Forty miles north of the Hollywood sign and a world away from the palm-adorned L.A. of juice bars and luxury shops, a group of people in sunglasses and brimmed hats, their dogs at their sides, have gathered in a dusty desert pasture of a place called Drummond Ranch to watch a puppy try to herd a flock of three sheep. Like me, they’ve driven from various parts of Southern California to give their animals a chance at connecting—reconnecting—with their herding instinct, an inner aptitude dogs do not tap into while wafting around urban dog parks, lounging at outdoor bars, or, as my dog once did, trying to herd my rollerblades when I went skating.
The puppy in the spotlight, Kota, belongs to a couple wearing vintage overalls and Birkenstocks who arrived in a Range Rover. Kota is here for her “instinct test”—a dog’s first time being introduced to sheep. For this unique admissions test, advance prep is futile: Some dogs have a lightbulb moment; others don’t react to the sheep at all. “Do us proud,” the couple say to Kota as they unleash her into the ring, then stand with their arms around each other, watching expectantly as a handler with a cigar in his mouth evaluates her performance. A smattering of other ranch clients sit around several picnic tables waiting for their dogs’ chance in the ring. Nearby, newborn lambs totter around in their pen, and working dogs relax in cages on the beds of old pickup trucks.
I’m part of a small but ever expanding group of Angelenos who make a frequent beeline for this ranch in the dry expanses of the Antelope Valley. I started by bringing my dog, Banjo, a miniature Australian shepherd with one blue eye and one brown, in the hope that he’d have the instinct to herd, which would enable me to sign him up for herding lessons, in which he would develop his innate skills. To my surprise, he passed the test, and twice a week now we drive two hours for two five-minute sessions with the sheep, spread out over several hours of hanging around the ranch. On our way, he sits next to me while I get an iced coffee at a drive-through (he scores a dollop of whipped cream called a Puppuccino). His collar jangles with a tracking device and his personalized nameplate. But when we get to the ranch and he’s loosed with the sheep, he becomes a working animal with a clear-cut purpose and a mesmerizing, instinctual momentum.
“It’s like the dogs suddenly discover their reason for being,” says Bill Hackman, a writer who drove from the Hollywood Hills to the ranch with his Australian shepherd, Lola. It seems to affect the dog owners similarly. “They feel a primal satisfaction from seeing their dog herd,” says Amanda Bulat, who works at a social networking company and assists at the ranch, where twice-weekly private herding lessons cost around $750 per month. Here, our booming dog adoration has nothing to do with cuddly comfort and cuteness—with the dog as pet. Herding feels like entering into a primal human-animal partnership from a pre-contemporary era. Watching Banjo do his thing in the ring, amid the sun-scorched high chaparral landscape, I suddenly see him as a conduit to a more natural, unencumbered, elemental existence.
“What happens here is emotional and intellectual,” Bulat says. “People just want their dogs to experience something. That energy and that intelligence have to go somewhere. All I want my dog to be is a contributing, productive member of society,” she says, gesturing at her miniature schnauzer, Bruce, slumped at her feet in the crushing heat.
It isn’t uncommon to meet people who come every Sunday, a routine as therapeutic, it seems, as a standing date at church or a yoga studio. Knowledge of the ranch spreads mostly by word of mouth, yet appointments book up months ahead; signing up for one feels like getting an audition. One man brings his dog every week from Beverly Hills despite his dog’s not having yet passed the instinct test; the man seems to like the trip out to the desert, and he holds out hope that one day his dog may become more attuned to the sheep. Another couple brought their dog 52 weeks in a row, because they found the environment of the ranch to be a healing space—both for their rescue animal and for themselves.
“We want it to be a journey,” Drummond Ranch’s owner, Janna Duncan, tells me of the relationship that develops among dog, human, and sheep. Her first L.A. ranch, which she acquired in 1993, was on the Tarzana estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan. A producer persuaded Duncan to open a Malibu location—lots of film people on the Westside wanted to bring their dogs—and found land for her far up in the remote hills above the Pacific, a place where the vibe brought to mind the ranch in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Wildfires in 2018 destroyed the Malibu site, and now Duncan offers all classes at her headquarters in Antelope Valley, which straddles rural desert and modern suburbia. Film companies often come out to shoot high desert scenes, or if they need to film explosions.
“We have a lot of film industry people, and they are real control freaks,” Duncan tells me. Directors often think they can call the shots when their dogs are in the ring, but Duncan knows the animals are behaving out of instinct, not as pliant actors taking instruction. At the ranch humans are forced to learn to relinquish their authority. Duke, the late actor James Gandolfini’s dog, “did a lot of herding, just because he had the instinct. But [Gandolfini] thought it was him getting the dog to do it,” Duncan says. (Duncan also teaches the herding component of celebrity trainer Cesar Millan’s $5,000 five-day workshops at his Dog Psychology Center.)
“It’s better for networking than playing golf,” Duncan says of the inadvertent corridor of power at her ranch. One of her clients was in the middle of shooting The Bourne Ultimatum but paused to take a call from Duncan about how much money to ask for when she shot a Harley-Davidson commercial with her dogs. Herding goes far beyond those sorts of social connections, though. “It connects people to themselves, teaches them how to be more honest with themselves,” Duncan says. “They can be freer out here, get back to a life with nature.”
Herding, which is defined as the calm, controlled movement of livestock, is the fastest-growing dog sport, and it centers not only on competitive potential—whether a dog can win at trials—but on getting in touch with the dog’s instinctual side. Peter Michael Bauer, one of the founders of the ever-expanding and increasingly hip rewilding movement, which seeks to return land and species to their natural, uncultivated states, puts it this way: “We’re living in an environment that’s no longer matched to our biology.” Which, some would say, is the source of our, and our dogs’, malaise. “These dogs were designed or domesticated for a specific purpose,” Bauer says, “and now they’re not living out that purpose. Bringing them to the sheep empowers dogs. And it’s deeply satisfying for humans to [help that happen].”
The interest in dogs as instinct-driven animals taps into a back-to-nature strain that is a cultural mainstay these days, from the language and popularity of Taylor Swift’s nature-centered album Folklore to cottagecore, the keto diet, and the fascination with ancestral and primitive skills. Now owners are bringing their dogs—and themselves—back to nature. “Most people don’t know what wildness is,” Bauer says. “If we can help rewild our animals, in a sense, we’re also rewilding ourselves.”
The $4.5 trillion global wellness industry of crystals and sound baths isn’t filling the void of contemporary urban living. Paul Hackett, Duncan’s business partner, noticed that many clients were seeking a deeper engagement than anything they had in their overstimulated yet brittle L.A. lives. “Our ancestors knew when storms were coming. They felt the rhythm of the earth. We’re way divorced from that now. A working dog is a means to connect back to the beginning of time.”
Sarah Tapscott, a television writer and producer, came to the ranch with her dog Gordon, enraptured with the idea that he could be secretly harboring star power. “I’ve always wanted to feel like I was born with something I was good at, without ever having to try,” she tells me. “It would be really cool to see that all I had to do was unlock that side of my dog.” But Gordon failed the instinct test. Driving home, she tells me, “I felt so sad, so disappointed. I wanted to be able to tell other people, ‘This is what my dog does now.’ And I wanted to say to him, ‘Okay, we’ve taken you into nature, beyond the 10-mile radius of an Erewhon’ ” (the Los Angeles luxury grocery store). “ ‘When we remove your $50 collar, what kind of dog are you?’ ” Tapscott’s close friend Tori Coyne, who works at a film studio, now brings her Chihuahua, Bunny, every Sunday to work the sheep. “She wants to be a rugged Chihuahua,” Coyne says.
Part of the allure of visiting the ranch is the sense of being in conversation with a rugged, rural California that seems increasingly bygone—a land of dusty ranches populated by Basque shepherds who came here during the Gold Rush. The famous Scottish-born naturalist John Muir opens his memoir, My First Summer in the Sierra, charting his solitary journey with a Saint Bernard named Carlo alongside a flock of sheep being driven from the scorching Central Valley to the cool Sierra mountain pastures (musing as he goes that he “might learn to live like the wild animals”). In Where I Was From, Joan Didion describes a particular mood of nostalgia surrounding the idea of what she calls “old California,” the sense that “ ‘true California’ has been largely obliterated.” Coming to the ranch with their dogs, Duncan notes, “exposes people to this other California.” As we talked, her 14-year-old border collie, Bill, who works every day, sat next to her. “Sure, you can jump in the ocean, see palm trees, and drive down Sunset. Which is all wonderful. But there is something else here.”
Duncan’s point echoes a broader movement. “People have a longing to feel connected to the land around them,” says primitive skills teacher Woniya Thibeault, who survived in the Arctic wilderness for 73 days on the reality TV show Alone. During the pandemic, thousands attended Thibeault’s online gatherings, where they learned to live like our ancestors, self-sufficient and off the grid. Of sheepherding, Thibeault says, “We need a place like those ranches with instinct tests for humans! It’s easy to see the animals in our lives as having those instincts, but it’s harder for us to see them in ourselves, and to use our bodies and our nervous systems for what they evolved to do.”
In the past year of rootless virtual work, of life mediated by screens, the herding appointments an hour from our house were often the only tangible dates my boyfriend and I would make sure to be back in Los Angeles for. Months into quarantine, I’d zone out almost instantly in front of the television, but watching my dog with the sheep was captivating and somehow active; I was full of anticipation when it was his turn to herd. (Certainly the last time I had seen a group of adults as present as they are on Sundays at the ranch, so attuned to the physical space around them, was in the studio audience for sitcoms at Warner Bros.—where electronics were confiscated.) At first, full of energy and excitement, acting largely on his predator drive, Banjo would just bite the sheep as he chased them, tufts of wool stuck in his mouth, and Paul, his teacher, told me he had trouble with control, focus, and taking direction. I felt a pang of shame—people were watching his performance. Over the course of a month, though, Banjo evolved; one day he rounded up the sheep and brought them to me and then, as a finale, herded them into their pen, where they belonged. I was surprised at how adept he was, and how subtly—instinctively—he now grasped what to do.
I thought about Tapscott, the TV producer, and how her dog Gordon’s “best friend,” Bunny, the very small Chihuahua, turned out—surprisingly—to be the “star.” Bunny was, literally, the underdog, and she proved capable of something nobody had expected of her. She had a latent instinct that her owner helped her tap into. Tapscott held out hope for Gordon, though, and for a different ending. “They want Gordon to return when he feels a bit more fit,” she told me, “which is the best Hollywood story ever.”
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW