Not only are Mo and Ernie learning to work cattle (after a lifetime spent working sheep). They are learning the terrain at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. They gave me a good demonstration of this last Thursday. On Wednesday, we'd gathered a group of 230+ heifers out of a very brush pasture. The dogs and I spent much of our time crashing through brush to get the heifers up through the gate into the next field. By the end of the gather, we were all beat - and sick of the brush. On Thursday, we found 43 more heifers in the old field. They broke down off the road where the big group had, but the dogs anticipated them - and brought them back to the road on their own!
They can switch species (and approaches)
At SFREC, in addition to gathering and moving heifers last week, we also moved steers and cow-calf pairs. The dogs changed their approaches to each - the cows wanted to fight, while the steers and heifers were more curious. On Tuesday afternoon, I used Ernie to help move ewes and lambs. Ernie is appropriately aggressive with cows that try to chase him off; he's far less aggressive (again, appropriately so) with sheep. I enjoyed seeing him make this transition with little effort!
Mo is more confident working cattle if I'm horseback
Most of the time we're moving cattle at SFREC, I'm working from horseback. On several occasions last week, however, I moved steers while on foot. In both instances, Mo worked for a bit and then decided to wait for Ernie and me back at the jeep. By contrast, he never quits when I'm horseback. I realized that when I'm on a horse, I can more easily get into position to help him - and to discourage protective cows from fighting with the dogs. Ernie, who is less sensitive but more confident, doesn't seem to care whether I'm horseback or on foot.
If I'm patient, they can handle most jobs
While cattle take more patience than sheep, I'm finding that if I trust the dogs to handle a job - and give them the time to do it, they usually reward my confidence. Two weeks ago, we were gathering 5 stray pairs from an extremely steep and brushy field. The cows led their calves around a cliff into some brush where my horse and I couldn't follow. I sent both dogs ahead of the cows and waited - giving the dogs plenty of encouragement. In a few minutes, the cows decided it would be in their best interest to come back the way they'd gone in - and the rest of the gather went smoothly.
We're working in some big country - it takes lots of energy
I'm paying much closer attention to my dogs' nutritional needs - they are working in much bigger country than they are used to! We take lots of water breaks (which we've always done), but I'm also feeding them small meals between bouts of work.
Mo and Ernie are learning to work as a team
In the past, Mo has sulked when I've worked Ernie - part of it has had to do with Ernie's stubbornness (and my response to it), but part of it, I think, has had to do with Mo's desire to work on his own. With cattle, both dogs are learning to work together. On some occasions, Ernie will drive the herd from behind, while Mo works the flanks to keep it headed in the proper direction. In other instances, they'll change positions. If a particularly aggressive cow is trying to fight one of them, the other will come to help. This has crossed over into their work on sheep; the last big move we did with ewes and lambs went well because they worked together. I've enjoyed watching them figure this out!
Cows have taught Ernie to be more thoughtful
Ernie has never been a terribly thoughtful dog - speed and movement have been his primary tool for getting animals to move. His outruns, rather than taking a route that gets him around the livestock before making contact with them, have usually taken the most direct route. He's discovered that this approach with cows (which are bigger and faster than sheep) makes for more work - he's naturally started taking a wider approach on his outruns. I was gratified to see him do this while gathering ewes and lambs last week.
I'm thoroughly enjoying learning along with my dogs! I'm also realizing, with Mo being 7 years old and Ernie being 5, that I'll need to think about starting a new pup in the next year or so - I never want to be without at least two dogs!