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Corporate Collies

STRESSED EXECUTIVES expecting a gentle motivational training course might get a bit of a shock with the training course run by Corporate Collies, where work colleagues are taught to use shepherding commands and gestures to get a team of dogs to work together and herd sheep, sometimes testing their communication skills further by replacing the dogs with fellow colleagues.

The course is run by Barbara Sykes, a farmer whose CV includes representing England in international sheepdog trials and training border collies to appear in ITV’s Peak Practice. Her course developed when she realised that "everything you do when you train dogs has a parallel to the workforce, family life, training". She switched from teaching agricultural students to the corporate market some five years ago.

"It was a natural move," Sykes says. "There are close parallels between ‘pack and profession.’ Participants draw their own conclusions from working with the dogs and associate them with the way they work and interact with others. It’s about keeping control, teamwork, communication and body language."

During a typical Corporate Collies course, participants arrive and spend the first 15-20 minutes being treated to a little traditional TLC. "They’ll have tea, coffee and a biscuit," Sykes says. "It’s an opportunity for us to assess them, see who’s a bit nervous, who’s going to be a bit bolshie— there’s always one. So by the time they go out they’re relaxed — they can’t work the dogs if they’re tense."

Corporate Collies operates from a farm on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire. It is home to about 17 dogs, although it’s usually a team of six border collies that go out to work with course participants. The wily dogs are used to dealing with the ‘suits’, so it’s a good communicator who will bend them to his or her will.

Sykes says there are "no boundaries to the type of company that this activity benefits". Among the satisfied customers are law firms, financial institutions, caterers, engineers, local government officials and theologians.

As well as "corporate collies", the team building and leadership skills course, Sykes is developing sessions for bullied children and adults with low self-esteem or self-confidence, and children with special needs.

Annabel Bayross booked the course for her colleagues at Barclays Resource Centre in London. "We went for team-building primarily," she says. Apart from it being "absolutely freezing" and the sheep "crazy", her strongest recollection of the day was that it was "quite hilarious". "We had to learn how to command the dogs, manoeuvring the sheep around obstacles. It was a lot harder than we thought. It’s not a traditional corporate day out, but we learnt a lot."

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