The height of the sheep-dog is generally about fifteen inches, and its colour is chiefly black or dark grey.
He is of all dogs the most intelligent and faithful, and at the same time the most useful. In the wild and mountainous parts of Scotland and Wales, more particularly, must we look for proofs of his invaluable services. There we shall find him left in care of hundreds of sheep, and displaying the greatest activity, vigilance, and courage in minding his charge.
Some of these dogs possess the faculty of discovering by the smell any sheep which may have had the misfortune to be overblown by the snow, in which scores of them are frequently buried to a depth of several feet in a very few hours after the snow has commenced. When the dog is used for this purpose he is called a sheep-setter, or sheep-finder. A sheep-setter, named Corby, was so celebrated in Scotland, where he practised his vocation for many years with wonderful success, that his owner was frequently requested to lend him to the sheep-farmers in the distant parts of the upland country, where portions of the sheep-flocks were often beneath the snow. The sagacious animal, we are told, always took advantage of the wind, where that was practicable, and the moment he was told to “seek the sheep—be careful,” his whole attention was bestowed upon those parts of the snow-drift that the parties pointed out to him. With his nose close to the surface of the snow, his eyes beaming with intelligence, and anxiously watching every motion of the person that accompanied him, his ears in an attitude of listening, as if he expected to assist the sense of smelling by that of hearing, would he traverse the hard, soft, or slippery snow-drift. When he had first satisfied himself that there were sheep buried somewhere in the vicinity, he would examine, with peculiar caution, every part of the surrounding surface, until he had detected the precise locality, and then he would commence scratching away the snow with all his might. This was a sure signal for those who carried the shovels to commence digging, but the dog was never contented unless he were allowed to continue his scratching, as if he were anxious to set the imprisoned sheep at liberty as soon as possible. In a single severe winter this dog set, as it is termed, upwards of three hundred sheep; and though it may be true that a portion of them might have been discovered through other means, the probability is, that he rescued several scores that otherwise inevitably would have perished.
In the summer of 1836, several of the sheep in the neighbourhood of Ard Stinchar, were affected with maggots in the skin : to rid them of which it is necessary to cut off the wool over the part attacked, and apply a small quantity of tobacco juice, or some other liquid. For this purpose a shepherd set off to the hill one morning, accompanied by Laddie, his faithful colley. Arrived among the flock, the shepherd pointed out a maggotty sheep, and making the accustomed signal for the dog to capture it, he speedily did so by laying her sprawling on her back, and gently holding her down till the arrival of her keeper, who proceeded to clip off a portion of her wool, and apply the healing balsam. During the operation, Laddie continued to gaze on the operator with close attention, and the sheep having been released, he was directed to capture in succession two or three more, which underwent similar treatment. The sagacious animal had now become initiated in the mysteries of his master’s proceeding, for off he set unbidden through the flock, and picked out with unerring precision those sheep which were affected with maggots in their skin, and held them down until the arrival of his master, who was thus saved a deal of trouble, and the operation of clipping and smearing most materially facilitated.
The duties of the sheep-dog, when attending a flock on the road, demand his constant watchfulness and exertion. One minute he is barking with all his might to urge on the main body—now he is bounding forward to restrain stragglers—now circling the flock,—and now again returning to his master’s side, to receive his look of approbation or his further commands.
A good sheep-dog possesses the sense of sight so perfectly, that he can readily discover a strange sheep among a very large flock under his care. When there is an intruder among the flock, the drover has only to give the word to his dog, and the sagacious animal dashes forward over the several fleecy backs, singles out the runaway without the least hesitation, and seizing him by the loose skin of the neck, bears him to the ground, and holds him fast until assistance arrives.
A flock of two-hundred sheep while advancing towards London, met a flock of only about a dozen in the village of Tottenham. The drover of the latter being fearful that the small flock would, as usual, unite with- the larger body, tried to keep his few sheep to one side of the road until the others should have passed. One of them, however, eluded the drover’s vigilance, and sprang into the midst of the other flock, and among so many he appeared completely safe from detection} but the drover of the larger flock, who seemed to enjoy the affair, gave the command to his dog, and the stray sheep was instantly in custody.
Seven hundred lambs which Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, had under his care, broke away in the middle of the night, and scampered off in three different parties across the hills, in spite of all that the shepherd and his assistant could do to keep them together. ” Sirrah,” cried the shepherd to his dog, ” they’re a’ awa.” The night was so dark that he did not see the dog, but the faithful animal heard his master’s words, and he immediately set off in quest of the flock. Meanwhile, the shepherd and his companion spent the night in traversing the hills for miles round, but could find neither the flock nor the dog. On their way home in the morning, however, they discovered the lambs at the bottom of a deep ravine called the Flesh Clench, and the dog standing in front of them looking all around for some relief, but still standing true to his charge. Not one lamb of the whole flock was missing.
Excerpted from A Natural History of British and Foreign Quadrupeds by James Hamilton Fennell, 1841