ‘em in as Kapelos stood nearby instructing me on how to keep things moving.

“Maggie’s doing great, but she’s looking for more guidance from you,” he said, each time the sheep huddled together along the training-yard fence and refused to move.

Maggie casts a first-time pensive look at these creatures called sheep.

Maggie casts a first-time pensive look at these creatures called sheep.

We continued to repeat the process with three sheep ranging in weight from 60 to 100 pounds that had undoubtedly been through this drill hundreds of times with hundreds of different dogs of dozens of breeds. I’m sure they’re thinking, “Oh, look what he’s bringing to us now. Let’s see what she can do.”

The first session lasted about 15 minutes before Maggie began to tire. The heat and the dog’s energy and attention span aren’t designed for much more than that, said Kapelos. Each dog’s lasting power in the ring is different, depending on its condition, focus and direction from its owner.

About 99 per cent of Ewe-topia customers are weekenders (city folk) like us and there simply to interact with their dogs and have fun. The other 1 per cent are serious herding competitors, who return weekly or more often to refine their skills for local, regional and even national trials.

“The idea is to make it stimulating and challenging for the dogs,” emphasized Kapelos. “In the process it must be upbeat, exercise driven and allow the owner to maintain control of his/her dog.”

Make no mistake about it, Kapelos is training the owner more than the dog, and occasionally he’ll encounter an obstinate type and be forced to play hardball.

Americans’ fast-food, quick-fix mentality psyche doesn’t work here, either. You can’t expect instant results all the time. There are just too many variables affecting progress.

“I can usually read newcomers (both owners and dogs) within five or six minutes,” he smiled “and get a feel for how we’re going to progress. Maggie has a confidence and comfort in the new surroundings which tells me she has been well socialized. That’s a good start. Sometimes I see city dogs that are locked inside a house all day and become nervous and edgy here. It takes a few visits for them to loosen up.”

A dog’s focus, said Kapelos, is often tied to its background and personality. “Some are real pleasers and will use the drive for which they were bred. Some have more drive than civilization. By that, I mean their instinctive drive supersedes their city-dog lifestyle. All have personalities and the instructor – and owner/handler – must learn to bend with that.”

The Pembroke Welsh Corgi seems to be asking: “What do you want me to do now?”

The Pembroke Welsh Corgi seems to be asking: “What do you want me to do now?”

Back to Maggie.

“I don’t look at Maggie as a corgi,” he said. “I see her as a herding breed. All dogs can herd but many factors play into their progress. Age, temperament, socialization, handler’s ability, conformation, amount of time spent practicing and most important, how well they listen to the instructors.”

After a 30-minute break, Maggie went back to the ring – this time only with Kapelos. I remained nearby but out of sight. As he pulled the three sheep out of their holding area, he worked Maggie. Initially, she responded, then suddenly she left the three and began looking for me. Kapelos continued to call her, but she was having nothing to do with it. After several attempts produced no response, he motioned me to join him.

Within a few seconds Team Maggie’s motor was at full throttle again and performing nicely under Kapelos’ seasoned tutelage. “She’s very attached to you,” he smiled, “and looking for your leadership. But give her four or five visits out here and I’ll bet she assumes an independence that won’t matter if you are alongside. At that point, she will be driven to herd.”

This second lesson lasted about 15 minutes and targeted re-enforcing the basics emphasized earlier. “Maggie’s a city dog with a herding instinct,” Kapelos explained. “When owners bring a city dog out here they can’t turn on a switch and expect the dog to instantly begin herding. For some, it takes weeks; for others, it’s minutes.”

After another cooling-down session and rest, Kapelos took us into a nearby field to get a taste of herding in a larger environment and with several more sheep.

Maggie’s first visit to Ewe-topia included an open-field assignment to herd these big creatures together and and bring back any escape artist to the flock.

Maggie’s first visit to Ewe-topia included an open-field assignment to herd these big creatures together and and bring back any escape artist to the flock.

“That tests her conditioning, attention span and overall herding instinct. Would she go after one of them in more challenging open surroundings when it broke away from the group? The sheep will tell you what the dog needs,” said the veteran trainer. “She did nicely.

“This really challenges the owner-handler, too,” Kapelos added. “In fact, after a couple of lessons, some dogs pass the owner before he or she is ready.”

High on Kapelos’ training priorities is positive re-enforcement. “Praise her like you mean it,” he continually urged, as we moved across the dusty field. “Good girl, Maggie,” I found myself repeating, as she worked to keep her furry targets together, occasionally pulling away from the group to round up an escape artist and usher it back into formation.

She’s no different than an athlete or a child. “Praising your dog is just as important as correcting it,” he emphasized. “They thrive on motivation.”

Resilience and the ability to modify expectations and technique are key to his longtime success, says Kapelos. “Herding is a flowing thing. Lesson plans are fine for calculus but they don’t work here. I let the dog tell me what I am going to do.

“Herding is controlled prey drive. Some owners have a problem correcting their dogs. When you are putting control on prey drive you must make corrections. We don’t want to physically hurt the dog. That’s why we use the equipment we do. But the more prey drive your dog has, the more likely it is you will have to make lots of corrections.”

Here’s Team Ewe-topia, with owners Linda Leeman and Joe Kapelos and their working dogs.

Here’s Team Ewe-topia, with owners Linda Leeman and Joe Kapelos and their working dogs.

In a handout Ewe-topia provides, Kapelos says:

“Many months may be spent on what we call ‘walkabouts.’ That is teaching the dog to care about keeping the sheep grouped. You can also teach them their flanking commands at the same time. If you push your dog too soon to back off the sheep or stop too often, it can be turned off of herding. That is why we insist on lots of ‘walkabouts’ until it is truly hooked on herding. Pushing your dog too soon to advanced work can sometimes have the opposite effect.

“Sometimes owners progress quickly with their dogs, earn some trial ribbons and develop a cockiness. As they move forward, Kapelos must provide sheep with a “multitude of variances of difficulty. Many don’t realize that all sheep aren’t alike and just because everything goes so well here, doesn’t mean it will everywhere else. I say this over and over – ‘no dog can work all types of sheep, cattle, goats, ducks or any other type of livestock.’ There are stocks that can be too light, too heavy or that could fight your dog.”

Back to Maggie.

I asked Kapelos if he could take a couple of minutes and complete an American Herding Breed Association Herding Capability Test form on her.

For those of you familiar with this, here’s how she fared:

Style: gathering;
Approach: runs moderately wide;
Eye: loose;
Wearing: shows wearing (the pendulum movement she makes to keep stock together);
Bark: works silently;
Temperament: readily adjusts;
Interest: very keen interest;
Power: sufficient for stock;
Responsiveness: responsive to guidance/control;
Grouping of stock: keeps stock grouped/regroups;
Balancing stock with handler: adjusts position.

Under comments, here’s something we all understand:
“Has a lot of potential.”

As we pulled away from Ewe-topia, Maggie whiffed a blissful scent, poked her nose skyward again, glanced back at her new definition of paradise, and whooped a celebratory howl, saying, “I felt like I had been looking for this place . . . my whole life” (from the TV movie, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

 This sign says it all for virtually every visiting owner and dog.

This sign says it all for virtually every visiting owner and dog.

Check it out!

If you’re wondering what herding is all about and whether your dog is suited for it, you’re in luck. The German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State will conduct American Herding Breed Association tests Saturday, Aug. 9 at Ewe-topia in Roy (Pierce County) from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. The test is open to all breeds and mixed breeds listed in the American Herding Breed Association rules.

The instinct and capability tests are designed for the dog with little or no training and at least 6 months old. There is no age requirement for the instinct test. Herding instinct qualifiers will receive a certificate of completion from the host club. In the capability tests, dogs will make two qualifying runs under two different judges in order to earn an AHBA title. Junior herding dog tests will also be offered for dogs with previous training in a large arena.

Entries close at 6 p.m. Aug. 1 but will remain open until Aug. 9 should the limits not be reached.

For more information, contact Laura Cronin, of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State, Inc., 206-356-6689, or Ewe-topia, 253-843-2929 (www.ewe-topia.com).