These Dogs Count Sheep!

From Popular Mechanics, September 1947

These Dogs Count Sheep!

Dewey Jontz’ piercing whistle drops Tess instantly no matter what she’s doing. He uses spoken commands, too, in ordering his canine “hired hand” to help with the chores.

During field test the dog must drive a flock of sheep through three “hurdles.” Above, Tess guides them quietly through the narrow opening. Here Jontz signals her around to the left to pick them up after a successful “drive”

Tess is one of Dewey Jontz’ Border Collies, a breed with a mission in life. These dogs from the hills of southern Scotland are hard-working farm hands that tend sheep, cattle and poultry.

With a spoken command or a flick of his hand Jontz can send Tess in a great circle, sweeping up a scattered flock of sheep. She’ll hold them together or guide them straight through the gate to Jontz. She’ll separate one sheep from the rest of the flock and bring it to him.

At the end of a day of hard work there’s still the evening chores, and she’ll start by driving poultry into the hen house. And regardless of where she is, Jontz’ whistle will drop her motionless to the ground.

Sheep men regard Border Collies as the finest working dogs in the world and their ability to handle livestock makes them as valuable as good hired men.

Jontz pays about $500 to import a prize dog such as Jess, breeds it on his farm near Altoona, Iowa, and sells the pups. After nine years of breeding he has developed a substantial business, as the pups bring about $50 apiece at weaning time and there are an average of six to a litter, with three litters every two years.

But Jontz has difficulty in buying excellent dogs as the Scottish hill shepherds would rather part with their flocks than sell their favorite Border Collies. A shepherd once turned down an offer of $1600 for a single pup. And 39-year-old Jontz declares that “$1000 wouldn’t even buy the hairs on Tess’ tail.”

For centuries the Scottish shepherds have been breeding dogs for only one quality–“workability.” The result is a highly specialized dog that instinctively loves commands and is eager to obey.

Most of the dogs you see streaking in great circles around livestock on the nation’s farms aren’t Border Collies. The breed is comparatively new to this country–the first dogs made their appearance here with shipments of livestock imported from Scotland about 1900. But it’s impossible to supply the demand for good Border Collie pups today and likely you’ll see a lot of the dogs within 10 years.

The first field trials to test workability were held in this country in the 1920s, although similar trials have been conducted in Scotland for almost a century.

Jontz’ dogs–the ones he retains for breeding and trains himself–have won several national field trials including those at Ohio and Rhode Island. His dog Wull won first place in the Virgina trials of 1944 and in 1946 Jontz took second place despite the fact that he was on crutches as a result of an auto accident and have very little opportunity to work with the dogs before the trials.

The feats that the dogs must perform to win a field trial are remarkable, although they are not designed as a set of tricks but as a test of the dog’s ability to handle livestock in routine farm work. Jontz runs his dogs through the “qualification course” in his frequent demonstrations before farm groups, fairs and livestock shows.

During such a demonstration Jontz remains in one spot while the dog handles the sheep alone. Upon a signal, five sheep are released 200 yards in front of the man. Jontz then sends his dog in the “outrun” and the dog streaks off in a great semicircle that will bring him up behind the sheep for the “lift.” As the dog approaches the flock, Jontz starts using whistle signals and spoken commands. One sharp whistle means “stop” and the dog immediately drops to the ground. “Come by” means to circle to the right, and “Come away” means to move to the left.

As Jontz says, “Even at 200 yards you can guide the dog as though he had a steering wheel.”

In fetching the sheep, the dog first moves in narrowing semicircles to bunch them. He then drives them straight toward Jontz. One hundred yards in front of the man are two 12-foot sections of fence with a narrow space between them representing a gate. The dog must drive all five sheep straight through the gate as part of his “gather.”

After negotiating the gate he drives them to Jontz’ feet, then guides them 100 yards to the left through another “gate,” 100 yards to the right through still another, and then back to Jontz.

After returning the sheep the dog must keep them within a ring 20 yards in diameter while he “sheds” one or two from the remainder of the flock. This is one of the most difficult tests. Jontz watches carefully until a slight opening appears between one of the sheep and the others. Upon this sudden command the dog dashes through the opening and the sheep is frightened away from the rest of the flock. The dog then “wears” this sheep–drives it back and forth until the judges are satisfied he has it under control.

Final requirement is the penning test. The dog reassembles all the sheep and must drive them into a pen only eight feet square, holding them there until Jontz locks the gate.

To pass the trial the dog must complete the entire course including fetching, driving and penning in 15 minutes.

This is only the qualification c
ourse and the championship course, used in Scotland, is much more difficult, involving an outrun of 800 yards to gather in two separate groups of 10 sheep which neither the dog nor his master can see at the beginning of the trial. The dog also must shed only marked sheep from the rest of the flock.

Such a test requires remarkable canine intelligence and Border Collies have been the only breed able to pass even the qualification course for a number of years. The dogs learn quickly–one of Jontz’ dogs won a trial when it was only 7 1/2 months old.

Jontz likes to tell a story about Shep as an example of the reasoning power of Border Collies. One day Jontz was walking across a farm when Shep grabbed a woodchuck by the scruff of the neck. Jontz waited to see what the dog would do with his prey. Shep trotted to a nearby stream with the animal and attempted to drown it by dunking his head under water. But every time the animal went under, so did Shep’s nose. Finally Shep trotted back to the bank, placed the animal on the ground between his paws, and surveyed first the water, then his prey. Suddenly he jumped to his feet and grabbed the animal by the tail. This time he dunked the woodchuck without even getting his nose wet.

Although Jontz directs the dogs by command during field trials and demonstrations, the dogs easily can be trained to do farm chores without help. For example, they can drive hundreds of sheep to particular pasture in the morning, fetch them at night, handle the cattle and drive poultry into a hen house. In one remarkable demonstration Jontz’ dog, Risp, stalks chickens quietly driving them through an opening a foot square.

Border Collies have an instinct to herd livestock and often untrained pups, released in front of a scattered flock, will start to round them up.

Not only can they handle livestock but they protect them as well. Jontz recently received a litter from the owner of one of the pups he sold without training. Topsy had learned to stay a half day in the pasture with the sheep. One day she came streaking toward the house, barking at the farmer’s son. The boy ran to the barn, grabbed his rifle, mounted a horse and followed Topsy. He arrived at the pasture just as a wolf was moving in on the flock. The boy’s shot missed but the wolf never showed up again.

Another dog, Ring, which Jontz sold to a farmer, was installed in a stable beside the owner’s prize horse. One night the farmer was awakened by Ring barking beneath his window. When he went to the stable he found the horse extremely sick. Only a quick visit by the veterinary saved the animal.

Although Border Collies are essentially working dogs, they make fine pets and are especially gentle with children. Wull, one of Jontz’ former pups, is the “best outfielder the neighborhood baseball team ever had.” Another owner reported that his dog watched the youngsters play football for several hours and then joined the game. To this day, he says, the dog will pick up the football by the laces, run with it a little way, place it on the ground, back off, and then kick it with his paw!

Ross, a Border Collie that Jontz imported from Scotland and then sold, was given a role in the movie “Bob, Son of Battle.” His dramatic ability was quickly recognized and he’s had parts in several movies since.

Jontz prefers to sell untrained pups, as Border Collies are easy to teach and will do better work when trained by their lifetime master from the start. However, he has trained his own dogs and often gives training advice to farmers who buy his pups.

Fifteen minutes a day usually is sufficient time to train the dog, especially in the first stages. Jontz puts a collar on the pup, calls him by name from the start and feeds the dog himself in order to gain his confidence. With a leash on the collar he teaches the pup to lead and heel, merely by giving the command and controlling the pup with the leash. By the same method the pup is taught to stop.

When the pup is six or eight months old, Jontz exposes him to a small flock of quiet sheep. With broad arm motions, the trainer indicates that he wants the pup to circle the sheep. After practice, the dog will learn to circle the flock on either side.

In all phases of training the “stop” command is most important. With it the trainer can immediately stop a dog when he makes a mistake. The average Border Collie can be a well-trained dog in one year and a completely finished worker in two.

With the shortage of farm help in this country, Jontz feels that dogs can do a man’s share of the work on the nation’s 3,000,000 livestock farms.

“After all, show me a man who can roundup and bring in 100 sheep from a large pasture in 15 minutes.” With a flick of his hand Jontz sends three dogs after his sheep and a moment later the flock is motionless in the middle of a canine triangle. “Best hired hands a farmer ever had.”

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.