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Stock Dog Biathalon

This week at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we've been gathering cow-calf pairs in anticipation of doing pregnancy checks this Thursday.  I also needed to move our ewes and lambs on Monday evening.  Thankfully, I had my working partners with me - Ernie and Mo each took huge steps towards becoming accomplished stock dogs (that is, dogs who can herd both sheep and cattle).  This evening, I'm in awe of their heart, endurance and athleticism.  They truly are stock dog biathletes!

In both cases, I was moving mothers and babies (calves and lambs), which are probably the most difficult class of livestock for dogs to herd.  Good mothers (cows and ewes) want to protect their young - and so they'll fight the dogs.  My dogs have learned to be appropriately firm with a "stompy" ewe, but aggressive mama cows are another matter.  A dog needs a great deal of courage to stand his (or her) ground with a 1300 pound bovine bearing down on him.

The cow work was further complicated by the terrain.  Yesterday and today, we were working on gathering pairs out of a field formally called Forbes-2, but more affectionately known as Jackass Joes. It's a 600+ acre field that runs from the Yuba River up to Buzzard Peak - an elevation change of over 800 feet from bottom to top.  Part of the field can be covered on horseback; much of it is too steep even for horses.  Walking from the river to the top is strenuous for any dog; pushing reluctant cows to the top is intense.  Fortunately both dogs - and the horses I rode (Lulu yesterday and Rose today) were up to the task!

Looking down to were we started our ride.
Yesterday after "work," the dogs and I moved all of our ewes and lambs down the hill and across the road from where they'd been grazing.  Moving sheep pairs is further complicated by the fact that herding lambs is worse than herding cats!  Lambs haven't figured out that it's a bad idea to disobey the dogs yet - and the dogs know better than to get too rough with the lambs.  Moving sheep pairs takes more finesse than moving cattle pairs, and I wasn't sure my dogs could make the adjustment from one species to the other.  My lack of confidence was unfounded; the dogs handled the move perfectly!

Today, we went back to Jackass Joes to find some missing pairs.  This time, it was just me and the dogs (yesterday, one of my colleagues had ridden with us).  We found 5 pairs at the bottom of the pasture and started working them up toward the gate at the top.  The cows worked their way into a patch of brush and rock that was far too steep and densely vegetated for me and my horse.  I sent Mo and then Ernie ahead of the cows.  They stopped them, and after a brief period of intense negotiation, the dogs convinced the cows to turn around and take an easier route up the hill.

Like all athletes, my dogs know the importance
of staying cool and hydrated!
All of this work - and working both dogs together - has revealed several things about the strengths of each dog. Mo has an incredible amount of judgement - he knows where he needs to be at all times.  Ernie, on the other hand, has heart and courage - he stayed directly in front of a cow that wanted to clean his clock.  A few well-timed nips to her nose convinced her to turn around and head up the hill.

People who have never relied on their animal partners to achieve a piece of work are probably tired of me saying this, but working with dogs is an amazing experience.  Over these last 2 days, my dogs have proven that they'll try to do anything I ask them to do.  I couldn't ask for any better help!

Finishing yesterday's last chore!  Ernie's wondering when I'm
going to quit taking photos and start helping him!

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