So, after NAVC it was time to head north to NC where JP, her farm, and Raven awaited me. Unfortunately for poor JP, I arrived in my most unappealing possible state: Jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, virus-laden and somewhat the worse for wear after several months of combined winter- and injury-induced inactivity and stress- and Holiday-related chocolate consumption. Whilst JP was driving us around, I was actually hallucinating; I'd fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, entering a weird fugue-state in which I was simultaneously listening to the conversation, sleeping, aware I was sleeping, experiencing auditory hallucinations, and aware I was having auditory hallucinations. Such events lacked all sense of time: they might have gone on for a microsecond, or a half hour. Someone in the hallucination state was telling me aaaall about what Diane had to say. I have no idea who Diane is. I know some truly delightful women of that name (or a variation thereof), but I have no idea if it was to one (or all) of them that the hallucination referred. But I digress.
Raven appeared pretty confused to see me at first. It is a measure of JP's dog competence (and her absolute trustworthiness as one in whom to place your animal's well-being) that Raven looked to her for explanation, even while she was re-acquainting herself with my scent and voice. That made me feel good, to know that Raven trusted her so well; JP has had her care for nine months now, and I feel less as though I had abandoned Raven, knowing that she landed in so safe and worthy a spot. Intellectually, I knew it would be so, or I would not have done it in the first place, but it brought me a little extra measure of peace to know that on another level; to see it with my own eyes. It's one thing to know it will be all right. It's another thing entirely to Know it.
What with one thing and another I was entirely useless til the next day. JP and I went out in the early afternoon to see what Raven could do. It was amazing, and overwhelming, to see how far she has come in JP's skilled hands. Out into the pasture went my little black and white dog, much as I have known her all along. And then JP sent her, and all of a sudden it wasn't just my little dog. It was all the dogs that came before her, their genetics gathered and sorted and combined and re-combined into the particular array of what Raven is; bits and pieces of all the stock dogs of her line, her own unique combination of their genetics contained in that one small body, and summoned by the skill of a shepherd.
Damn, I thought. I'm way over my head here. There's no way I'm even one percent as good as the dog is.
Oh, well. I always knew that between us, I would be the weak link.
I practiced at first with another of JPs dogs, a made stock dog who will, she says, work for anyone. An honest dog, and one who forgave my idiocy readily, bless her lovely heart. I practiced with Raven, who was less sure of me and her job, and inclined (most likely out of stress and uncertainty) to dive in for a little ye-hah moments, feeling the pressure of my unfamiliarity to her as a handler, unsure of my leadership. I was dizzy as it was from sleep deprivation and the head cold, but I quickly got dizzier still trying to stay in front of Raven's speed in the round pen.
After a bit - needing to regain my equilibrium both literally and figuratively, I paused for instruction. JP pointed out that my voice was too kind, a concept that gave me a wry grin; I have spent so much of my professional life cultivating that voice, the one that coaxes the terrified dogs and cats from the backs of their cages to creep, trembling, but trusting through their fear that my tone speaks the truth of my intent, to my hand. So I must reach further back, to my days as a racehorse groom, when I had cultivated a voice that with a certain well-pitched "Ahhht!" could convey to a randy colt the laid-back ears and pinched nostrils and bared and snapping teeth he would have gotten had I been his lead mare.
In the open pasture JP showed me what Raven's mother, Twist, is made of. Here is a dog that needs no instruction beyond knowing what the job is that she is asked to do. She is an agile, tough, lovely little dog, so quick to read her stock and adjust accordingly in order to accomplish the task that, before your mind can process the conscious thought of what needs to come next, she is already at least two moves past it. If you have ever seen a good competition reining horse or working cow pony working a steer, weaving back and forth (while the rider sits quiet, staying out of the way of the pony's instinct), heading the steer off almost before the steer has had the thought to bolt, you have an idea of Twist on a sheep. She knows what to do, and she does it, correcting herself and judging her stock so fast that is is like magic, like a dance, like she and the sheep have rehearsed this all before and know what comes next. She's kind to her sheep, and a joy to behold. It's difficult to understand just how good she is while you are watching it, so fast does this dance move; it is only later, when you replay it slowly in your head, that you really start to get it.
In one of the pens JP had several ewes, one with a lamb at side. Ewes with lambs are inclined to fight the dog, rather than giving in to it. Moreover, there was one ewe - the crazy red ewe - who was inclined to cause problems in general. We took Raven in there, JP meaning to show me some of the other dynamics that Raven should be able to handle for me on the farm. It was a useful lesson. The stock split, the ewe with the lamb going one way and the rest, with the crazy red ewe in the lead, going the other. Raven placed herself where I thought she was wrong, off balance to the handler, and looking away from us at the small bunch of ewes headed by the crazy red one. But JP waited, and I watched. The ewe with the lamb faced Raven, stomping her foot, challenging her. Raven spared her an occasional glance, but kept her body facing toward the other ewes, where most of her attention was focused. In inter-dog or dog-people dynamics, this would indicate that she was either submitting to some degree (declining to engage directly, turning her shoulder), or stressed enough that she had to look away. But JP's narrations brought it into another light for me.
"See? She's using her physical presence to hold the ewe with the lamb, and using her eye to hold the crazy red ewe," JP told me. Suddenly the awkward triangle had symmetry and balance, and I thought: Trust the dog. She knows things about what is in the minds of these sheep that I will never be able to see. A moment later, two moments, and JP and Raven were proven right. The mama ewe, given a few moments to think while Raven held her with just enough pressure to keep her from bolting, turned her back, giving way. Raven came to her feet. The mama ewe eased over to the other ewes, bunched up behind the red ewe. Raven came to the balance point, heading the whole group and balanced to the handler. The ewes turned and filed into the stall that was our intended goal. And I felt completely humbled by this little dog, created by JP's good judgement and by a hundred and more years of Raven's forbears, honed by the work that they do and by the judgement of generations of hill shepherds.
The next day we drove to RF's farm for some different work on different sheep. There I worked Raven in a larger pen, and it went better; we started to get a feel for each other. She started listening more to me, getting a sense of my leadership, which steadied a bit with more practice and less spinning in dizzying circles. I corrected a flank and Raven stopped, listened, went the way I asked her to go. I called her off and she came, still eager for her sheep, but waiting to be sent.
I watched others work their dogs in bigger areas, with greater obstacles and more challenges. I watched some work their dogs in the round pen, or in a packed pen jammed with sheep and handler and dog so tight there was little space to move. I could not tell you what things I was learning from that, but I find that my eye now seeks different information when I look at an animal; perhaps my brain is weaving together the subtle and elusive tapestry of information that comprises stock sense. A rudimentary form of it just yet, to be sure, but the beginnings of it.
So it was a productive visit, although in some ways a muddled one, thanks to the head cold. Like Florida, it had been unseasonably cold in NC, so there were two kinds of cold to deal with - although compared to the deep sub-zero we'd endured for weeks in AK, it was quite pleasant for me. But I must say that there was a deal of warmth, as well... I was blessed to meet a number of people who I had known only from the Border Collie Boards, or other Internet contact, and I was charmed and delighted by these Southern women, so lively and warm and kind and mannerly, but also so full of fire and spice and wicked humor. There's something about the combination of hospitable good manners and cut-to-the-chase directness and pragmatism that is deeply engaging. I think I like the South... the food is as good and plentiful as all the stereotypes would lead you to believe, but the people are better than you would be able to imagine from any description.
I highly recommend it.