I blame One Man and His Dog’s Gus Dermody. Phil Drabble should also take a bit of the responsibility, because he was presenting the show when I first started watching it. Yet it was during Gus’s era, when I worked alongside him, that I became not just delighted by watching the apparently instinctive partnership between dog and handler, but obsessed by the idea of learning how to work a sheepdog myself.
It was a ridiculous obsession to have when I lived in west London and it was almost as ridiculous when I moved to rural Wales, even though I was to become the proud, if somewhat hapless, owner of a small flock of (just ten) sheep.
A dog can be helpful when moving ten sheep, but just as helpful, particularly if you are clueless when it comes to dog handling, is a bucket rattling with sheep food. I didn’t need a sheepdog but, as we all know, pitch need against desire and desire will almost always come out on top.
My friend Tim Stephens, who runs the farm where we hold our rural skills courses, did genuinely need a new sheepdog. He has 200 sheep and was looking to get a puppy to train up to work alongside his old dog, Dai. “We could share it,” he suggested, “and I can teach you how to work it.” So with this brilliant, fail-safe plan in place we went to see a local shepherd called Bronwen, who had a litter of Welsh sheepdog puppies.
“They’re a bit different from border collies,” she explained, as I wondered how I could resist taking all ten bundles of ginger and white fluff home with me. “They work more upright, rather than creeping low to the ground, and they don’t have the fixed stare of the collie. They tend to be a bit more laid-back, but they need to work. They are not pets.”
Tim picked up a very handsome dog pup. Even though he was only eight weeks old he already looked alert and strong. Bronwen nodded approvingly. But I was drawn to another pup, a bitch, bright copper and white with a long, rather foxy face and amazing eyes.
Missy, the pup’s mother, had two blue eyes, but this puppy had one eye that was half-blue and the other was brown with a sort of blue star in it, giving her a quirky Bowie-esque look. The inevitable happened. Tim and I walked away with a puppy each.
Teg – Welsh for fine or beautiful – is now three years old and absolutely lives up to her name. She has also turned into a very good working dog, thanks both to Tim and, later, to the Welsh Sheepdog Society, which I contacted in a moment of despair.
Working with a dog takes a lot more than simply being able to whistle. You need to understand your sheep first, how they will behave in a given situation, and have the confidence to tell your dog what to do, but also when to let it do its own thing.
I neither understood sheep nor had any confidence, so instead Teg became more pet than worker. She still slept outside in the barn, and spent most of the day outside, but she got her exercise going running with me or being walked with my other, very much pet dogs.
She became brilliant at playing Frisbee, swimming in the river and completely ignoring sheep if we were walking through someone else’s fields. At the end of the day she’d be fed with the other dogs and spend the evening spread-eagled on a sofa until it was time for her to go outside to bed. I had given her an identity crisis.
With the help and support of members of the Welsh Sheepdog Society, Teg started to discover her true heritage as a herding dog and I began to understand the magic of having a working partnership with a dog, although I still have very much more to learn.
I also found out more about the history and ancestry of these very special working dogs that have become increasingly rare. They are difficult to classify – the Kennel Club doesn’t recognise them as a breed – and they come in various colours, shapes and sizes.
The thing that defines them, that makes them recognisably Welsh, is the way they work. Teg’s ancestry wasn’t known – I had some detective work to do to find out if she had any collie ancestors – and she also needed to be assessed by the Society to see if she worked in the true “Welsh” way.
If she passed the assessment and I could find out about her grandparents, the Society were very keen I breed from her. In the mid-80s there were only a handful of true Welsh dogs left of breeding age; it was then that the Society was set up by two farmers determined that these dogs shouldn’t be lost for ever.
But it presented me with another quandary. I had never bred a dog before. I’d heard stories of bitches having to be held tight while the dog was allowed to do its business.
Did I have the stomach to act like one of those Jane Austen mothers who shamelessly tout their daughters about in the quest for a suitable suitor? Was I prepared to pack my beautiful, untouched, innocent girl off to some stranger who might not treat her with the respect she deserves?
And then what about the pregnancy? And the labour? What if she got sick, or died, or ate the puppies? I very much liked the idea of helping contribute to a more secure future for these dogs, but the thought of having to play pimp and then midwife was making me feel queasy. Is it even ethical? I have no idea. I might need to phone Gus Dermody.
Kate Humble: My Sheepdog & Me is on 9pm tonight BBC2