It started with Joy. It was the early 1980s and Bill Coburn, a Virginian born, Maryland native-cum-South Carolina farmer had never trained a collie before. At least, not like the way he’d seen on TV.
“I said to myself ‘I’m going to get a dog and get it trained,'” says Coburn. He wanted an active and intelligent hound, one who could turn tight, at the drop of a dime. One who would corral sheep and ducks without “running” them. A good farm dog.
Coburn and his granddaughter Lacey drove to Spartanburg to look at a litter of Border Collie puppies. “Now, that’s a story in itself,” laughs Coburn. Lacey fell in love with one pup, Coburn with another. “She wouldn’t come off the dog she wanted,” says Coburn. “I said let’s have a game and see who wins.”
After several tests — who would dart after the barn cat, who would untie the shoes, who would race towards Coburn fastest — with the pups performing equally, Coburn says he looked at his granddaughter, and said, “OK grab yours let’s go.”
He got Joy. Now he needed a trainer. Coburn says that driving down the road towards his house in Laurens, he’d always see a guy, “a younger fella,” out in his yard training dogs. Coburn, with an eight month old collie in need of guidance, decided to pull over. “I asked him if he trained people to train their dogs,” says Coburn. “He said, ‘Well, dogs are a lot easier to train than people.'”
When Coburn told the trainer he just wanted a good farm dog to herd his sheep — not used for wool, mind you, so this dog had to guide them, not race them or they’d lose poundage — the trainer, Coburn says, responded with “a flat no.”
Taken aback, Coburn turned on his heel and headed towards his truck. “‘Wait, where are you going?’ he said to me,” laughs Coburn. Flabbergasted, Coburn told the trainer, “well no means no, right?”
“No,” it turns out, actually meant “yes, but my way.” The trainer insisted that Coburn use Joy for competition, a concept which Coburn had never even heard of, let alone considered. The trainer assured Coburn that if Joy turned out to be a so-so competition dog, she’d still, with her training foundation, be a good to great farm dog.
“I had an excellent dog,” says Coburn. “Didn’t know what I had but she was just as good as she could get.” The first year of competition, Coburn competed in the pro novice league. “Everything we accomplished in the first year, it was the dog, not me. By the end of the year, we were winning everything we went to.”
More than two decades later, Coburn, who thoroughly established himself in the world of competition, is no longer competing, but he travels 12 to 15 weekends a year for sheep and duck herding demos. Yes, ducks. Specifically, Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners.
They serve no purpose other than as a novelty for demos, says Coburn, “people love them.” The dogs? Not so much. “It’s beneath his dignity,” says Coburn of one of his collies. It’s not difficult — the dogs want to herd whatever is before them, and can make the ducks go through tunnels, over little bridges. “People like rooting for the little guy, they root for the ducks,” says Coburn. The dogs, though, know the ducks are small potatoes compared to the all-important sheep.
Coburn’s 100 acre farm is no good for growing, really — the entire property sits atop a huge, states-wide rock. But it can grow enough grass for Coburn’s sheep — right now he has about 50.
He used to have more, used to sell his sheep meat to restaurants, “now that was good money,” he says, “good money.” Coburn used to take his collies and a handful of sheep to hospitals, for free, to entertain patients. He even had church groups with troubled kids come to visit his farm. He set up classes in his barn to train people who bought puppies from his litter, “I wasn’t a breeder, just had a litter whenever I needed a puppy. Sold the rest.”
But then Donna, Coburn’s wife of nearly 50 years, got cancer, and everything slowed down. After Donna passed away, the scope of Coburn’s traveling and breeding and training narrowed, but never halted. “I love taking a young puppy and seeing how far it can go,” says Coburn. “They have a mind that’s unreal. If you let them use their mind, it’s unreal what they can do.” Right now, Coburn has three working dogs — Luke, Lucy, and Meg — and a young pup who is still a little green.
Luke, Lucy, and Meg, though, are vets. They’re lean dogs, black and white with long fur and sharp eyes. They follow Coburn like a three-week old puppy may trail its mother — they’re utterly devoted. Coburn doesn’t raise his voice, a quiet drawl being his natural tone, any way, and he doesn’t even seem to look at the dogs for too long. It’s as if an invisble leash connects them — the dogs will run far, out of sight, but Coburn need only say, “That’ll do,” and the dogs come racing, black blurs across the hilly acreage, landing without a sound at Coburn’s feet.
Each dog has their own commands — a whistle for left, right, down. To the untrained ear, they all sound the same. But when Luke hears the whistle for “left” he’s up, in a flash, body low to the ground, eyes never leaving the cluster of sheep. Meg and Lucy, nearly shaking with anticipation, do not move a muscle. Eyes glued to the sheep, “to the work,” the two know better than to interfere with Luke’s herding.
Coburn gives Luke the command to lie still, and it’s Meg’s turn. She gets the command for right and makes a wide loop, dipping into the landscape so one can only see the sheep, standing incredibly still, heads craning, wondering from whence the next dog will emerge. Coburn smiles, fingering his stainless steel whistle. He says, so quietly that even the sonically gifted dogs couldn’t hear him, “Now that is a good dog.”