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Jim the border collie herds sheep for owner Chet Ellis. Jim helped capture the elusive goat Baasheba.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Jim the border collie herds sheep for owner Chet Ellis. Jim helped capture the elusive goat Baasheba.

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Herd about Jim?
Border collie will display sheep gathering skills at Walk Your Paws

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

Jim looks like a wound-up rubber band just begging to be released and do what he was born to do.

A herd of sheep stand 100 yards away, and the 21/2-year-old border collie squirms in place as his instinct plays tug of war with an obedient attitude. All that's holding him back is a command from his master, Chet Ellis.

"Oh please let me go! Please let me go! Please! Please! Please!" Jim's excited eyes seem to say.

Ellis finally gives the go command, and Jim tears off toward the herd. He dashes from one side to the other, following Ellis' commands and whistles. In just a few minutes the herd stands about 10 feet from Ellis.

Breeding, training

It's a combination of breeding and training that will be on display Saturday during the annual Walk Your Paws event at Wilson Morgan Park.

"It's like a computer," Ellis said of training his border collie to assist him in raising sheep on his 20-acre farm on Spring Avenue Southwest. "It's not worth a hill of beans till you tell it what to do."

Sure, any border collie will try to gather the sheep as soon as its paws hit the ground, he said, but training and working together make the process look like art in motion, a picture of efficiency.

Capturing Baasheba

The duo proved it a few weeks ago when they captured Baasheba, a pregnant female goat that eluded residents, Taser-armed police and animal control officers for weeks. Animal Control finally got wise and called Ellis for help. Once Jim had Baasheba in his sights, he had her rounded up in minutes.

As part of the Walk Your Paws schedule, Ellis will have Jim perform with a small herd of sheep and also will bring Baasheba and the two kids she birthed last week for the public to meet.

Walk Your Paws is a fundraiser for the Animal Friends Humane Society. Besides sheepherding, it will include demonstrations of dog agility trials and search and rescue dogs as well as pet look-a-like, trick and costume contests and half-mile parade of pets. Admission is $10 per family.

In sheep business

So what's a sheepherder doing in Decatur?

Well, there's a good market for sheep meat, Ellis said, noting he sold 32 this year, getting $1.25 per pound. Ellis now has 30 sheep and his son has 125 a few miles away at Oak Ridge.

But Ellis didn't buy his first sheep to sell. He bought some rams 15 years ago to help him train border collies. He had used the dogs with cattle, but they are more suited for sheep.

"I bought a couple to work my dogs and ended up in the sheep business," Ellis chuckled.

As his herd grew, so did his private kennel. He now has seven border collies and one bird dog. He trains them to sell as working dogs.

Training starts when they're puppies, just by letting them loose with a herd.

Every border collie puppy will instinctively run toward the herd and try to gather it toward its master, Ellis said.

Some will do it for awhile and quit. Others — the ones Ellis seeks — won't let up.

The ones that quit can make good family pets as long as that family gives them plenty of exercise, he added. A border collie that wants to herd all the time, however, will be too hyperactive to be a family pet.

After he finds the right puppies, Ellis trains them to walk on a leash and then teaches commands. He uses specific words recognized by border collie trainers worldwide. "Come by" sends a dog left. "Lie down" tells them to yank on the emergency brake, and "That'll do" lets them know to stop and come home.

He precedes each command with the dog's name and follows the command with a specific whistle.

"It takes patience and a lot of work," Ellis said, almost every day when first training.

Jim competed recently at the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie, Ga. He performed well for his young age, but he lacks years of experience before he can live up to his championship bloodline, Ellis said. Jim is the grandson of Wisp, a two-time international champion from Wales.

Even without a trophy or blue ribbons, Jim has plenty of value.

Border collie puppies typically sell for $300. A "starter" dog with a year's training can go for $1,500, Ellis said.

"I've been offered $4,000 for that one," he said of Jim.

Invaluable is a truer description. There's no way to run a sheep farm without one, he said, because it would take at least several hired hands to perform the work of one dog.

Walk Your Paws

Saturday at Wilson Morgan Park

9 a.m. — Registration begins, continues till 1 p.m.

9:45 a.m. — Opening ceremony.

10 a.m. — Half-mile walk.

10:45 a.m. — Decatur Alabama Kennel Club agility trials and fly ball demonstrations.

11 a.m. — Micro-chipping clinic.

11:45 a.m. — North Alabama Search and Rescue demonstration.

12:30 p.m. — Sheepherding demonstration.

1 p.m. — Pet contests: pet/owner look-a-like, pet tricks and pet costumes.

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