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Catawba College Math Professor Goes Beyond "Counting" Sheep

August 16, 2006

Category: Faculty, Mathematics


By Eric Proctor, Catawba College News Service

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Border Collies
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If the old saying about dogs is true, Dr. Jason Hunt has 11 best friends. But Zip, Fly, Sweep, Spot, Nova, Craig, and the others are more than just pets. In fact, Dr. Hunt warns that border collies in general do not make good pets.

So why get one ...   much less 11?   Dr. Hunt, an assistant professor of mathematics at Catawba College, spends time training them for sheep herding competitions when he is not training college students in mathematics skills.

Dr. Hunt chose to join the faculty of Catawba College in part because of his passion for sheep dogs. He took up the hobby while attending graduate school in Atlanta, but city life prevented him from having his own sheep.

"My goal was to have property," Dr. Hunt decided after growing tired of driving an hour outside the city just so his dogs could work with a friend's sheep. "That's one of the things I liked about Salisbury and Catawba."

Dr. Hunt got his wish, acquiring nearly 15 acres of property in Rowan County, 10 of which makes up a pasture for his own flock. He lives there with wife Meagan, who prepares the dogs for agility competition. This involves the dogs running through weave poles, across teeter totters, and jumping over hurdles.

The couple met eight years ago at a herding seminar and were married in Seattle four years ago. Meagan was already involved with training sheep dogs in agility, obedience, and herding.

"She married me, and we combined the dogs," Dr. Hunt recalled with a smile.

While their dogs initially brought them together, there is one canine in particular that causes the occasional marital dispute. Typically, dogs excel in one event or another. The Hunts' dog Tess, however, is a rare gem in the border collie world, succeeding in both herding and agility. Dr. Hunt and Meagan often participate in separate competitions, and naturally both want to claim Tess for their respectiveEvents. That was the case in late July when Dr. Hunt competed in Virginia while his wife packed her bags for competition in Mississippi.

The Hunts treat their dogs like athletes in order to help them achieve top performance. For instance, one of the agility dogs, Nova, exercises on an underwater treadmill three times a week, gets acupuncture once a week, and goes to the chiropractor once a month.

"We try to make sure she is just like any other athlete," explains Meagan, "in top physical shape."

Border ColliesDr. Hunt extends the sports analogy to explain the speed of the agility course versus the endurance needed for the herding: "Nova is more of a sprinter than a distance runner. The herding dogs are more like distance runners."

Deciding upon a dog is nothing more than an extensive recruiting process, using a series of factors to predict performance. Many of the Hunts' dogs come from overseas, and their success overseas is a good indicator of their future performance. Breeding, one of the most important factors, analyzes the past performance of the parents.

"It's kind of a crap shot, but you can increase your odds by looking for certain things in the pedigree," Dr. Hunt reveals. "Look at the parents, the lineage, how the parents work."

One of the Hunts' dogs, Fly, was bred from one of the last litters of a national nursery (dogs under 2) champion. Fly's father produced two other national champions.

The Hunts dabble in breeding of their own, but only when they want a puppy for themselves. When they do have a puppy, it isn't long before they start it on its rigorous training regiment.

"I start when they're about six weeks old," Meagan says. "You want the raw talent and you've got to train it. It's hours and hours of training."  

For Meagan, these hours add up to about five or six days a week. Her husband spends three days a week with the dogs.

"I should train more," Dr. Hunt admits, "with my younger dogs especially that aren't competing yet."

Dr. Hunt has a 10-month-old puppy that he has been training since she was about four to six months old. Although she had never even laid eyes on a sheep, she instinctively started working with them when first placed in the presence of the flock.

"She's kind of my project right now," Dr. Hunt says of the puppy, who has jumped the gun on other dogs who typically begin training at about a year old.

While the younger dogs can compete in the lower Ranch or Pro Novice classes, Dr. Hunt competes with his dog Zip in the Open class. This is the highest class, and qualifies both dog and owner to achieve professional classification.

Dr. Hunt is currently ranked 140th in the nation with Zip after three trials. This ranking is expected to improve since they are one of the few pairs that have only competed in three trials. The majority of their competitors have vied in five.

Dr. Hunt took third place in the North Carolina state championship in Lawndale over Memorial Day Weekend, in which he pitted his dog against 70 others.

"It was really the first time I'd done that well," he says with pride. "I was excited!"

Although financial awards are not as prevalent in agility competition, Meagan has achieved her share of success. She has qualified for nationals the past three years and plans to try out for the world team next year. She has also appeared with her dogs in competitions that have aired on "Animal Planet."

So, how exactly are the dogs trained for such competitions?

Meagan uses a device called a clicker, which is based on a process that was originally used to train dolphins at Sea World. The clicker, a little plastic box, produces a neutral noise that does not change like the human voice, which fluctuates with mood. This neutral sound is matched with a reward, such as a toy or food.

With his more experienced dogs, Dr. Hunt primarily concentrates on working on shedding, in which a dog divides a single flock of sheep into two groups. The younger dogs, however, do little of this and require lots of other work.

He uses whistles of different pitch and length to get his dogs to move in a desired direction. He combines these with traditional verbal commands that originated in Great Britain, where the first known sheep dog trial was held.

"That'll do," he'll yell across the pasture, and his dog will abandon the flock and take a well-deserved dip in the stock tank.

While this is rewarding, Dr. Hunt explains that the herding dogs don't need as much exterior motivation as the agility dogs. The herders thrive off of their duties.

"It's like a switch you flip on these dogs and they want to get out there and work," Dr. Hunt says. "It's amazing that it [the work of herding] is reward enough for them. For me, it's a joy to see the dogs work."  

While Dr. Hunt is simply content watching his dogs perform their tasks, he experiences other benefits.

"I enjoy being outside, doing things with my dogs," he says. "If it wasn't herding, I'd certainly be doing something else with them. And it's something that both my wife and I enjoy, so that's a big plus."

Dr. Hunt's next trial is the Oakridge Farm Stock Dog Trial in Albion, IL Sept. 2-4. While this would be quite a drive to see him compete with Zip, you can catch the two in North Carolina Nov. 2-5 at the Rural Hill Stock Dog Trial in Huntersville. For more information on this trial, visit http://www.ruralhillfarm.org/sheepdog.htm.

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