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This week, Willie, Brittany, Dorothy, Barbie and my animal behavior expert professor Patricia McConnell demonstrated sheep herding for my zoology class.

Dr. McConnell brought three of her sheep for the demonstration. Brittany is the whiter one, Dorothy is sandwiched in the middle and Barbie is the sheep closest to the camera (Photo by M. English).

Rather than meeting at our usual lecture hall, students were herded (pun intended) to the campus’ stock pavilion to watch the demonstration. UW-Madison, like other research-heavy institutions, has quite the agriculture extension presence (UGA, where I studied as an undergrad, has great ag resources as well).

Historically speaking, herding dogs are the most efficient way to round up small livestock. In the case of Willie, a brilliant 4-year-old Border Collie, his goal is to herd the sheep towards his owner, Dr. McConnell.

McConnell and her canine companion’s intense connection and months of training definitely show. In the video below (by yours truly), you’ll learn how the length of whistle signals — as well as their pitch — affects Willie’s actions and approaches to the sheep. Amazingly, one whistle can symbolize a message as specific as “Willie, herd the pack counterclockwise this time.”

The fact that dogs display natural, predatory tendencies contributes the activity’s success as well. Imagine a non-predator such as a pig, for instance, trying to motion a herd of livestock forward. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s better to take advantage of canine/bovid history — a longstanding predator and prey relationship between wolves (dogs’ closest ancestors) and sheep. Stalking behavior alone is enough to get the sheep moving.

I also learned a great deal about the imaginary line spanning across the shoulders of prey animals called the “flight zone.” Essentially, you’ll make an animal nervous if you approach them by this angle, especially if you’re in a stalking position. To make this alarmlike system work, prey animals such as sheep have eyes positioned looking outward on the sides of the head to allow for a better view of possible predators.

After a bout of herding (and after I turn off my camera), McConnell switches to a lulling, drawn out tone to slow down Willie’s behavior.

“That’ll do, Willie, that’ll do,” she says softly. Willie drops to a laying position with his paws directly in front of him, awaiting the next command. Despite the sheep huddled a few feet away from him, his eyes remain fixed on McConnell. The pair’s bond is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing the connections we can make with animals.

Sorry Cesar Millan, but McConnell and Willie’s skills take the cake — or bone, I guess you can say.


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Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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