Feb. 15, 2016Vol. 46, Issue 4

Lessons in Instincts

Students train stock dogs at University Farm

Senior animal science major Emily Krahn instructs her border collie, Keeper, to go around sheep at the University Farm on February 6. 

It’s the first day of classes with the Chico State Stock Dog Association and one of its newest members is Keeper, an 8-month-old border collie, who can’t seem to take her eyes off the older dogs who are running around herding sheep. She is finally old enough to join the big dogs at the University Farm for the association’s first work day of the semester and is eagerly awaiting her turn in the pen.

These work days are part of the Chico State Stock Dog Association’s biweekly meetings. The student-run club promotes and teaches students the necessary skills to handle livestock and train herding dogs in a safe environment. The club meets at the University Farm, where it has a dedicated three-acre space broken up into beginner and intermediate pens and an open field for working on more advanced techniques.

"We teach students how to properly use their dog,” said Vice President Stephani Yannazzo. “It's also a great way for dogs to get some of their instincts out, especially with border collies and Australian shepherds. Those dogs really need this type of mental stimulation to exercise their mind.”

"This is what they were bred to do; this is (their) purpose in life." —Emily Krahn

Krahn and Keeper are all smiles after a successful first try at herding sheep.

Krahn and Keeper are all smiles after a successful first try at herding sheep.

Keeper’s owner, senior animal science major Emily Krahn, came to class with a few more years of experience than Keeper. Krahn, also the club's secretary, has been a part of the association for about three years and trained her previous border collie, Cali, for two years, taking her from beginner to competition level before Cali passed away. Krahn was expectedly nervous for her and Keeper’s first day in the fields together and would be relying on a combination of her own skills and Keeper's instincts as a full-herding breed to get their lessons started.

"We're not teaching them to herd sheep, we're just putting commands to their instinct,” Krahn said. "You can put your dog in there and they might not be mature enough yet, so as a handler I should know if my dog is ready or not, and if she isn't, then we'll wait another month.”

When it is time for Keeper and Krahn’s turn, other members of the club surround the beginners’ pen to see this exciting moment between the duo.

"This is what they were bred to do,” Krahn said. “This is like her purpose in life—she's going to love it.”

Like with any first day, Keeper finds herself stuck a few times. But she has plenty of support to get to get through the setbacks. Members offer words of encouragement like “nice job, Keeper” and “Wow, that’s awesome,” and other border collies are brought in and outside the fence to help get the sheep moving along and build Keeper’s confidence.

Through a combination of instinct and handling, Krahn is able to get Keeper moving the sheep throughout the pen and follow through all the beginner moves Krahn was hoping to hit. For Krahn, those small moves are huge victories for Keeper’s first time in the pen, and the beginning of a special bond between the two.

"It went better than I could've imagined," Krahn said. “I’m just really proud of her. I had this relationship with my previous dog, who was my whole heart. So to do this now with her is just really special."

The club has introduced Krahn into a world she never thought she’d enter and which has allowed her to build valuable skills and relationships with other students.

"This is an opportunity that I never would've had if I weren't a student at Chico State," Krahn said. "This is so much more than a club; we've built relationships that we'll have for a really long time."

The beginning of Krahn and Keeper’s bond marks a special moment for the whole club. For many, learning to do something together with your dog is an experience that connects them in a unique way many others don’t get to experience.

"Herding is a very trusting experience,” Yannazzo said. “You need to trust your dog that they have the instinct to move the sheep or livestock in the way that you would like. The dog also has to trust that your commands aren't going to get them injured. You learn to bond with them and you learn so much trust."

For more on the Chico State Stock Dog Association, visit http://www.chicostockdog.com/.

Public Affairs Assistant Ernesto Rivera may be reached at paintern2@csuchico.edu

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