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It's a bountiful life: A heart for herding

January/February 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Sheepdog trainer has a passion for her pups

Haley Hunewill's first herding dog was a Shetland sheepdog, but today she works with border collies, including Zac, far right, and Syd. Photo: © 2018 Charles Phillips

Haley Hunewill of the Eastern Sierra town of Bridgeport has a talent for training herding dogs. From helping her family move livestock between pastures to competing in events called sheepdog trials, Hunewill and her pups work together to get the job done.

How did you get started as a herding dog trainer? My parents raised sheep, cattle and quarter horses on our ranch in Alturas, so I grew up around livestock and working dogs. A good dog is an extremely valuable tool on a working ranch; a bad dog just makes more work and fences to fix! It has been my passion from a young age to learn to work and train border collies.

What is the best part of your job? My favorite part is training a young dog, whether my own or a client's young dog. It's like opening a gift at Christmas, seeing what natural talent the youngster has, then learning about it to figure out the best possible way to train that individual dog. I always have an end destination in mind for the dog, but the road to getting there is different with each dog. I've started and trained over 50 young dogs in the last 18 years, and I've still never found two alike.

What qualities make a herding dog outstanding? There are many great working dogs in the world, but what really sets some dogs apart from others is that they have a lot of heart. They have that extra try when the going gets tough. All the best talent and training goes right out the window if the dog quits trying for you when their limit is reached.

What is the difference between working with a dog on a ranch and competing in sheepdog trials? All of my dogs do real work with sheep and cattle, as well as competing in sheepdog trials, also called trialing. Real work tests dogs more than trialing. Some dogs are not mentally or physically suited to work on a ranch with cattle or large flocks of sheep. I've had a couple dogs that could win trials be chased right out of the field by a protective mother ewe during lambing season.

How far do you and your dogs travel for sheepdog trials? I primarily trial on the West Coast; however, I've trialed in many places around the country. Last fall I traveled to Virginia for the 2017 National Sheepdog Finals, where one of my dogs was reserve national champion in a field of 111 dogs ages 3 and under. The farthest I've ever gone was Ireland in 2005 and Wales in 2008 to represent the U.S. in the World Sheep Dog Trial. It was a wonderful experience and tremendous honor to represent my country.

Haley Hunewill trains herding dogs and competes in sheepdog trials. Photo: © 2018 Charles Phillips

Do you primarily work with one breed of dog? Yes, I only have border collies. I've trained other breeds, but border collies are my favorite. In my opinion, they are the most versatile herding breed; they not only can handle livestock from their own instinct, but they have been bred for generations to be able to be trained to a very high level. Given that I also compete in field trials with my dogs, I need them to be able to achieve that high level of training.

How old are puppies when you start working with them? Each young dog varies, but the average is that they are physically and mentally mature enough to start training on livestock between 9 and 11 months old. As soon as I get a small pup, I teach it rules and good manners. By the time they're ready to start training on stock, they already know how to be well-behaved and responsive to commands.

What is an example of a herding command, and how do you teach it to the dogs? Herding dogs basically have five commands: right ("away"), left ("come bye"), stop ("stand"), forward ("walk up") and call off ("that'll do"). For example, to teach a young dog to stand, I block the dog with my positioning while saying "stand" in a calm, firm voice. When the dog stops for a second, I immediately let it go back to work, thus releasing the pressure. The dogs learn that the quicker they respond, the quicker I allow them to work sheep again, which gives them motivation to obey quickly. Timing is a key factor of training.

Can any breed of dog be trained to be a working herding dog? When I was a small girl, my very first "herding dog" was a Shetland sheepdog. She would work sheep, and I even taught her all of the border collie commands. However, sometimes she would be working sheep with me and see a bird fly overhead. Off she would go, leaving me standing there alone with the sheep. I was a puzzled 8-year-old! That's the difference between other breeds and border collies; a border collie's only desire in life is to work livestock—nothing else distracts them.

If someone is interested in getting a herding dog, what should they know? The one thing I always want people to know about border collies is that they are generally not suited to being pets. Their inborn herding instinct makes them focus on and attracted to movement. They literally will "herd" anything that moves: cars, kids, shadows, other dogs, vacuums, etc. Herding something that they cannot ultimately control makes them extremely neurotic. I used to give a weekly herding demo to people unfamiliar with anything to do with ranching and without fail, every week I would hear a new story that would make me cringe: "My border collie is the sweetest dog, but she always wears her pads off circling the swimming pool while my kids are swimming."

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