Years ago, I climbed a fence at a sheep herding trial to get a bucket of water. As I went to the trough, I turned my back to the sheep in the pen. A ram. The shepherd near by saw my novice error (you never turn your back on a ram). He said a single quiet word to his dog, simply permission to move as the dog, who had been tracking my actions, needed no instruction. The border collie slid under the fence like vapor appearing at my side, facing that ram with a cold stare. When I climbed out, the dog returned to his handler’s side.
Herding dogs know when something is behind you and then, quite literally, have your back. Many times in my decades of helping herding dog teams, having my own herding dogs, and observing herding dogs, I’ve seen that awareness in play.
- Once a young man killed a fly on the wall behind me as I sat at my desk. My Australian Shepherd treated him as a threat from that day forward.
- A gardener, ran through the gate at the farm carrying a rake while I was working a bed facing the street, my back toward that entrance. Only my German Shepherds response to my single command prevented his injury.
It was part of a session this morning. Working with a reactive Australian Shepherd, her devoted person asked me about why her dog, who had done well with another dog coming toward them, lunged after the dog had passed.
I inquired if passed meant behind the plane of her shoulder. The woman confirmed that was exactly when her dog launched.
“For you, the coast was clear; for your Aussie, the level of worry just spiked. She wanted to do her job and protect your blind spot.” I suggested that the handler pivot so the passing dog stays in front of them. Doing that one thing should keep things calmer.