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Ewe-Rental Service Thrills Canine Clients

THE WASHINGTON POST

You could say that customers flock to Sue Mesa’s to take advantage of her unusual rentals, but that wouldn’t be quite right, because the flock is already there when the customers arrive.

That’s because Mesa’s clientele consists of canines--border collies, Australian shepherds, corgis, Belgian sheep dogs--plus their human escorts, who come to hunt-country Virginia for her ewe-rental service.

For about $20, Mesa will provide anywhere from three to 30 sheep so that a dog and its owner/handler can practice the ancient skill of herding--think of the hit movie “Babe,” minus the porker.

“The Scots buy dogs to work sheep,” Mesa explained. “We buy sheep to work our dogs.”

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The canine customers that come to Mesa have a natural-born penchant for woolgathering, so to speak, but most are family pets that don’t get many chances to exercise their instinct. So their owners take them on field trips to Rolling Meadows, Mesa’s Loudoun County, Va., farm, where she and her husband, Marc, board horses and rent sheep.

On a recent Saturday, the line to have a turn at the sheep stretched a half-dozen dogs long beside the fence leading into a pasture.

Most of the dog owners already knew one another from the National Capital Air Canines, a “disc-dog club.” For their energetic pets, pursuing flying saucers runs a close second to the thrill of sheep on the lam.

Dotty Esher of Laurel, Md., who provides a foster home for border collies in need of adoption, says the weekend herding is a “social thing” for the owners, like “soccer games for people with kids.”

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“It’s a good time,” said Esher, who had brought one of her collies. “And the dogs love it.”

Esher and the other dog owners casually swapped stories as they waited their chance to be weekend shepherds, but among their pets, patience was in short supply.

As Linda Mitchell and her young border collie, Sadie, began their “work” with a trio of sheep, the other dogs barked boisterously and bounded in the air as though laying up for a Frisbee reception. A “work” is what a session with the sheep is called in herding parlance, and it lasts as long as needed, often about a half-hour. But for the dogs, this “work” seems more like a labor of love.

Sadie’s job is straightforward-- fetch the sheep to the herder--but it has the lithe black-and-white dog running in circles, feinting, flanking and weaving as Mitchell conducts her movements with waves of a long stockman’s stick. Sadie and Mitchell are inexperienced at this game, so Mesa has given them “heavy” sheep to work.

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“Heavy” sheep are wise to the fact that the most hassle-free spot to be is with the herder.

“Light” sheep, on the other hand, have other ideas for dealing with a pushy pooch, ideas that include running, charging and splitting up, every-sheep-for-itself style.

Members of this trio, however, are so heavy that they cling to Mitchell’s legs like plastic wrap.

She must wade through them with a careful legs-together gait to avoid going “sheep surfing"--the slang term for being upended by an animal that is seeking shelter under the person in charge.

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As Mitchell and her miniature flock slowly circle the pasture, Sadie alternately runs at them and approaches in a belly-crawling crouch reminiscent of a cat stalking a mouse.

But she never takes her eyes off her work, an unnerving stare being one way a dog cows sheep.

The herding instinct, explains Mesa, is barely one evolutionary tick beyond the hunting instinct, and sometimes dogs have to be reminded of the domesticated niceties. “Gripping,” which is a quick grab of the sheep’s wool, is permitted; biting is not.

When Sadie gets too forceful, Mitchell issues a sharp command and points at her with the stick. The dog drops to the ground like a shot--well, most of the time. When she doesn’t, Mesa is there to provide coaching.

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Mesa, 40, has been renting sheep to amateur herders for about five years, having gotten into the business because of her own interest in herding with both border collies (she has five) and corgis (she has 11).

On an average weekend, she says, she gets about 10 dog owners coming out to work their pets. With some people bringing as many as four dogs at a time, her weekends are full.

Under Mesa’s tutelage--and after about a year of practicing at Rolling Meadows nearly every weekend--Becky Lueth and her Australian shepherd, Sidney, have graduated to lighter sheep.

Lueth and her husband, Ken, have three of the Australian breed, notable for their thick coats and guileless expressions.

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One of their dogs, a “rescue” case named Cherry, can only mime her excitement, though, because her previous owner had her “debarked” by having her vocal cords cut.

Lucky for Cherry, working sheep is a mostly silent activity--all the noise seems to take place among the spectators.

“How do you reward a dog for a job well done?” asks Ken Lueth, as he untangles himself from Cherry’s leash after she makes a lunge toward a sheep that has broken from the flock. His answer: “You let him do it again.”

He’d get no argument from Cherry or Sadie. Like all the dogs on the farm that day, their fondest wish in life seems to be to get inside that pasture so they can bust some lamb’s chops.

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