Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning to Work: The Continuing Education of Ernie the Border Collie (and Dan the Shepherd)

I spent yesterday moving our ewes from a targeted grazing contract just outside of Auburn to our main leased pasture closer to home.  This work involved hauling five trailer loads of ewes from Christian Valley back to Oak Hill Ranch near the corner of Mt. Vernon Road and Shanley Road.  I took our border collies Mo and Ernie to help me with the task.

Loading the trailer directly from our electro-net paddocks takes patience and good dogs - too much pressure and the sheep blow through the fence; too little pressure and they don't get in the trailer.  Once I'd moved the ewes into a smaller holding paddock, I set up the trailer and asked Mo to bring the flock to the rear of the trailer with the hope that they'd jump right in.  As sometimes happens, the ewes were reluctant to load, and Mo was not creating enough motion on his own.  In the past, I've had problems working Mo and Ernie together - I sometimes have to put pressure on Ernie (with a harsh voice - not physical pressure) to get him to listen.  Being a very sensitive dog, Mo will often quit working in these situations.  With this in mind, I brought Ernie into the paddock to see how they'd work together.

Ernie was great!  On several occasions, he clearly wanted to run straight at the flock rather than cast himself around them (this has been a problem for Ernie throughout his training).  Each time, I was able to lay him down and ask him to flank - and each time, he took my correction and cast around on a sufficiently wide flank.  And because he took my corrections and commands quietly, Mo continued to work for me as well.

When we arrived at Oak Hill Ranch with our first load of ewes, I decided I'd start with Mo.  I should mention here that Mo is intact, while Ernie has been neutered.  I soon realized that there was a dog in heat nearby - Mo's head just wasn't in the game, so to speak!  Ernie had to get the job done by himself!

Unloading the ewes and putting them into their new paddock was fairly straightforward.  The one complication was the fact that the ewes could walk past the paddock opening through a narrow corridor (with the electro-net on one side and a permanent fence on the other).  Ernie needed to get around these ewes to turn them back.  Until recently, he would usually run along side the sheep to get to their heads - which would speed them up and potentially push them through the electro-net.  Yesterday, he figured out how to get through the barbed wire fence so he could cast himself more widely around the ewes - it was beautiful!  And it wasn't a fluke - he did this several times!

Towards the end of the day, I used Ernie to gather and move a small group of lambs to a new paddock.  The lambs were scattered, but Ernie sent himself around the perimeter of the paddock so that he could gather the entire flock.  He brought them across a small creek, through two gates, and finally into the new paddock.  His only hiccup was that he decided once they were in the new paddock that he should gather them again - but he allowed me to call him off before we had too much chaos (a year ago, he'd have ignored me - and I would have yelled at him!).

At the end of the day, I stopped off for a beer with a few fellow farmers - each of whom is at a similar point in his farming career.  We talked about how some of the work gets easier - things that worried us as younger and less experienced farmers and ranchers no longer seem like such a big deal.  I find that I'm much more calm and confident when I'm working with Ernie than I used to be - and my attitude translates to calmness and confidence in Ernie.  He still has his moments, and I still lose my cool on occasion, but we're a much better team.  I know some of my confidence stems from the fact that Ernie's work has improved, but I think Ernie's work is improving because I'm taking a more positive approach to working with him.

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