While I'm still in the midst of making the transition from "shepherd in charge" at Flying Mule Farm to deputy livestock manager / director at McCormack Sheep and Grain, I've learned some interesting things about dogs in the last two weeks. These thoughts are fairly random - please bear with me!
I've been using Taff (my 11-year-old border collie) and Ernie exclusively - Mo is on a brief vacation providing stud services. Taff has slowed down significantly over the last year. He's big for a border collie, and the years of physical work have started to take their toll. His eyesight is diminished, as is his hearing (or so I thought - more on this below). Ernie, as some of you know, loves to work - sometimes with me, sometimes for himself. He's made big strides in his willingness to work as a partner with me, but we still have a long way to go.
On my second day at McCormack's, I helped Ellen Skillings (my friend and the livestock manager at the ranch), gather approximately 1500 ewes out of a 300+ acre field and bring them into the corrals for vaccinations. As Ernie doesn't handle gathering particularly well, I left him back. I brought Taff, and Ellen brought her top dog (Emer) and another younger dog who is very similar to Ernie. We gathered about 1/3 of the ewes, and then Ellen left us to look for the rest of the sheep. Taff and I moved the ewes toward the gate, picking up several hundred more as we went. After about 10 minutes, we met up with Ellen and the rest of the flock. The three dogs bunched the two groups and drove them towards and then through the gate onto the road to the corrals. Taff was amazing! Nothing wrong with his hearing - he took my commends from several hundred yards away!
This week, with Ellen gone, I've continued to work on getting the ewes vaccinated before laming begins next month. This works involves bringing the sheep into the corrals, putting smaller groups into the crowding alley, and then putting the vaccinated ewes back on pasture (we sort those that are carrying twins off from the open ewes or those with singles - the twin-bearing ewes get more and better forage). I have been using Taff in the mornings and to do long drives back to pasture. Ernie gets to work in the corrals after lunch as well as on shorter drives back to pasture - including a complicated task that I'll describe in more detail.
Taff has been working fairly well in the corrals. He gets a bit intimidated by stompy ewes, and he hates working rams (due to receiving a concussion from an aggressive ram several years ago). That said, he's been responsive and has been especially good at driving sheep up the road. Yesterday, he even cast himself wide around one of my ewes who was out of her pasture and brought her back through an open gate (a single sheep is very difficult for most dogs to work).
Ernie has shown his confidence in the corrals. I can send him around a group of sheep in a pen, and he'll take my flank command without hesitation. He quietly walks through the sheep along the fenceline until he's behind them, and he then holds his ground quite well. One of the groups of ewes has to go back to a field that requires us to through the corner of a field that contains the remainder of the un-vaccinated ewes. To avoid mixing the groups, Ernie and I have been pushing the un-vaccinated group up and over the hill so that they are out of sight from the gates. Ernie has a hard time driving - he desperately wants to get to the heads of the sheep, but he's handled this task fairly well. The first day, we walked, and he stayed with me the entire way. Yesterday, I rode the ATV - a new experience for Ernie. He handled it well - did some short flanks to bring stragglers into the main bunch. However, as I shifted my attention to turning the ATV around after we'd driven them over the hill, he saw his chance to run to their heads (and ignore me). Fortunately, I was able to call him off quickly and go back down the hill (leaving the sheep in place). We then proceeded to bring two groups of ewes back into their two separate pastures. With the first group, Ernie decided to work for himself for a brief moment. I was able to convince him that I was still in the picture - and then he worked beautifully! He stayed well off the bunch (these range ewes have significantly larger flight zones than our own sheep), but he maintained contact with the sheep and kept them controlled as they moved through the gates.
These experiences lead me to several observations about Ernie. First, as I've written before, Ernie requires my constant focus and attention. He can sense when my attention is diverted and will almost always take advantage of these lapses. Second, Ernie is beginning to discover that there may be more work than he can get done if he acts like an idiot - unnecessary running will just wear him out!
Finally, some observations about guard dogs. Last year, we traded dogs with McCormack Ranch. They took Boise, a male akbash-cross that we had purchased as a puppy. Boise is incredibly athletic, which makes him difficult to contain in our electro-net. In exchange, we took Rosie (a daughter of Boise), who had taken to hanging out with bummer lambs at McCormack's. Rosie quickly adjusted to staying with sheep in electro-net, and we found that we could trust her to stay with her sheep even when we were moving them from property to property.
We've now moved Rosie and Reno (our other male Anatolian dog) with our sheep to McCormack Ranch. Reno went first, and we left him with one of our breeding groups. However, when he saw us moving the McCormack ewes from the adjacent field last week, he decided to come along to see what was happening. Rosie went this week and is so far staying with our sheep.
Our dogs have joined Boise and Annie at McCormack Ranch. Unlike our system, where we want the dogs to stay in our smaller paddocks (mostly so they don't get on road or bother the neighbors), the dogs at McCormack's roam throughout the entire 3900 acres. In many ways, the dogs in a system like this work because they've displaced coyotes as the large canine predator in this ecosystem - predators that view sheep as part of their "pack" (rather than their prey base). It's been very interesting to observe their interactions with each other and with our border collies in this type of setting.
More observations to come....