Seven Springs Speaker Spotlight: Heather Houlahan, Farm Dog Trainer

Reader Contribution by Erica Binns
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 Get to know Heather Houlahan of Brandywine Farm.

What are you going to speak about at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR?

I’ll cover the nitty-gritty of finding, choosing, and raising a useful general-purpose farm dog, concentrating on the breed I know best – English shepherds – but including practical information for homesteaders and farmers who would prefer another kind of dog, such as a cur, border collie, Australian shepherd, working-bred German shepherd or Beauceron, cross-bred farm collie. A little bit of farm collie history, and a lot of practical advice that can help families raise a dog who is both a working partner and a great companion.

It’s typical for agricultural events include a stockwork demonstration, often with border collies who compete in trials. These are always impressive, but it can be impossible for a mere mortal to connect “where I am” to “what I see.” And a specialist stock dog, specialist livestock guardian, specialist hunting dog, specialist watchdog, specialist family pet adds up to way more dogs than most people want to or should try to maintain. We’ll talk about getting started with a dog who, while perhaps not as highly tuned as a trial sheepdog, requires less expertise to train and is more adaptable to the needs of a small farmer, especially someone with many species of stock, free-range poultry, crops, and free-range children.

What are you most looking forward to sharing with FAIR attendees?

The good news that their great-grandparents’ “Ol’ Shep” has been preserved in North America, and what it means to live with one of these versatile, intelligent, useful dogs.

On another front, I can’t make promises, but it’s possible that we will be able to “share” some of our imminent litter of English shepherd puppies at the FAIR. These pups won’t be for sale – I expect all will be assigned to their new families by then – but I may be able to demonstrate some of the traits that a buyer should look for when evaluating young puppies. Since we only breed a litter every 3-4 years, this is lucky timing.

Tell us about your background with your particular topic.

I’ve been a search-and-rescue dog handler for 20 years, and a professional dog trainer for 17. Eleven years ago I got my first English shepherd, to be my SAR partner and training assistant. Pip and her children, plus an endless procession of foster dogs from National English Shepherd Rescue, have led my husband and me into our dream of rural life and livestock farming. We now live with four English shepherds, including one former foster boy from a notorious cruelty prosecution who has moved in to stay, and literally as I write this our Rosie is presenting us with the next generation in the kitchen of our farmhouse.

Why should fairgoers attend your presentation?

Most farmsteads and homesteads are a better place with a thoughtfully bred, well-selected, properly raised and trained farm dog. A good dog makes a farmer’s life easier, her stock safer and better-managed, her family more secure.

However, not every breeder whose marketing claims that he produces “farm dogs” or “stock dogs” is being honest, and there are genetic and husbandry concerns that every buyer should be aware of so she can find a healthy, stable, intelligent friend from a breeder who stands behind her dogs, or a rescue/shelter that evaluates them honestly. A little patience, impulse control and skepticism on the front end can head off heartbreak down the road.

How will you get to the FAIR, and how far do you have to travel?

We will drive down for the day, since we will be caring for puppies in addition to our usual complement of livestock. I feel lucky to live less than two hours from Seven Springs, about 90 miles away from our Butler County, Pa., farm.

What are you most looking forward to at the FAIR?

Oh, I hope to have time to take in many other speakers and meet other smallholders, new farmers, sustainable agriculture and local food advocates. I look forward to chatting with the ALBC representatives; our club’s English shepherd breed conservation mission is the counterpart in the dog world to the work that ALBC does with poultry and hoofstock.

What advice do you have for attendees?

Oh I wouldn’t presume – I’ll be attending to my first FAIR myself.

If you were stranded on a deserted island and could have only one thing, what would you choose?

That’s easy! What a softball! I’ve always said that each of my English shepherds was a dog with whom you’d want to share a foxhole — another friend calls them “a dog you could go down the river with.” So a mere desert island is a no-brainer. I know that any of my English shepherds would have my back and help me with every challenge, from lions and tigers and bears to getting food to intelligent conversation. They already do all of the above and more.

Thanks, Heather. We’ll see you at the FAIR!

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about the Seven Springs, Pa., FAIR Sept. 24-25, and upcoming FAIRs in other locations. Tickets are on sale now.

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