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L.A.'s Canine Commuters

But can you afford to let your dog go to work?

August 19, 2007|Meghan Daum | Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist for The Times.

What's the cost of dog love? A chew toy from PetSmart goes for about $5. An aromatherapy grooming session at Chateau Marmutt can run $150. An Italian leather rhinestone collar from Fifi and Romeo will set you back $164.

But how much does it cost to let your dog do what it was put on Earth to do? The answer: $175 a month.

Several times a week, many Southern Californians load their dogs into their cars and drive long distances so their pets can spend about 25 minutes chasing sheep at Drummond Ranch in Acton near the Angeles National Forest or at its satellite location in Malibu. In addition to the monthly fee (which covers four sessions), and with gas prices above $3 a gallon, these people can measure their devotion with an odometer.

Though the cost-benefit ratio of this exchange may strike even the most doting owners as questionable, one visit to Drummond will make you think you're getting the deal of the century, at least if you have a herding dog. In this city, sometimes a dog's only vocation involves signaling the tastes and sensibilities of its owner. But in the presence of sheep, canines with herding instincts will put aside the nonsense and neuroses of their lives as pets and become, if only for a short while, working dogs. And for dogs with behavioral problems, histories of abuse or pent-up energy, nothing satisfies quite like finding honest work.

"It was pretty clear she needed a job," says Jennifer Absey, whose formerly aggressive German shepherd, Kayleigh, has been mellowed by herding. "People say, 'What are you, a ballet mom?' It's like you're dragging your dog all over the place. But it's so worth it. One day we turned left instead of right on PCH to get here, and she bolted up in the car like, 'What are you doing?'"

"He was on Prozac," says Debbie Chase of James Dean, her golden retriever/German shepherd/chow mix. "He was so shy and grumpy. He didn't want to interact with humans or other dogs. But the first time he got in there with the sheep he did all the herding techniques right out of the gate. And he became a different dog."

Overseeing the operation is Janna Duncan, who is in her early 40s and trained as a classical pianist and worked as a legal secretary before discovering herding in 1993. In Acton, her 60 sheep are regularly tailgated by dogs of all varieties. Thanks to the efforts of some Westsiders, she now loads her sheep into a trailer twice a week and drives to Malibu's Rancho Sol del Pacifico, where her human clientele includes film executives (such as, ironically, "Dog Whisperer" producer Kay Sumner), authors and a surf shop owner.

As for her dog clientele, Duncan says you never know how well a dog will herd based on its breed. She's seen Dalmatians and Great Danes herd. Even a Pomeranian. To test their instincts, she puts the dog in the arena with three sheep. Some dogs will ignore the sheep, others will show fear.

"People get really nervous that their dog's not going to pass," she says.

But to watch it all click into place is to witness a moment of joy that is both surreal and natural. When the instinct kicks in, Duncan says, "it's like the dog says, 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to do. I get it!'"

Dogs that are uncontrollable outside the arena will become as focused as racehorses. So concentrated is the expenditure of energy that dogs are limited to two runs of 10 to 15 minutes each per session. The sheep, too, must be switched out so they don't get exhausted. Meanwhile, it's typical for owners to cry--and not just because their cars might acquire the scent of livestock.

"That moment when the dog gets it is indescribable," says Absey, who, like most of the owners, appears not to blink at the price tag. "We have our share of industry people here, but no one's famous or trying to show off their wealth. Besides, if you're really rich, I guess you just get your own sheep."

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