I brought my youngest Sheltie, Mustang, to some American Kennel Club herding trials a few weekends ago. Now, Mustang was named for the World War II fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang, and she approaches everything — including a flock of sheep — with the panache and speed of that iconic airplane. It is tough to control her intensity so that the sheep don't just bolt in panic, and so that we get them through all the challenges on course.
There is some freedom out on a herding field. That freedom is selective, though. There are panels, chutes, pens and gates that sheep need to be moved through in a particular order and fashion. But the sheep haven't read the rule book. It's their field and they'd prefer to be left alone. The dog can go wherever necessary to move the sheep; but it can't harass, chase or "muck about" fruitlessly for the allotted time. The handler is restricted to certain places on the course (based on level) and must command the dog from those spots.
Mustang has great herding instinct, and she's intelligent and willing to work. But left to her own devices, she would run the sheep hither and yon, and when she was sufficiently winded, she'd push them into a corner or culvert and order them to stay there. Before long, the sheep would bolt as soon as they saw her come into the field.
To be a good herding partner, Mustang's freedom is framed by commands, not just to get in position to move the sheep correctly as we traverse the course, but also to focus and calm her. She must be in the correct frame of mind to do her job effectively and efficiently; that usually isn't accomplished at P-51 cruising speed. The purpose of her freedom on the field isn't simply to move sheep wherever she likes. It's to control their movement in accordance with my commands, safely and promptly.
Saturday, I didn't "get into her head" very well. We qualified, but she was running, I was yelling, the sheep were agitated, and it was ugly. Sunday, I used her "stand" command a lot, not simply as a "pause button," but to remind her to calm down, slow down and pay attention to me instead of freelancing out there. Because of assorted goofs, our scores weren't much different, but I was much more satisfied with our runs. We were a team. The sheep didn't constantly try to bolt. Mustang quietly convinced them to go through panels and chutes instead of merely plotting their escape to the exhaust gate.
Yes, in one sense I "laid down the law," which restricted Mustang's absolute freedom. But that "law" gave her far more freedom to accomplish the goal set before her. She demonstrated her ability to use her freedom productively, safely and reasonably well. And, yes, she finished her Intermediate title with two first-place ribbons.
I'm sure Mustang grumps about all the commands. When she's doing her own thing, she's having fun. She doesn't like being stopped, or told to flank out nice and wide instead of "bowling for sheep." But when things go right, she "gets" that it's good to pay attention and comply with the commands. Not only can she do what she loves, but also, she's learning that when she disciplines her desire and channels her freedom, she can do more of what she loves, and in ways her unrestricted impulses couldn't have allowed. You can almost see the wheels turning when she realizes that she can actually boss the sheep quite nicely just by quietly stepping forward or sideways a pace or two!
In time, I want to reflect more on the relationship between law and liberty for us humans. It seemed instructive, though, to approach the topic the way Mustang does her outruns. That's when she leaves my side to gather the sheep. She doesn't go pelting in a straight line, which would scatter them and cause them to run away. Instead, she casts out to one side, describing an inverted pear-shaped arc until she can quietly approach the sheep from behind, pushing them straight toward me at a decent pace.
That's how I'd like to proceed. Law and freedom are related, but we certainly don't all agree on what that relationship ought to be. Let's examine it together, calmly, thoughtfully and productively. Until then, in the time-honored phrase of shepherds at the end of a run: That'll do!
Cathy Ammlung is a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church and a resident of Sykesville. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.