Tilly (Starvon Valkyrja Mist for Bowkol), at 2 years old, is our youngest dog, and the first dog I have ever deliberately chosen for her potential as a working Vallhund. Happily she is developing into exactly what I wanted, having had experience of working Loki and Megan, and knowing what characteristics I was looking for and the type of work I wanted her to do.
Was this just a happy accident? Of course some of it was luck on my part, but I also think there are certain things to bear in mind that can increase your chances of choosing a good working Vallhund.
Not all Vallhunds have a herding instinct; some are just not interested, whilst some are actually afraid of livestock. Whilst it may be possible to nurture an instinct, so that the dog eventually ‘turns on’ years later, (such dogs may indeed eventually gain herding titles), that doesn’t mean they are necessarily good workers in the ‘real world’. Some have a strong ‘heeling’ instinct, but would much rather that they worked together with you, and are really not happy to go to the heads of stock or stand their ground when challenged. Then there are some dogs (Loki) that seem to only find their true place in the world once they have started to work.
What I was personally looking for was a dog of real use as a practical ‘chore’ dog and useful Farmers companion. I had in mind certain criteria.
- ‘Herding pedigree’. Herding Instinct is inherited, so I looked for a dog whose parents either had evidence of having some sort of instinct, or better still were proven workers. Loki’s sire Riley had worked stock in the USA, and at a Herding day that we held in 2012 it was noticeable that one common denominator in a lot of the dogs who did turn on to stock was that he was either their sire or their grandsire. Tilly’s Grandpa (on her Dam’s side) Draco, I knew after some research showed a strong Instinct, as did his siblings in Finland. So far so good!
- Construction. I wasn’t after a Show Champion, but I wanted a well-constructed dog, with a level top line, no ‘cow hocks’ or weak pasterns, decent angulation, whose parents had excellent or very good hip scores, clear eyes tests etc. In particular I wanted a dog with a decent length of leg, not too low to the ground, and enough, but definitely not too, much bone. Loki and Tilly are not ‘heavily built’ Vallhunds, and are not over endowed with bone or substance. This is, I believe, a factor that contributes to them never having had any sprains or strains when suddenly changing direction on uneven ground when working.
- Very importantly: Character. It should be said that when Loki was a pup, he lacked confidence, and would have seemed a very unlikely character to choose as a bold working dog. His shyness in social situations actually masked a very strong working instinct, which showed itself in various slightly inappropriate ways. Rushing up to dogs much bigger than him to turn them around and ‘blagging’ the determined ‘Cattle herder’ act with intrusive humans was remarkably effective at keeping them all at a good distance!
Such bravado in the proper context of livestock and in particular cattle is extremely valuable and can be a matter of life and death.
Tilly was very confident as a pup. Described by her Breeder Ada and Reg West as the ‘little b*gger’ of the litter of 7, she was the only one to keep escaping from the puppy pen, and had an air of knowing exactly who she was! When I visited she was boldly marching around the lounge, ‘spitz’ tail tightly curled, with a definite air of independence. I personally feel that the ‘independent’ streak in some Valls shows a greater potential as a working dog than the rather more ‘velcro’ like attitude of others. Megan at 8 weeks old was a ‘people pleaser’,(which has huge advantages socially!) whereas Tilly exuded an attitude of ‘yeah – wotever!’ Drumming of fingers on the floor produced an instant ‘chase’ response, she was happy to be turned on her back….for a while, and while her sister obediently allowed herself to be ‘stacked’ on the table, Tilly marched over to a mug of tea and started sampling it! Ada had decided to keep her sister for Showing, but if I had had a choice it would still have been Tilly for me.
On the 3 hour drive home, she barked non-stop, not out of anxiety, but frustration at being ‘confined’. At home she rapidly settled in, accepted discipline from Megan but secretly took no notice, ran rings around Loki, and was generally a ‘blur’ in any photos we took! Definitely a high energy Vallhund!
Once ‘out and about’, she displayed a huge ‘chase instinct’, and a very keen ‘heading’ instinct, whether to runners, cyclists, cars, or other dogs. If it moves it must be reacted to, and quickly! She took notice of verbal reprimands, but then bounced back.
She was introduced to sheep at 12 weeks old, on the other side of the fence to where Loki was working a flock of 60 sheep. She was transfixed and noisy! At one point the sheep were all moving at speed towards her, head on. She stood her ground, facing them, tail tightly curled as if to say ‘bring it on sheep!’
At 2 years old she (and I) still have a lot to learn, but she is proving to be everything that I want in a working Vallhund. Lynn Leach, the well-known ‘all Breeds Herding Trainer, remarked of Tilly – ‘She’s gonna be just great!’ Why – apparently because of her endless enthusiasm for the job.
But perhaps Tilly’s biggest compliment to date was from a Cheshire Hill Farmer who watched her working his Hebrideans early this year. A BC man and (in common with many hill Farmers!) a man of few words, he remarked quietly – ‘Heh, she’s really nice isn’t she?!’ That’ll do Tilly!
Fi Cameron (Bowkol)