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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our dog-herding sheep (as opposed to our sheep-herding dog)

A couple weeks ago Lorraine found an ad on Craigslist for a free Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix.  She's been looking into getting a new puppy or dog for a few weeks now.  Interests included Great Danes and herding dogs.  The latter is particularly important on our farm since our current border collie, Rosie, serves little purpose in our home other than to keep the leather chair warm and to eat the food put in her bowl.  She's not a bad dog.  Actually, for a companion, she's very personable (around humans at least).  But, on a farm, personable isn't necessarily an essential trait when an animal is measured by their contribution to the overall farm operations.  Herding ability in this case would be far more preferable.

Rosie, you see, is currently twelve years old.  She has the prerequisite herding instinct which, years ago, she used to some degree.  Unfortunately, the guy that trained and used her (me-the not so smart farmer) was rather inept.  I learned over time that it's easier to screw up a good herding dog than it is to train them to be useful.   Somewhere along the line this fine canine specimen became afraid of our sheep.  Mind you, she's quite fierce when there's a gate or fence between her and the sheep, barking and spooking those that get to close to her.  But put her in a pasture with the sheep and it's a different story.  She'll walk up to some sheep and lie down, giving them the classic, border collie "eye."  But as soon as a sheep walks towards here she gets up and backs away.  I've seen our flock methodically walk her around a pasture (thus my prior reference to our dog-herding sheep).

I've also let fly many an expletive when trying to herd the sheep back into a corral when Rosie decides to "help."  Border collies by their nature seek balance.  That means when you have a group of sheep the shepherd is on one side of the flock and the dog "balances" to the other side.  Except Rosie must have a problem with her internal balancer.  The problems start when I'm trying to push sheep through a gate and Rosie gets between the sheep and the gate which stops and/or turns them away.  On the other hand, if I were to go through the gate she has no idea that she's supposed to stay balanced and push them towards me.  With Rosie, ying and yang aren't always opposites.  Sometimes she's more yingish than yangish I guess. 

Since we have a useless herding dog and we have close to fifty sheep, it make sense (for a smart farmer) to have a working herding dog.  Thus the mission for Lorraine to find a suitable candidate that didn't break the bank.  Now, I'll have to admit that I'm skeptical whenever somebody offers any animal for free, unless there's a compelling reason for them to relieve themselves of the animal(s) such as a move or they can't care for it anymore.  But those types of free animals are few and far between.  For example, we got a couple of "free" llamas a couple of years ago.  The first time they escaped I understood why we got them and the prior owners were smiling and waving as we pulled out of their driveway, trailer in tow with the the two llamas.  I would learn the an economic truth, "there is no such thing as a free llama."

As has happened dozens of times before, a gate was left unlatched.  I came out of the house to head for work and saw the two "free" llamas at the end of the driveway in the road.  Just to be clear, that's not where we usually keep them.  I quickly ran upstairs and woke Lorraine and my son, Evan.  I told Evan to go to the barn and get some grain in a bucket.  By the time we got back out there the llamas had advanced down the road about 100 yards.  I figured I'd walk to them shaking the bucket with the grain to lure them close enough to grab their halters.  Instead, they figured I was nuts and turned and ran the other way.  We ran back to the house and jumped into the Jeep to follow them.  About 1/4 of a mile up the road there's a T intersection that turns left which is the way they went.  The downside of this direction is that it's about 1/2 mile from Interstate 80.  To the best of my knowledge these llamas could jump a 42" fence fairly easily if they so chose.  I had visions of carnage involving swerving cars trying to avoid llamas dashing across the interstate.   How many people do you know that can say they were almost killed on an interstate due to a llama bounding if front of their car?

The llamas continued their dash down Jewell Ct. which dead ends at the interstate.  I was able to accelerate and overtake them, passing them on the right.  When I got far enough ahead I turned sideways on the gravel road to block them.  We were a lot closer this time, about 50 feet, so we tried the bucket idea again and we were met with the same skepticism as before.  The llamas turned and bolted back up the road.  We jumped into the Jeep and found that my prior pursuit had been a mere, leisurely jaunt.  They were running full speed this time.  I was in hot pursuit and right on their tails, well, hooves, since they really don't have much for tails.  I looked at my speedometer and I was doing 35 mph and my hood and windshield were getting sprayed with gravel.  We were quickly approaching the T intersection and I needed them to turn right so I accelerated more to pull along their left side and direct them back to the right which worked.   The next challenge was to do the same thing again in about a quarter mile and turn them left into our driveway which I was able to do.  From there they went through a gate into my hay field which wasn't ideal because the fencing wouldn't hold them.  I put the Jeep into 4WD and followed them into the bumpy, pocket gopher infested hay field.  The good news was that I was able to herd them with the Jeep towards a gate that went into our corral.  Evan jumped out, opened the gate and we pushed them through.  I was only 1/2 hour late for work and hadn't broken a sweat.

Anyway, I've digressed a bit, waxing on about "free" llamas so back to the "free" dog.   Lorraine and I travelled to a farm just south of Norwalk and met the dog for the first time.  The owner said he'd had her for a couple of years and didn't have the time to spend with her that he thought she deserved.  His son had moved out of the house and wasn't there for the dog.  She was spending a lot of her days in a crate.  He wanted her to find a home on a farm. 

We asked if she herded and he said he didn't know.  They have cattle and the dog wasn't afraid of them.  He said she'd recently blocked a cow from going through a gate.  That's hardly definitive to establish if the dog would herd or not but she seemed like a sweet dog with a lot of energy.  The only command she really responded to was "sit."  It was a gamble but we agreed to take her.  We go the dog and her crate which barely fit into the back of the Jeep.  We had Spencer with us and he made the trip home with a golf bag laying across his lap.

We arrived home around 11:00 p.m. and took her into the house on her lead.  She visited for a while and then we put her in her kennel for the night.  The next morning, after letting her take care of business outside, we brought her into the house to introduce her to Rosie the smiling dog.  We've had other dogs along the way and Rosie has always "smiled" at them, lips curled and with a low rumble emitting from her lungs.  The fact is, she has never liked any other dog that I'm aware of, frequently instigating fights with our other dogs.  Her relationship with our new, "free" dog would be no different.  There's a lot of posturing, staring, growling, smiling and other pack like behavior going on with the intermittment fight thrown in. 

Since bringing the "free" dog home the tide has turned against Rosie in terms of dominance.  Dally almost always ends up on top, yet Rosie continued to instigate brawls.  We've now seen the dominance of Dally emerge where she's constantly following Rosie and glaring at her.  Feeding must be done separately.  Getting out the door with the two dogs both there is nearly impossible since it may well lead to a fight.  Clearly we need some more insight on how to better manage this relationiship since it isn't improving, just changing sides.

We've had her three weeks now and have made good progress in house breaking her and with walking on a leash.  Lorraine is scheduled to take her tomorrow to a lady with herding experience to assess just what we have.  The question that we've discussed is, what if she doesn't herd?  Then what?  She certainly makes a nice family pet and companion.  But, what we need is a working herding dog which means finding yet another dog.  We already have Rosie, our non-working Border Collie.  We don't need another non-worker.  I guess we'll just have to see what tomorrow brings and figure out if we'll have Dolly (her new name) in our lives going forward.

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