Rounding up tips, techniques to train sheepdogs

Self-taught Havre de Grace instructor will share his herding methods at festival

June 11, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Stephen Paxton-Hill opened a pet carrier in the back of his truck on a recent afternoon. Jon Mac, a black-and-white border collie, bounded out, ready to work.

"Away to me," Paxton-Hill said, and the dog leaped over a log and raced around the perimeter of his owner's Havre de Grace field. In no time, about 20 sheep appeared - with Jon Mac crouched behind them.

Today, Jon Mac - along with Tess and Joe, also border collies - will participate in a sheep herding demonstration at the Scottish Festival at the Steppingstone Museum. The festival is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. at the museum.

Paxton-Hill, who over the past 15 years has taught himself how to train dogs to herd sheep, gives demonstrations around the country.

"Stephen gets the audience involved, and he's quite humorous when he gives a demonstration," said Nancy Obernier, a Pennsylvania woman who has brought dogs to Paxton-Hill for training. "He has a great knowledge of the history of border collies, and he captivates his audience with it."

Paxton-Hill, 63, and his wife, Kathryn, both of whom have master's degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art, moved from Baltimore to Havre de Grace in 1982.

They became curators for the state and took on the task of renovating and maintaining a state-owned property, Bright Water House, in lieu of rent. The land includes a 30-acre field, but the Paxton-Hills weren't sure what to do with it.

The answer came to them in 1988, when they attended the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival held each year at the Howard County Fairgrounds. They bought four sheep, and then a ram, and began to raise the animals while continuing at their interior design business.

Herding the sheep became too much work. Stephen Paxton-Hill recalled the sheep herding demonstrations at the festival and decided to get a dog to do the job.

"They didn't have nearly the information you can get now on training the dogs, so Stephen trained them through trial and error," said Kathryn Paxton-Hill, 48. She said he spent hours watching videos and attending clinics.

"I let the dog react to the sheep. I put words to what they are doing," said Stephen Paxton-Hill, who begins working with the dogs when they are 9 months old.

He learned when to rest his dogs. "They will work until they drop if you let them," he said.

They each have different styles and their own methods for herding, he said.

He also gives classes on training border collies. Obernier, of Cotesville, Pa., brought one of her eight collies to Paxton-Hill for training, and was impressed with his approach.

"He didn't use force of any type," said Obernier. "He was gentle with the dogs, and I was so relieved. I was to the point that if I couldn't find someone who wasn't abusive, I wasn't going to train them at all."

Once Paxton-Hill became skilled at working with the dogs, he took them to trials where they qualify to compete in national competitions. This year he qualified three dogs for the National Sheepdog Trials in Klamath Falls, Ore., in late September.

At the trials, dogs are timed gathering four sheep that are 400 yards away. Additionally, the dogs go through obstacles, gates and pens and perform tasks. The dogs win points to qualify them for the nationals.

Paxton-Hill said his dogs have inspired him.

For example, in 2003, he was chopping down a tree in his field and the one next to it fell on him, leaving him pinned for three hours. His injuries included a broken back, broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

He was taken by helicopter to the University of Maryland Medical Center. When he returned home, he didn't feel like doing much more than watching television and sleeping.

"But the dogs needed to work, and I was the one who had to do it," he said. "If it weren't for the dogs, I would still be lying on the couch."

He slowly got back into training.

In his field, he showed what his dogs can do.

Tess and Joe waited their turn while Jon Mac rounded up the sheep. The dog darted off, running in an arc around the field, and methodically drove the animals toward Paxton-Hill.

"Bringing the sheep to me is his primary function," Paxton-Hill said of Jon Mac. "It's what he was raised to do. It's all he wants to do."

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