Happiness is Three Sheep And A Dog
Jill Connelly for The New York Times
ON Sunday mornings when Steven Brill, a film director, is not on a movie set, he loads his border collie, Kep, into his car and drives 30 minutes to a private estate here overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Once there, Kep bounds out of the car into a fenced-in arena and for two 10-minute sessions herds three sheep in a circle, attentive to Mr. Brill's whistles and commands.
Mr. Brill, who directed "Mr. Deeds" and "Little Nicky," has been taking sheepherding classes with 10-year-old Kep for more than a year. "It may sound goofy, but it's a really interesting activity for me and the dog," he said. "It's a real communion between man and beast. It's therapeutic."
Besides, he joked, there is a practical side: "I don't need sheepherding to inform my work. But it helps me communicate better, and that's O.K."
Mr. Brill is one of a growing number of people in Los Angeles, including other entertainment professionals, who have been taking up sheepherding. For some, like Pat Crowley, a producer of the "Bourne" movies, it is a surer way to quiet a restless dog than an hour at the park. For others, corralling sheep can calm a dog who is fearful or bites. But for most owners sheepherding has become a way to connect with nature in a culture where palm trees, hair color and even friendships are often fake or manufactured.
"The dogs are put into these environments that are not natural," said Janna Duncan, who owns the sheepherding business and teaches the classes twice a week in Malibu. "They have these instincts and don't know what to do with them, so they eat the furniture or bite the mailman. It's the same with people. What I've learned about owners is the dog controls them."
That includes directors and producers, who are used to controlling and who are for Ms. Duncan among the most challenging clients to work with. "Those people want to get out there and produce their own little show," she said. "They come up with their own words. They'll shout, 'Get to work,' and the dog will just stand there. We actually teach people how to be better people."
Ms. Duncan said her business has grown 40 percent in a year, to about 65 dogs and their owners. Some make the trek from as far away as Beverly Hills (an hour and a half commute) for the training sessions held in an arena built for horses.
Most of the dogs are shepherds or collies, which are bred for farm work but as pets spend much of their time on the living room couch. In classes the dogs enter the ring with the sheep and their owners and learn to respond to whistles and commands.
The classes — which usually include two runs, broken up for rest and water — are not cheap. A series of four classes costs $160.
Cesar Millan, a celebrated author and dog trainer to Hollywood's elite, best known for his television show, "Dog Whisperer," said most dogs are not connected to their owners and are owned largely for emotional comfort — for people, that is. "But it's not good therapy for the dogs," he said.
Nor is the frantic creative energy prevalent in Hollywood good for the dogs, either, he said. "You have to have calm, assertive energy."
Sheepherding might never have come to Malibu if it weren't for Cathleen Summers, a producer of the "Stakeout" movies and the wife of Mr. Crowley. In the 1990's they would drive 40 miles north of Los Angeles to work with Ms. Duncan, who has been training dogs to herd sheep for 15 years.
"It was a long drive when you work the hours we do," said Ms. Summers, who has two English shepherds, Iris and Dash. "You can only work dogs 10 to 15 minutes at a time, so the commute was a big constraint."
Ms. Summers persuaded Ms. Duncan to set up classes in Malibu, which is closer to the west side of Los Angeles, where she and her husband live. "When we started, we took a lot of Hollywood friends, producers mostly, and we would talk about movies," Ms. Summers said.
Ms. Duncan's business has mostly grown through word of mouth. On Sundays and Thursdays, she drives 160 miles round trip from the Drummond Ranch in Vincent, Calif., of which she was a founder in 1993, to Malibu, a trailer filled with sheep in tow. Getting them there is no easy feat. One recent Sunday, classes were delayed an hour because she and the sheep were stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 405.
On a Sunday in June, Paul Davidoski smiled broadly after he and his Australian shepherd, Noel, enjoyed a spirited run in the arena. Noel wasn't always so good-natured, he said. "She'd nip at people and lunge at them," said Mr. Davidoski, who recently sold his company, which made parts for movie cameras. He said he and his wife, Patti, tried several ways to calm the dog, even hiring a trainer for 15 weeks. Friends suggested he put Noel to sleep.
Mrs. Davidoski read about the classes online. Now they drive 40 minutes (or longer if traffic is backed up) from Agoura Hills in the San Fernando Valley to Malibu for Sunday classes. "She sleeps better, and she doesn't bite," Mrs. Davidoski said.
OF course, a good dog story has a catfight. In January a turf war broke out at the Malibu Equestrian Park, where Ms. Duncan first set up her Malibu classes. The park was also home to the Trancas Riders and Ropers, a horse club.
According to The Malibu Times, Trancas became concerned about the dogs, claiming they made the horses skittish, which Ms. Duncan disputed. On Jan. 12, a sheriff's deputy was dispatched to the park to break up a fracas between sheepherders and members of the equestrian club, the newspaper reported. "People were calling us the Hatfields and the McCoys," Ms. Duncan said.
The dispute had a public airing before the Malibu Parks and Recreation Commission, but before it could be resolved Ms. Duncan relocated to the private estate, which is in a canyon far from the traffic-clogged Pacific Coast Highway.
Not every dog owner, though, is comfortable with the unpredictable nature of animals. Recently, Shayne Harris, 11, was in the arena with her miniature Australian shepherd, Dizzy. The dog was shadowing a fast-moving sheep, who wanted no part of the lesson. The sheep jumped over a water trough, then rammed its head into a wooden fence. It tried to butt Dizzy twice, but the dog held its ground. The sheep finally lay down and refused to move.
Other dog owners in the bleachers watched in horror. Several debated whether the errant sheep should be dispatched to its trailer like an unruly actor pitching a fit on a set. One woman worried her dog would be trampled. Others complained the weather was too hot. Worse, much of the crowd was cranky because 15 people showed up for the morning class, which meant most dogs had only a single run in the arena.
Shayne, though, kept her cool. "It's only a sheep," she said later, her green flip-flop shaped earrings reflecting the midday sun. "It teaches me how to handle my dog because he never listens."
For her father, Mark, a recording engineer who lives in Malibu, sheepherding is a way to distance his daughter from the Hollywood crowd, some of whom give their children nose jobs as a birthday present.
"At this age things could go in a positive direction or it cannot," Mr. Harris said. "They are surrounded by so much money and stuff, drugs and other things."
Ms. Duncan said that she has felt like asking some dog owners not to come back. (In un-Hollywood fashion she refused to name names.) Instead, she welcomes everyone, even the wife of a chief executive who once brought a bottle of Evian for her dog and a small red carpet.
"I look at it as a challenge for me to get inside their heads," she said. "You have to break them down. I guess you could say it's a big therapy session. For the dog owners, that is."
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