LGD's Set Up for Duty

When we arrive on pasture each day, the livestock guardian dogs are not always near the sheep, especially if the weather is warmer and they don’t have to sleep within the flock to stay comfortable. It is a marvel to note where they are stationed and upon arriving to meet each of them there, realize why they might have set themselves where they have.

If we always draw our conclusions from our physical view near the flock, or if it is assumed a dog always has to be with the sheep to guard them, we’ll never realize the fascinating ways of guardian dogs and how they work.

Take yesterday morning:

To help create a visual of this take any small object and set it on the desk in front of you. That object represents the flock, which are bedded down in their brush shelter.

Lady and Diesel are together, sleeping on some hay just outside the sheep shelter, on the North side of it. From their position they have an open view to the East. To the West they can see to the top of a nearby hill but not beyond it. They would notice any creatures approach on the hilltop. To the South is the bush the flock is resting in. They cannot see directly South but are close enough to react quickly to any disturbance there.

Way over to the East of the flock, up on a far hilltop, and sleeping on top of a bale, is Whiskey. From his perch he has a broad view of the much of the pasture. He can see all directions and the flock is below him, to the West.

To the South of Whiskey’s location (so South East of the flock (your object)), Oakley and Glory are curled up together, also on a hilltop. From their vantage point they can see the South-East corner of the paddock behind them which drops off behind the hill they are on. They have a clear view to the West.  This means they also have a clear view of the South side of the bush where the flock is bedded down. The side that Diesel and Lady do not have a clear view on.

You might wonder why the dogs are not in physical positions that surround the flock but they very seldom seem to do that. And from physically putting myself into each position of the dogs one can see that they don’t need to.

I also think the dogs set themselves to the side they feel the greatest threat from. So in the case above I would bet that the threats (if any) are coming from the East - South East side of that paddock on that night/day. As the predators shift, so will the dogs. Keep in mind predators do not necessarily mean coyotes who would hunt the sheep but to the LGD’s mean anything trespassing the paddock. Here on the SK prairie that could be deer, the occasional moose, coyote, fox, ravens and as spring approaches, crows.

Willow and company, (the second group of LGD’s), are in a much smaller paddock so the dynamics of their set up is less acute, but nonetheless still there. Even though there is not always a lot of action, these dogs are truly fascinating to watch. I will have to catch some video of them someday. 

The dogs have wandered over or followed the sheep to feed, and receive some appreciative attention from Allen (Whiskey is not in the photo).

Two Sheep

The last several days have been warmer and full of sun so I have been taking my camera along more frequently.  I caught this moment last evening. As soon as the days warmed the ewes began to spread out, searching for previous eating spots, digging for millet swaths and I think just enjoying the sun and freedom to move.

Sheep Minerals in Winter

The regular mineral tub was buried in snow early on in the winter, before the sheep moved to their winter paddock. It’s a large, heavy, three compartment, covered black tub and it remains buried there. I’ll find it when the snow melts.

The mineral I put out for the sheep needs to be covered to protect it from rain (moisture). Well, in winter, all of our rain is frozen so I’m using this open tub for now.

Not ideal but it will get us through. I just dug it out of the snow again so there is snow dust in the mix. You can see some clumps as it still absorbs some moisture from the snow. I don’t fill the mineral tubs right full because the sheep are not taking in much mineral. I’ve adjusted the mineral mix by diminishing the amount of kelp in it until I find a balance of a mineral mix they’ll intake but not inhale. (These sheep love kelp).  I’m not sure I’ve got the balance right just yet.

Our flock really goes through salt, especially in winter when on hay feed. I’ve always used loose salt, not blocks, as I don't feel confident the animals will get what they need from licking a block (they'd have to lick a long time). The salt absorbs moisture readily and will clump up quicker, even in winter, so I only put out an amount I think they’ll eat in a short time and refill as needed.

Stock Dog Notes - Calm Intention

After a couple of months off, I am once again working with the stock dogs. We have a fresh group of sheep to start out with and after the time off, the dogs are feeling fresh as well. Initially I wasn't sure what exercises to do with each dog, so I set my focus on being calm and intentional around whatever happened.

As I progress along this journey with stock dogs I have figured out that the real work is the discipline it takes to maintain a calm, clear, and intentional state of mind. I have learned that calm is not about slowing motion and intention is not about my human emotion.

When I watch other people working dogs, I see their reaction to the instruction to be calm is the same as mine is. Everyone slows down their physical motion and then their timing is way off.

Calmness is no longer a natural state of being for most of us and because it is unfamiliar we do the next closest thing to it; we slow down. Yet calmness is not about being slow - it is about being smooth and unfettered. It is about being deliberate.You can be smooth at a high rate of speed. This is ultimately what we would prefer our stock dogs to be. Fast on their feet but calm and thinking. This is what we need to be to keep up with a keen dog. Likewise, if a dog makes a move to harm livestock, good trainers are not going to move slowly because they are trying to keep calm, they are going to move quickly and effectively because they are calm and chances are the dog won't get to execute his thought.

Intention and calmness sort of go hand in hand. To convey a clear intention I need to clear my mind of all the peripheral junk, focus and let instinct flow through me like it flows through my dog, calm and sure.

Intention is not about human emotion. Intention is not about saying 'okay you're going to do this no matter what doggy.' For a long time I interpreted clear intention to mean be more forceful in what you are asking. But that's not it at all and is counterproductive no matter if your trying to train the dog or work the sheep yourself.

Sorting this stuff out is how working with stock dogs and the LGD's has drastically altered my outlook on dogs and is what deeply attracts me to stock dog work. Each time I am effectively allowing a dog to tap into his instinct to work sheep (effectively meaning I have a thoughtful and confident dog that can be trusted to work) I am connecting to my own intuition and instinct.

For me, this is experienced as the pure, positive, feeling that all is right with the world and time has ceased to exist. This is what makes me want to have dogs at my side for every day ranch work. I'm guessing that it is something very similar that attracts new folks who step into the world of stock dogs. This is the hook that baits them, for there is no other greater sense than that feeling of instinct, intuition and connectedness. This is the fuel that drives all of us, that makes us want to quit our day jobs and do that thing we've been feeling called to do. 

I'm positive it's going to be a great year of working with dogs.

Sheep Commute

I took this photo in the evening, just before dark.

I have just traveled up to a hilltop where the ewes were just eating and am feeding the guardian dogs. Numerous nights of tucking sheep together with the stock dogs has trained them well and once I arrived here, the ewes began to make their way to the night shelter of their own accord.

This photo makes me think of commuting home from work, something I have not had to do for a few years now. Do you think the ewes ever complain about the congestion and slow moving traffic?

Winter Pasture Feeding

We keep and feed the main flock out on pasture and we like to set an allotment of bales out there ahead of time. Usually we put out the whole winters worth of feed. This year we didn’t do that, so instead we put out two to three weeks worth of feed at a time.

We utilize the space we have and we set round hay bales on hilltops to facilitate unrolling them. We want the ewes to walk to feed as this bit of exercise helps keep them healthy. Here the ewes are just exiting their shelter, very shortly they will follow me to where I am unrolling feed.

This space and exercise is directly opposite of what intensive farmers are after. At our provincial annual sheep seminar this past year, I was aghast when the guest speaker made the comment that “exercise for livestock animals is actually not favourable” (the goal is for the animals to put on fat). Say what? Exercise is not favorable, and this is being supported??? I am astounded by this notion. 

But back to my post. One benefit of feeding this way is that each day the ewes are eating in a new, clean spot. They are free to return and clean up any previous places they wish but they are not held in any spot. There is also always fresh bedding where ever they are, which is highly favoured by the guard dogs.

The ewes are free to start on any other bales they choose and do because we are not limiting their access. If there is a bale they are really fond of they will pick at it and can make a mess of it before it gets unrolled. That can be a pain but it’s not the end of the world. The ewes do a pretty good job of digging and rooting around in a pile and residue can be spread around. We alleviate the issue by noting which bales the ewes are nibbling at and selecting those to unroll next. The easiest food to eat is what gets unrolled on the snow so the ewes always come to eat there. For many ewes, the best part is hunting for the leafy tidbits that fall beneath.

Snow Beauty

This is where I find the ewes each morning. Still bedded down in their shelter. I’ve been assuming that once they come in at dusk, they stay put here and this where I’ll find them the next morning.

A couple inches of fresh snow fell overnight, blanketing the landscape with soft whiteness. Our grid road has merged into the surrounding landscape and without the solid feeling beneath our feet, the dogs and I might have been anywhere else on the open prairie during our morning walk.

I expected the same uniform expanse of untouched snow on the pasture. Instead this was what it looked like.

The marked beauty of it stopped me in my tracks quite literally. It’s not difficult to know who traveled here.

I think during the short-day-time part of the winter, the ewes bed down and do stay put, but with spring approaching they have begun to stretch their time out grazing just like we feel the natural need to stretch our days a little too. So then, are the ewes grazing late into the night or getting up early and going back to bed?

Regular Business

Around the yard and where we have erected fences and man made wind breaks, the snow has collected, piled and been sifted and carved repeatedly by the wind.

The ewe lambs were moved because it became too laborious to access and move around in the paddock where they originally were. The paddock they are in now was the one reserved for the rams when they came in from breeding. We don’t have another paddock that is cleared to get into or that would offer easy access for feed and water so we have delayed bringing the rams in.  Nature is playing an early hand in determining the outcome of the upcoming lambing year.

Out on the open pasture, the access is easier and in the natural shelter chosen by the ewes, there is no snow pile up and the shelter is still welcoming. While we still have several weeks of cold and snow to go, our thoughts are turning to Spring and how the thaw will shape what occurs here.

Meanwhile, the ewes continue to eat and sleep and it’s the regular business of feeding during this unhurried time of late winter. It’s doubtful the ewes thoughts are on Spring thaw.

Morning With The LGD's

Sometimes the best way to share what livestock guardian dogs are about and who they are is to share them as dogs, not only as guardians of livestock. When I say dogs I mean canines and not pets.

For a person like myself, there is much, much more to the experience of livestock guardian dogs then ever meets the eye in the photographs I’m able to share. Someday I will attempt to write out what the experience is.

For now, here are some recent photos from a morning with the main pack (Willow and company are working amongst a second lot of sheep).

If you follow Dog Tale Ranch on Facebook, my apologies, these photos will be repeats to you.
Just up and coming out to say hello
Whiskey being hopeful of getting some extra
Diesel steels the pail which held the raw meat
Off to elsewhere...
....and, of course, stopping to pee on trees
A face wash after breakfast
Back near the sheep doing some grooming
Glory looking sheepish after realizing the stranger in the bush whom she just charged at is me
Getting a snow spray
Thinking about going back to bed perhaps???
Next, over with Willow and company...

Willow - The oldest of the Dog Tale LGD's
The puppy, Zeus, keeping an eye on that cow

Head in the Clouds

My head is in the clouds, so much so that I am forgetting my regular posts here on the blog. :-(
In the yo-yo style of time, the last few days flew by and I’m pretty sure I completely missed one of them. lol (The day I missed was Wednesday, when Allen took care of the days chores and ushered me out the door for a day away from the farm).

My head is in the clouds because I am thinking too much about Kelpies; namely, what my dogs represent, what I like, what I want to see more of and where to go from here. So I’m planning a brief trip to see some dogs. It’s a mini vacation which will include a visit with terrific friends, working with a number of kelpies I’m very eager to see, and yes, some sheep too (can’t leave them out).  I haven’t decided if I’ll take any of my dogs along or not. I’m going to see several others where I’m going, so I won’t be without dogs to work while I’m there.

Aside from Kelpies and trips, our annual stock dog events are now scheduled and the pieces are quickly falling into place for hosting those. I look forward to these with great enthusiasm each year. There is a lot of interest this year and I feel so grateful for that. There will be a couple all breeds stock dog trials hosted at Dog Tale Ranch this year and I toying with the idea of adding one more clinic this summer.

Shearing day has been booked and we will once again host a two day shearing course, so organizing has begun for this event as well.

The Dog Tale Ranch Facebook page has also been generating a bit more attention that I expected which has been quite amusing. I underestimated the reach of social media. 

This flurry of planning and stewing has me geared up to start training dogs again. Aside from a bit of regular ranch work, I often take January and a portion of February off from training dogs because a) it’s so cold here and b) I think it does me good to step away and come back fresh again.

The Real Stars of the Show
All this anticipatory thinking was plenty to get me through another half day of hauling hay bales out to pasture to feed the real stars of the show around here, and over to the ewe lambs. While it is no excuse for not posting, that is what the last few days have been about.

Mentally Redirected

A warm spell at last and a sun full day too. I’d love to say I enjoyed the whole day outside but that wasn’t the case.

I spent the afternoon on a tractor hauling wagon loads of round hay bales out to the ewes. It was a tractor without a cab so I was outside, but I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I was feeling kind of miserable for myself.

When it was time for evening chores I was chilled, feeling hurried and ready just to be done and back inside. Then I stopped for a moment to watch the ewe lambs. There was a lot of extra commotion going on which is what made me look up (I’m amazed at how much time I spend looking down instead of up - do other people do that too?). The stock dogs had walked out with me and at first I thought one of them came over the fence on a snow bank and was moving sheep.

That wasn’t it, at least not yet anyway.

The ewe lambs were just playing; enjoying the warm day like I wished I had. Some were sprinting, tossing their heads and kicking up their heels like they were little lambs again. Some would just jump up in the air where they stood. Others were jumping on each other. Several were ramming heads with the lamb next to them. Then backing away from each other to do it again. It was a playground full of lambs.

Of course I had no camera with me, because I was in a hurry over wanting to be somewhere else. Now I wanted to be here again. That’s exactly what animals do for me. They snap me out of mental places that are no good for me.

Right about then Gibson showed up, maybe he thought I was taking too long with the sheep. I called him over and helped him walk up and move the few cows who are in with the ewe lambs. Fynn showed up next and I figured I'd better quit while I was ahead. We left the ewe lambs, collected the other dogs and headed out for a walk.

Dog Troubles

Since I wrote about this in the Crooked Fences Newsletter, I’d better catch you blog readers up here.

We had a very interesting dog experience last week. While Cajun (stock dog) was moving the flock with me he had a mysterious and upsetting encounter. Mysterious because I saw nothing and I heard nothing, not a whimper, not a yipe, not a bark. I was at the front of the mob and Cajun at the rear, out of sight for the most part. All I hear is the crunching, Styrofoam sound of more than a thousand sheep feet on the snow.

Part way along the move Cajun stopped working for a spell and he attempted to come up to me. At first I thought he was trying to get around to the head and I sent him back. He came up again and was very reluctant to around the mob. His demeanor was way off, his eyes wide. Something was wrong, but I had no clue as to what.

Jayde was waiting up ahead with Allen so I called for her to help Cajun and I finish with the move. This encouraged Cajun to go back into work again.

When we reached our destination with the flock I saw Cajun turn his head away and make a wide detour around Diesel. When everything settled, I noticed the small amount of blood on his smooth black coat.

Putting the pieces of that move together with the dogs behavior and Cajun's injuries, we suspect one of the guardian dogs attacked him during the move and we pegged it down to Diesel. Cajun has a few minor tears, like he was grabbed from above and lifted. He’s doing fine, he’s moving fine. None of the guardian dogs have any injuries.

I love Cajun to pieces but I’m aware that he may not be Mr. Innocent in this case either. Did he snark at someone during the move? Was this a one time upset or are the Anatolian Shepherds maturing into serious, aggressive guardians? I'm hoping it was a one time encounter.

If Diesel is the only one to be so serious then it will be a relatively easy, although very inconvenient, matter of supervising and tying him up during moves of the flock.

Barn Artists

Gene Logsdon is one of my favorite writers and farming spokesperson. His stories often contain the lighter side of farming and I get a kick out of his sense of humor.

His last blog post didn't disappoint so I'm linking to it tonight to share with you. It gave me a good, is-this-for-real, kind of laugh. Do take the time to go read it, it's not that long. If you are a livestock fan and use mineral blocks on your farm, you'll shake your head at this, just like I did.

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