Sheepdogs at historic Clark's Farm are capricious, effective

Tony slunk down low on his haunches and crept toward the flock of sheep he lives to control, giving them "the eye" as he made his way down a slope to their pasture.

So intense was his stare that if an observer didn't know the 3-year-old border collie was working, he might think Tony was preparing to pounce as the 18 ewes grazed on new grass at Clark's Elioak Farm.

"Sometimes all he has to do is turn his head, and they move," said Janet Harvey, resident shepherd at the 214-year-old farming operation off Route 108 in Ellicott City.

The soft-spoken handler, who is a retired Howard County physical-education teacher, works in the pastures with her dogs every day. She has worked for the Clark family in different jobs since she was in college, continuing throughout her 35 years of teaching. Yet she never tires of the farm or of being outdoors.

Martha Clark, owner of the family farm that was handed down by her father, the late Sen. James Clark Jr., called Harvey's handling of the dogs "masterful," especially considering her initial indifference to the sheep.

"Janet was working with our horses when someone gave Dad some sheep about 20 years ago," Clark recalled.

Harvey "was somewhat resistant to working with the sheep at first, but then she got her first dog, and the whole process became fascinating to her," Clark said. "Once she sets her mind to something, she accomplishes it."

Harvey said Sen. Clark managed at first to handle the flock without the help of a working dog. But the sheep kept multiplying, and the need became undeniable, so the farm got its first border collie.

Observing Tony and the other sheepdogs — Tony's mother, 6-year-old Bette, 9-year-old Jess and 10-year-old Scott — has become such a favorite of visitors that Harvey will give demonstrations of the dogs' amazing abilities during Sheep Dog Weekend at the farm on April 30 and May 1.

Border collies are most content when they're working, she said. And because it's spring and there are 85 new lambs on the farm, they have a lot of work to do.

"I love being here on the farm, and I'm very fortunate because some handlers have to look for places to work their dogs," Harvey said before resuming the workout.

She quietly ordered Tony to "come by," and he bolted to his handler's left, tracing a wide clockwise circle around the sheep. The ovine unit automatically did an about-face and begin heading toward Harvey.

Their wool coats are so thick from the long, cold winter that they resemble cotton balls on sticks as they walk wherever Tony commands. As part of the weekend's demonstrations, the sheep will be sheared, Harvey noted.

When Tony heard "away to me," the dog dashed off to Harvey's right and ran a huge counterclockwise circle around the flock, moving them in a different direction.

She repeatedly reminded the overachiever to lie down, but pronounced it lie done, as if a Scottish accent had inadvertently crept into the Dundalk native's voice. The collies have been bred as sheepdogs for hundreds of years in the border countries of Scotland and Wales, hence the name. The simply worded commands have been handed down unchanged for generations.

"Some dogs won't lie down. They stand — and that's who they are and that's acceptable," she explained. But Tony isn't normally one of those dogs, she said, so she keeps after him to heed that particular command.

"You have to let them know what you want, but encourage them to figure it out on their own at the same time so that they build confidence," she said.

The one folksy command Harvey used that seemed to underscore that working with sheepdogs is an art that's handed down to a select few was "That'll do." An all-purpose direction, it brings to mind the 1995 movie "Babe," in which the title character is a sheep-herding pig who hears that phrase a lot as he works at learning his craft.

"You start with voice commands and work your way up to whistles," Harvey explained about the training process. Some whistles are plastic, but Harvey's is brass.

The dogs like whistle commands more than voice commands, and Harvey can give different directions by making slight changes to the volume and duration of each whistle, she said.

"They have excellent hearing — although sometimes it's selective," she said with a laugh.

Only three of Harvey's four sheepdogs are currently active. Scott, the elder statesman, has made it clear he's ready to retire.

"Scott was raised on a farm as a cow dog," Harvey said. And while he enjoyed working in his prime years, he now prefers to let the other dogs tend to the sheep. Jess is only a year younger than Scott, but she shows no signs of slowing down, she said.

While her black-and-white border collies live to work, their intelligence and intuitive skills are also showcased at sheepdog trials.

Harvey said she participates in these herding competitions across the country as often as possible, not only to enjoy the camaraderie with other handlers but to observe their methods.

"You're not ever done learning" when it comes to handling sheepdogs, she said. "Different situations come along that you're not used to and you have to adapt."

Patrick Shannahan — whose dog, Riggs, is the 2010 national champion — travels from his home in Caldwell, Idaho, to Clark's Farm twice a year to "train people to train their dogs." He called the sport, which is overseen by the U.S. Border Collie Handler's Association, "one of the hardest things you can learn to do."

"Janet is doing really well," he said. "She's a competitive person and could place or win almost any competition she enters."

Harvey said she's learned that it's good to know when you need help and then to get it. When coyotes were killing off sheep a few years ago she bought an Akbash dog, a Turkish breed that serves as a livestock guardian.

"Nothing has bothered these sheep since Vasi's been on the job," Harvey said. "These dogs all take good care of them."

If you go

Sheep Dog Weekend will be held April 30 and May 1 at Clark's Elioak Farm, 10500 Route 108, Ellicott City. Janet Harvey will give sheep herding demonstrations at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Emily Chamelin of Westminster will give a sheep-shearing demonstration Saturday at noon. Information:

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