Elissa Thau raises sheep on lush green grass in Roseburg, Oregon. It’s a gentle business. She and her husband, Mel, aim for a minimum of stress for both sheep and the dogs she calls her partners.
She starts her dogs on voice commands but then moves to the whistle. She likes the whistle because it carries further so she doesn’t have to shout.
“And with the whistle, you don’t get emotion in your voice.” If you’re having a bad day, the dog doesn’t have to know about it.
“Here some people want to have a dog that will get ahead – a dog that will bite,” she said. “They really don’t need to do that. It just gets the sheep upset.”
Her dogs, she argues, move sheep with the power of their eyes and the fact that they have a quiet presence.
“They are incredible working partners. It’s a real privilege to work with these dogs. They are bred as working dogs. It doesn’t matter how hot or cold it is, or how muddy and disgusting, they are ready to go.”
They also have a strong and happy capacity for play. Her border collies chase sticks in the stream that runs through the land and come up dripping and wagging. All their dogs, except a guardian dog, sleep in the house.
Elissa grew up in a family that worked sheep in England. In the UK, dog handling and dog breeding is considered an art. And they train them to a high level.
“My mum said we’d spoil our dogs, ”she said. Her mother thought that dogs would never work if they were treated this way. But, of course they do.”
It’s not a get rich quick scheme, but I’m really proud of the lamb we raise.
“It’s a serious thing to kill an animal and people should take it seriously. People don’t need to eat meat every day or a huge plateful of meat,” she said.
“I don’t think we should. The country can’t sustain it. It becomes agribusiness, greed and suffering.
When the end comes for her animals, Elissa wants to know that it’s been clean and quick and they haven’t suffered. This is a woman who is not looking for bigger sales.
Lynne Green Got More than She’d Hoped For:
Lynne grew up in Kentucky horse country accompanied by a border collie. When she and her husband moved to Washington, he said he’d buy her a horse. She told him that he couldn’t afford the kind of horse she’d want. He could, though, buy her a border collie. And so he did.
That first dog came from a line of working dogs. It was Lynne ‘s plan to train the pup to compete in sheep dog trials. But the dog proved too hard for the novice trainer Lynne was in those days. Long time breeder and trial competitor, Kathy Knox offered Lynn a young dog named Kurt. Kathy had hoped to turn Kurt into a national champion but sensitivity to heat made Puget Sound a better place for him to live. And that was perfect timing. Lynne thought she was just looking for a dog she could learn to compete with. She got so much more.
“Kurt became the main guy in my dog life.”
Lynne was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Kurt came into her life. Kurt became her constant companion throughout a year that included nine surgeries.
“While I was healing,” Lynne said, “Kurt sat with me night and day.”
After the third or fourth surgery, Lynne entered Kurt in a big trial with tough sheep. She figured that the focus required would be good for her health. He won the pro-novice class that day and their partnership as competitors was cemented
During their career together, Lynne and Kurt competed at many big trials including Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky, Lacamas in Washinton’s Clark County as well as the Vashon Classic. Kurt and Lynn even made it to the National sheep dog trials where they advanced into the semi finals.
Whether her dog was working sheep on a farm or competing in a trial, Lynne says that she credited Kurt with being 75 percent of the team and her contribution only 25.
“These dogs are bred to read sheep and partner with the handler. They are amazing,” she said.
“He always competed with all his will and heart,” she said, “but he suffered from a chronic infection.”
It was a sad and reluctant Lynne who decided to retire Kurt after the 2012 Vashon Sheepdog Classic. Kurt died last year at age 12. He had fulfilled his destiny as a trial competitor, but even more important, he had helped Lynne to a complete recovery.
Today, Lynne has Kurt’s half brother, Craig. At age three, Craig is a not the same as Kurt. But he’s a good dog in the field. During the lambing season he’s helped calm and catch panicked ewes in labor by exuding gentle confidence. He’ll be going to Germany soon where Lynne and her husband spend half the year in their roles as consulting trainers and leaders for religious organizations. And while they are there, Lynne and Craig will be working with a man who has 250 Suffolk ewes outside of Berlin.