MINT SPRING — Leon Armentrout stood at the base of a hill and called on his dog, Pickett, to herd four sheep located on a farm in rural Augusta County.
With whistle in hand, Armentrout commanded Pickett beside him and then sent the border collie off 400 yards to circle around the sheep.
To what appeared to be a microscopic glimpse of black fur across the field, Armentrout commanded Pickett to “come-by,” or move clockwise around the herd. The next commands were “steady, walk up, hold.”
It all led up to “that’ll do,” before Pickett retreated back to his partner.
“It’s like a racehorse, you got to hold them back,” Armentrout said. “This is your Nintendo game.”
Armentrout has been training a variety of working dogs for more than 40 years, taking the time with each to help the animal learn commands and how to herd. It’s a skill that he’s found a market for among the rolling farmlands of Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, with local farmers traveling to his bucolic acreage south of Staunton to learn the craft.
“You want a dog to think for itself, but be there to help them when they need help,” he said as he watched Pickett perform the balancing act of keeping the herd together.
As Pickett brought the sheep closer to Armentrout, the pitch of his whistle switched between soft and hard. The varying sounds signaled the dog to either move slowly or jerk through.
With the sheep less than 100 yards away, Armentrout called for two other dogs, Feather and Sam, to assist Pickett in forming a barrier that kept the sheep from straying.
The art of working cattle dogs was on full display.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” he said.
In total, Armentrout has 15 dogs that can herd cattle, sheep and ducks. Breeds he works with include border collies, Australian shepherds, blue and red heelers and kelpies.
When he gets a new dog, he usually doesn’t start the training until it’s at least a year old. Armentrout said the training typically lasts anywhere from six months to a year, adding that “each and every one is different.”
“You don’t want to burden them so much that they don’t want to learn,” he said. “If you enjoy learning, you’ll be more receptive to it.”
The process of training their Australian cattle dog started earlier for Michael Smiley and Gina Smith, who began Mattie’s schooling when she was eight-weeks old.
“We had a tame cow that we started her out with and she was terrified of it,” Smith said. “It took three days for her to attempt to move it, but she has kind of taught herself.”
With a following on Instagram as “mattie_the_cowdog,” she’s a frequent visitor to the Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sales in Harrisonburg, joining Smiley and Smith.
“Anywhere we go, she goes,” Smith said.
Smith said Mattie’s first encounter with a cow was during the first few days they had her, letting Mattie sit next to a two-day-old calf.
Mattie, now 5, can pick up on hand signals and manage a herd of cattle with confidence.
Smiley manages more than 600 cattle on multiple farms across Rockingham County, and with Mattie’s help and added manpower, the operation can run relatively smooth.
From the moment the front door opens in the morning to when the working boots are taken off at the end of the day, Smiley is accompanied by Mattie.
“When we hit the door, she is hitting the door, too,” Smiley said.
Her day typically starts with Smiley checking cows that are calving. If a cow is lost, Mattie is sent out into the woods to look for it.
When it comes time to feed the steers, Mattie jumps into the feeding alley to move the cattle to the lot. She manages to move the herd, nipping at the animals’ ankles.
“She has had stitches and staples before,” Smiley said. “But she helps with protection.”
Smiley said when Mattie was a year old, he was tagging newborn calves when a mother pushed him into a wire fence.
“She saved me from going to the hospital or worse,” he said.
Smiley said he can tell a difference when he is working with Mattie.
“A dog can fill in a space where a human can’t,” he said. “They can outsmart a human and look at things through a new perspective.”
Smiley said in his years of working with a dog, he would never want to experience what it would be like without one.
“It’s the way we have always done it,” he said. “Our way is doing it horseback and having a dog. It is kind of a lost art form.”