Image via Wikipedia
“They’re like Cheerios in Milk!” Hubby exclaimed as he watched the shepherd try to seperate, or “shed,” five sheep from a clump of sixteen. The animals drew together like woolly magnates, and it was painful to watch the shepherd draw a few out at a time, coax them away from the group and toward the pen. Many times, after precious minutes had been spent carefully and painstakingly separating the sheep, they simply bounded back to the group again and mixed in with the crowd.
I’ve heard a lot about sheep over the years, and if you’re a Christian the chances are good that you have, too. They’re stubborn. They’re stupid. They are helpless on their own. They are animals in need of a shepherd to guide them, because left to their own devices a sheep will follow whatever is in front of them blindly, like…well…like sheep.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to study sheep behaviour a little more closely, and it gave me food for thought. The Soldier Hollow Classic is the international sheep herding competition, the world cup finals for sheep dogs, if you will. We spent the day with good friends, watching the sheep…and the shepherds and dogs…in action.
It’s a very tricky business to get sheep to do what you want. They seem to have two modes: Eat, and Flee. They move together in a clump, each following the one in front of them, until they feel like they are a safe distance from harm (in this case, from the faithful and oh-so-patient Border Collie whose job it was to round them up). Then, their heads all drop and they start chewing away at the grass, seemingly unmindful of anything else around them. If the dog stays too far away from the sheep, they stop and eat.
If the Border Collie gets too close too fast, however, the whole group snaps into “Flee” mode. Their heads snap up from the grass almost as one, and they suddenly leap up and take off in any given direction…like a flock of birds when a cat jumps in their midst. There’s no telling where they’re going to go, and the sheep themselves don’t seem to give it any thought. They’re just up and running in whatever direction they happened to be pointed in, despite whatever danger might lie there. We saw a whole group of sheep suddenly startle and bolt off into some undergrowth, which ended the shepherd’s hard work and dreams of placing in the competition in a matter of a few heartbreaking seconds.
Watching the dogs manage those sheep was amazing. They worked with the shepherd closely, as a team. Those dogs are smart! They respond to a variety of different whistles (each pattern of whistle tells them to do something different…run far out, come left, turn right, back off, come closer…). The shepherd is far from them for most of the trial, and the dog must follow his or her commands from quite a distance. Some times the commands go right against the dog’s instincts, but a good Sheep Dog has learned to follow the shepherd’s whistle even when it feels wrong at the time.
Over the course of the day, I learned that there are two types of Sheep Dog. Those who lead the sheep with an “Upright, loose eye” and those who lead with a “Low, strong eye”. The “Loose-eye” dogs stand up tall as they chase the sheep. They are more like the dogs I’m used to seeing, more like what I expected sheep herding to look like. They run back and forth behind the sheep, pushing them and worrying them into position. They turn their backs to the sheep at times, zipping off and returning again. They will sometimes bark or snap at them to force them into the position they are working for.
The best sheep dogs, the ones who had made it to the finals, were almost all dogs with a Low, Strong Eye. They were amazing to watch! These Strong-eye dogs are intense and focused. They find a good distance from the sheep, not close enough to send them running but close enough to keep their attention. Then they crouch down on their front legs in a position that looks much like a wolf stalking its prey. They look right at the sheep with a steady, intense gaze. They don’t move around much, and they never turn their backs on the flock. They just stand there, their whole body position showing the sheep that they have their eye fixed on them, that they are not going anywhere and they are going to be right there, watching and waiting and slowly guiding the sheep with nothing more than their complete and total dedication to making the sheep do what they are supposed to do. They are silent…no barking, no growling, no snapping. They guide those sheep with their eyes, and their complete dedication and single-mindedness leave the sheep with no doubt in their minds as to who is in charge. The sheep, while continually aware of the dog’s presence, are content to follow the dog’s guidance and feel safe enough not to bolt. They react well to the Strong-eyed dog’s calm, consistent leadership.
As I watched the dogs work with the sheep yesterday, I realized something important. I want to parent like those dogs, those Strong-eyed leaders. I want to be able to guide my children with focus and intensity, to never turn my back to them or bark or snap. I want the look in my eye, the expression on my face, to speak louder than words. I want to calmly and consistently guide them with soft words and strong faith. I want to follow the Shepherd’s commands and guidance, to work with Him and for Him and to do what He guides me to do, even when it’s against my flawed human instinct.
Lord, thank you for lessons learned in unexpected places! Thank you for the example of the Sheep Dogs and the reminder that I can choose how I guide my children. Thank You, too, that You guide me with intensity, with love, and with a Strong Eye!
Sheep photo from a stock photo collection.