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Exercising Dogs' Herd Mentality

A Southland man offers herding sites where canines with an inborn need to show sheep who's boss can follow their instincts.

June 23, 2005|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The sun is high and the shade thin. The dogs don't seem to care.

Nor do they seem bothered about participating in a bucolic pastime amid noisy traffic from the Long Beach Freeway, with big rigs and electrical towers as their backdrop.

From their suburban backyards in places like Redondo Beach, Torrance and Glendale, 25 shepherds, collies and other breeds have been driven by their doting owners to this industrial stretch of Long Beach to do what is in their DNA: Herd sheep.

"In Southern California," Tustin high school math teacher Jennifer Loff hollered over the thunderous barking chorus that sings out from the dirt pasture, "you take what you can get. There's not a lot of room."

Gathered below the freeway was the classical trumpeter, the retired Cal State Fullerton professor, the ex-banker, the real estate agent and the veterinarian. They plopped down in camp chairs beside an arena where their dogs led blank-faced sheep around an obstacle course for $26 a pooch.

Guiding the herding session was Jerry Stewart.

"Good! Good! Now go across! Keep going! Stop right there. Darlene! What part of stop don't you understand?" Stewart, 55, yelled, stomping his boot.

He was hollering good naturedly at Darlene Foley, 62, as she goofed up, cueing her dog to lead the sheep the wrong way.

Stewart, who at 35 retired his construction business to become a dog trainer and dog show judge, looks more Jerry Garcia than snooty kennel clubber.

Dog owners flock to Stewart and his obstacle course, saying their pets would otherwise be left to herd the family cat and lawn chairs.

The two dozen dog lovers who visit the freeway weekly pay Stewart $26 for two turns herding the sheep. Stewart leases the land and keeps a herd of 30 sheep there. He runs sheepherding sessions in Long Beach as well as in a more pastoral setting in Perris and beside the Riverside Freeway in Anaheim Hills.

Ellen Amado, 50, of Century City, watched through the chain-link fence around the arena as Stewart worked her Australian shepherd Sparkle, a 12-year-old with a silver-speckled coat.

"Usually I come once a week," said Amado, a special education teacher for hearing-impaired students at Bancroft Middle School. "During my vacation time I go twice or three times a week, to Jerry's other locations. It takes me 2 1/2 hours each way to get to Perris."

The day had begun early for Stewart, who pulled away from his Huntington Beach condo and steered his black pickup truck north. His border collie Choice rode shotgun.

They went under a scarred steel Southern Pacific train bridge and past rows of stacked cargo containers.

They bumped down a gravelly path into what seems a freakishly green patch of land flanked on all sides by steel and concrete. At the opposite end of the acreage is a horse stable visited by equestrians trotting their mounts along nearby railroad tracks and the Los Angeles River.

Inside a corrugated pen that provides shade right below the northbound entrance to the freeway are the sheep. The sheep are a naturally shedding breed called Katahdin, which, when they have shed their wool, can look like goats.

Stewart feeds them hay and water. The dirt must be sprayed down with water to help minimize the inevitable dust kicked up by romping dogs and sheep. A small plastic kiddie pool under a shade tree is filled with water from a hose for the dogs to splash in -- reward for the post-herding pets as the sun beats down.

In a straw bonnet, Foley, the retired banker, is among the first to arrive, her white Saturn station wagon parking in a vapor of hazy dust. Out bound her dogs from their cages.

Angel, Taos and Sienna, bearded collies, are eager to do what "they were born to do," Foley said. Angel is particularly eager to herd.

"She had some instincts. I just had to work on mine," Foley said with a smile. "We've been coming here for about 11 years."

Margaret Elliot, drove down from Yorba Linda with Chance. Three years ago, the 9-year-old border collie with a long black coat was competing in agility and obedience events at American Kennel Club events.

"But it was love at first sight, her and the sheep," said Elliot, 70.

Three sheep at a time are released from a pen, and then the dog. The owner uses a hooked staff and body language to help the dog learn to herd. If it goes well, it may take the dog only three minutes to herd the sheep through the course.

"Sometimes," Stewart said, smoothing his bushy white mustache with a wince, "it can take 10 minutes. Yeah. Not going well."

As the day wears on, there is a lull in activity. It is hot. The early birds who arrived at high noon are leaving to beat traffic home, and the after-work crowd has yet to arrive.

Stewart catches a break, and lets out more than a dozen sheep to graze at the base of the power towers. They amble and nibble right to the edge of the freeway onramp, then mosey back to the high-tension lines.

"The utilities actually pay other people to bring in sheep to graze, but these guys get it for free," said Stewart.

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