Herding


FirstLambs

Notwithstanding the twelve unplanned lambs born in January and February, here are the official first lambs of the officially planned lambing season! A couple of white and brown ewelambs. Lambs should really start arriving in earnest today, and this ewe was due tomorrow. So, these twin girls got a jumpstart on a sunny Thursday. I didn’t see them born, just found them clean and fed on a midday check, my favorite kind.

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MaggieSometimes when I need to do a simple chore with one sheep, I’ll just take my crook down with me when I feed, and try to snag the single sheep with the crook while she’s eating. At those times, I prefer not to bring Maggie with me, as her presence anywhere on the property will make the sheep bunch up in anticipation of being moved. So if I want them to otherwise relax and eat, or spread out so I can look at them, she is not helpful to have around.

But often once I get down there and try to catch the wanted sheep, I can’t. You have one shot with a crook to get them, and once they know you’re after them, they are on guard and you don’t get a second chance. So that’s when I call up to the house on my cell phone, and ask Kirk to send Maggie down.

The first couple of times I did this, she was a little confused about the scenario. Usually we all go for walks together: the two humans and the two dogs. Kirk sending her out solo made her spin in front of the porch with a questioning look, until she heard me call her, then she’d shoot down to the field to assist. She can get from the house to the field in about 2.2 seconds if she knows there is sheep duty! She blasts down there, full throttle, squeezing under gates and sprinting in a frenzy to go right to work.

It didn’t take her long to figure out the pattern. From the window, she can see me in the field with the sheep. And I think she can see me struggle with the crook and not catch a sheep. She knows I need her help. And she is ready for the phone call.

So nowadays, Kirk says, when his phone rings in this instance, she perks up and goes to the door and looks back at him with expectation. She says, it’s for me, open the door. Open-mouthed smileClever border collie!

lambweaning Thursday night I separated some of the lambs that need to be weaned. I’m actually not going to wean most of the lambs. It seems that convention is to always wean all lambs at around 60 or 90 days, and that’s what most people do, and what most books recommend. I think the reasons people do this can be several:

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Maggie1

Friday was a very rainy, windy, cold and stormy day. And it was a day that mandatorily held moving the sheep to the far pasture. They had run out of grass in the last section of the RCG field. I was hoping to finish lambing in the RCG field, because it’s less of a walk for me from the house. And I almost reached the goal, with #33 lambing in the morning, at least all of the concerning lambers were done. The Jacob sheep was the only one left, and I didn’t figure she’d have any complications this time.

So, I spent three hours breaking camp, for the sheep, that is.

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dogabuseA sneaky person posted this, and another similar homemade sign, out by our pasture this week. My favorite part is the one about the bed. 🙂 Seriously, it is a double-edged sword living on a well traveled road, with our pasture visible to passers-by. On one hand, we can sell as much lamb as we could ever produce, and we’ve made a lot of new friends.

On the other hand, we get a lot of interruptions from people stopping by to ask questions about the sheep, or to let us know there is a dog in our field! :-0 This can get annoying, but I try to be polite to these well-meaning folks, since they might want to buy lamb from us.

We are blessed to live in a region where there are many well-off, well-educated city folks who make it a priority to purchase meat and produce from local farms and natural or organic sources. And they are willing and able to pay top dollar. The flip side is, these people don’t always realize how farms work, even good farms, and they can stir up trouble for farmers.

The anonymous signs raise an interesting question- is the life of a livestock guardian dog abusive? Is being out in the rain and snow with no shelter detrimental to our dog’s well-being? Well, to be fair, there are meager shelters in our pasture, so she’s not quite shelter-less (but I’ll tell ya: she’s never going to get a bed!) She doesn’t choose to use the shelters, however, she seems happy to be near her sheep, and indifferent to the weather, gleefully rolling about in the mud and getting filthy.

She is a Maremma, after all, this breed has been developed for centuries to do this very job. They are equipped with a double coat, which keeps them quite warm and dry at the skin (even when they appear drenched on the exterior). They are generally a very lazy dog, Bronte sleeps most of the day, and entertains herself by digging holes and wandering about the rest of the time. She is not terribly interested in people or other dogs, other than to try to shoo them away from her territory. She enjoys hassling the llama. She likes her homemade dinners I bring ever day. When I leave the pasture, she doesn’t pine after me like a regular dog would. She seems, well, pretty happy, in her own, simple world.

And, for the record, actually she is wild- I have a hard time catching her without mechanical means or food bribery! Really, these LGDs are just not like a regular domestic pet breed of dog.

I, myself, have reflected on this subject of her welfare, because part of me considers an LGD’s life to be pathetic, compared to my perception of what a competition dog’s life can be. But, is that perception accurate? Our Border Collies live in the house and have a dog door that accesses a small potty area outside. So their environment is pretty constrained, unless we take them out for walks or to work sheep. And that’s better than most working Border Collies, who live in 8×10 kennels except at times when they are at work.

Our dogs can sleep on the couch and on the bed. Sleep is a common theme amongst all dogs, so no matter where they live, they usually snooze much of the day. Just as often as I see our dogs asleep on the couch, I see them asleep on the wood floor, or out in the dirt in the rain. So they don’t seem to care that much about bedding, or about rain. I think because we are bare-skinned and wimpy about rain, we assume animals are as well. But actually, animals stay pretty comfortable in most weather, if they are equipped with an outdoor coat and proper nutrition.

The Border Collies get to work sheep, and they are very enthusiastic about that. But, it’s not all fun- it’s hard work, they get yelled at when they make a mistake, they get hurt, and I often require them to do jobs that they don’t prefer. I flatter myself to think they enjoy my company in the house, but would they trade that for 24/7 freedom in a pasture? I don’t know.

I have a friend who owns a Chihuahua, and that poor dog is always being  stepped on, scooped up, manhandled, and carted around. He often looks irritated and shys away from people. Who knows, maybe if he could trade his life in a jeweled handbag for a boring life in a rainy pasture, he would.

So, I guess, to manage public perception, we’ll put a dog house down in the pasture, even though Bronte will probably not use it. It’s important to me that people who drive by perceive that our animals are well-cared-for, whatever their definition of that may be. I could live without the belligerent, anonymous handmade signs. But, we do think these are funny. We’ve taken to calling the dog “No Bed Bronte,” because definitely, I am not getting her a mattress!

bronteandhershey2First of all, we finally agreed on a name for our Maremma: “Bronte” (spelled without the umlaut- because who wants to spell a dog’s name with an umlaut?). Here is a photo of her with the ram, taken by our neighbor Marla. She and the ram get on pretty well. If she tries to tug at his ears too much and gets on his nerves, he pushes her down and hurts her. So, they have their relationship sorted out! 🙂

You’ll note the long-line she’s wearing. This is a  great secret I learned long ago from Patty Ruzzo in a seminar. Patty is now passed on, but she was a well-known dog trainer who was highly successful in Obedience competition, and I learned many valuable things from her and think of her often.

We all know that puppies usually go through a “keep-away” age, where they start to learn they can run faster than we can, and that being caught is not fun. But, traditional store-bought dog long-lines used for controlling keep-away dogs are heavy and cumbersome. If you are training a dog to jump or herd, regular long-lines can get dangerously tangled on things. So this was Patty’s solution: grosgrain ribbon. This is a special kind of ribbed ribbon you can buy at a fabric store- it is quite strong, and inexpensive. Tie 10 yards of it to a brass clip, and you have a fabulous, lightweight long-line that “floats” along as the dog runs. It’s slippery so it rarely tangles with solid objects. And, if a dog really hits it hard, it breaks, saving their neck from serious injury.

This long-line is so lightweight the dog forgets he is wearing it. And, the best part is that you can step on it when you are calling him, and then just stand their casually like you haven’t done anything at all. He has no idea what has just occurred, and he starts to develop a superstitious belief that you are God-like, and can stop him in his tracks when you call him. Much better than stooping to pick up a heavy long-line, so the dog figures out “oh, if I run fast enough to get that long-line out of your reach, I’m home-free!” Instead, with this long-line, the dog starts to believe that when you call, there is no choice but to come.

So, this is what Bronte is wearing most of the time. She is still at a very silly age, and is easily intimidated by us, so when we are out in the pasture, she bounces around and woofs, trying to initiate the keepaway game, half afraid of being snagged. When she does this, I ingore it, and now and then, step on the long-line, catch her, pet and praise her then let her go.  The long-line is reasonably safe for her to wear in the pasture- there is not much for it to get stuck on. She has broken (or chewed?) it a couple of times, but I just re-tie it while she’s enjoying eating her dinner, and she is rarely the wiser. Her dinner is my best puppet string: she must eat it while I pet her if she wants to eat.

I used a line like this for many months on my “remedial” Border Collie, Gene. Gene was horrible about keepaway, for much of the first year of her life! Especially in a pasture with sheep. And, when Gene is frightened or upset, she flees, unlike most dogs who seek comfort from their owners when scared. I attribute this brilliant and simple invention to me eventually getting Gene under voice control, and now she has very good call-offs when she is working livestock, and will even reluctantly come to me when she is hurt or panicked.

So, I’m hoping, if it worked for Gene, it’ll work for Bronte! So far it seems to be doing the trick! Training an LGD is very different for me, as I only have a few minutes per day of interaction with her, as compared to a competition and house dog that gets many hours of intensive interaction per day. So, I have to make the most of every minute I’m in the pasture, to teach her the things she needs to know!

Last weekend I competed in an AKC herding trial with both of my younger dogs, Maggie and Idgie. The trial was lovely, well-run and organized, the weather was sunny but not-to-hot, and the Whidbey Island farm where we stayed is always gorgeous. I love the drive to get there too. It’s a very nice weekend for camping in the trailer, and I rarely miss that trial because of it.

 

My dogs, however, didn’t perform as well as I might have hoped. Of course, it always comes down to one’s training; there is nobody to blame but the trainer! J

 

I ran Idgie on two different sheep courses- an open field course, and an arena course. She had nice outruns in the open field, but was way too pushy on both courses, moving the stock too quickly, which causes her to struggle to control them. And, she was “slicing”, or cornering too tightly, instead of offering nice “square flanks” where the dog’s turning does not affect the livestock’s course. Idgie ended up only passing one out of four runs, and her score was still not that great (though vastly better than last year at the same farm, so I guess she IS improving in some ways). But, I’ve hardly worked her on sheep in the last six months, so I guess I just need to brush her up on several things. She did call off nicely, every time, which I do appreciate. And, as always, she covers well—she will not lose an animal, which is something that many other handlers and other-breed owners cannot say about their dogs.

 

I only put Maggie on arena ducks, because she is struggling with flat outruns right now, as well as being able to listen to and process my commands while simultaneously using her brain to read and respond to the livestock. She worked hard on the ducks, and almost passed on Sunday. But, the ducks were very dogged from being worked at multiple trials during the season, and they were challenging for even the most experienced dogs.

 

Maggie does an excellent job of thinking on her own, she does not need me to tell her where to be or how to respond to stock movements, and she naturally gathers livestock together and moves them towards me if she is not given any instructions. Through much of her runs, I had few comments other than “good dog, wise choices.” I have worked hard with both dogs to teach them “intelligent disobedience” which is to override a command from me if they perceive that a different action should be taken. This is an important skill for a Border Collie, to be able to cover livestock in an open field, they cannot wait for us to tell them what to do or which way to go.

 

But, in young dogs, sometimes, they can take this freedom too liberally, it takes a long time to learn (and teach) good judgment. So, Maggie is going through a phase of using too much of her own judgment, and very frequently overrides my commands to push the stock in a direction I don’t prefer (usually she resists moving them away from me, as her gathering desire is very strong). So, we will have to work on that too. She is such a stylish worker though, I really hope I can craft her into a good trial dog.

 

So, I have my training work cut out for me. Hopefully getting my own sheep will really help. My fencing is just about done, so I’m staring to shop, hoping I can buy eight or so ewes in the near future.