September Does That

We often sell lambs near the end of September but this year we decided to keep them a bit longer and let them put on a few more pounds. It delays the ineveitable task of selling lambs, a task that continues to tug at my moral principles, no matter when we do it.  We fence line weaned, and the lambs are fully separate from the ewes now.  They remain in the north pasture and the ewes travel southward each day to graze.  Each evening when the ewes return they night pen alongside the lambs.

We continue to bring the ewes home each night although we don’t really need to now that there are no lambs at foot.  The night penning is good for the pups though and the lambs bed down right next door to the ewes so they are close by as well.  The pups are not yet traveling out with the flock on their own initiative, so by day they hang out with Tex and Zeus, and at night they join the flock and the other three adults.

The day to day pace is settling down a tad or it feels like it anyway; September does that.  The colder nights remind us that is we’re into the last month before we start to freeze up.

This photo was taken a few days prior to weaning lambs.  The flock is settling in the night pen.  I love how the ewes and lambs join up each night to sleep next to each other.  The dogs have just eaten and that's Oakley already sound asleep. 

Watching Over Tex

Upon his arrival we placed him with the group of dogging sheep (more on his arrival in previous post). The next morning, he barked and growled at my approach, doing a fast pace back and forth in front of the sheep, telling me to stay away. I marvelled at being with a dog who was keeping me away from the sheep. I got as close as I could and we studied each other. I moved around and he circled, then darted back to the sheep, barking and growling.

Then I set upon an idea. I walked into the group of sheep which was only possible because these are dogging sheep and they are very familiar with me.  The ewes on pasture would not have let me get so close, and that group is too big, so Tex could avoid me easily and still be with sheep.  But with this smaller group I could slip right in and if he wanted to be with them, he’d have to be with me too. When I moved in, he darted out to circle again, only now I was with his sheep.

I took it one step further, and instead of letting him get back to the sheep I kept him out of them, much like I might circle a stock dog around the outside, or push a horse out.  It was not hard to do since he didn’t want to be near me in any way.  No words were spoken.  We went back and forth in semi circle for ten minutes or so.  He was perplexed and concerned that I was with the sheep and he wasn’t. He stopped barking and growling and eventually stopped moving.  I invited him in (turned my back to him) and placed the food bowl I’d been trying to offer him earlier, on the ground nearby and then moved away.  He came in to the bowl.   Right there I’m sure we had a change in understanding. While he still would not let me touch him, he ate a meal with me close by.  When finished I picked up the bowl and left, feeling a little changed by the exchange that just happened.

Over the next day we continued to get to know each other and by nightfall he was allowing me to get close to him and to touch him briefly. It is not my goal to handle him, I’m fine if he never wants that, but it is to gain his trust.  He’s far more worrisome and likely to bite if he remains suspicious but if we have some amount of familiarity and trust with each other then he’ll know where he safely stands.

We had good intro’s with Tex to the other dogs and I started leaving him in the night pen overnight and letting him go out to pasture during the day. On his first day out to pasture with the flock I spent the morning watching. Tex worked a smaller pasture in his previous home, and I’m sure he near panicked at how much these ewes traveled. He would trot off on patrol and then circle back, always returning to the front of flock. He passed each of the other dogs several times, lying in the sun catching naps where they could.

After two/three days of this I was just thinking we had pulled off the smoothest transition of a new dog, and then the resident dogs beat him up over night.  The next day they were intent on keeping him away from the flock and pounced on him again.  One of the most frustrating things with having multiple livestock guardians is that they can influence who’s in and who’s out.  I think I need Tex to be with that flock, they think otherwise, and convincing them of what I want feels like a pretty big hurdle.

Not wanting to push the pack boundaries any further at the moment, Tex is now with Zeus and the rams. Zeus is very accommodating and they are getting along well.  Tex is healing from minor wounds from the scuffle and meanwhile, Lily keeps popping over and visiting.  My suspicion is Lily is the instigator of the trouble and I’m not sure what this visiting is about yet.

Tex and I continue to get to know one another and I still think he’s a gem.  He’s not a dog one can be quickly comfortable with as he’s always just a bit on edge.  He no longer barks and growls at me though, he’ll let me handle him lightly and will follow when it’s his desire to do so.  I think we're going to get along just fine. 

Ten Days With Tex

I have been looking for an adult guardian dog all summer long.  Miss No Name came and went and then I bought the two pups, but still hoped to find an adult.  When I stopped looking so hard, I found one.

Tex is a two and half year old Great Pyrenees.   He grew up with sheep and is a dog who needs sheep.   His approach to the sheep is amazing, - soft, sideways, floating and fluid.  The sheep do not flee as they still do when the pups, Wren and Crow approach them.

This in on the first evening here and he’s in a small paddock with the sheep I use for stock dog training.  He’s already traveled the perimeter and passed by the sheep, keeping his body profile to them, rather than approach them head on.  From there a whole lot of sniffing takes place.

Even when he moves right among them, no real alarm is caused

I have just returned with the camera to sit with him for a spell.  I can’t get close to him, he won’t allow that.  There is no element of sadness in this though, there is no hint of any of the feelings I experienced when working with rescue dogs from the humane shelter years ago.

This is not a dog that needs rescuing in any way, or, if there is any rescuing being done, it is him liberating me in some way. 

To sit with him gives me a feeling unlike any other.  I really want to be able to touch him and yet I don’t want to lose the feeling of connection that is happening precisely because he won’t allow me to.

No clue what this sniffing is about

I sit on the ground and we have all this eye contact going on, he’ll hold my gaze steady and unnervingly so, then he’ll bark and growl at me and travel around me in a circle.  The moment I speak his body softens and the tip of his tail wags.  He knows enough about people to know we’re okay, he just doesn’t yet think I know enough about dogs or sheep to be trusted, and given how rudely I treated two of my stock dogs the other day, I’d have to say he’s right.

The more I do the less meaningful communication we have.  The more I just sit and be with him the more communication takes place.

For a person who wants to do a lot with dogs that are around me and constantly fiddles and praises them, treats them, pats them, reassures them, corrects them, forces them, begs them, cuddles them, and on and on, this is a different concept of being with a dog.  I experience this with every livestock guardian dog, and it’s why I find them so fascinating.

I think this boy is a gem.  How he is with the sheep, causes me to wonder about the approach we’ve used with raising guardian dogs in the past.  I have had two other dogs act like this around sheep upon introductions, and both were raised right with sheep, with very minimal human contact or none at all.

Tex arrived ten days ago and much has happened since.  We had a nice grace period and good intro’s to the other dogs and then we had a set back.   But more on that to come, all these photos have taken some time to post and it's getting late.

Shortly after arriving the sheep are already comfortable with the newcomer

Of Pups and Commands

We host a small tour event tomorrow and at the end of the month company is expected when Tanner’s owners arrive to discover what he’s learned over the summer and pick him up. Gosh I will miss that boy.

Having Tanner as a wee pup and working him now has been a treat, and so different than BlackJack it causes me to wonder how they are brothers. Then again the two of them started out very differently their first time on sheep too.

BlackJack went right to doing something with the sheep, and ended up in the middle of the little group before he got around them. Tanner was hesitant and not really ready to start. A ewe read him right away and gave him a bit of trouble.

Today Tanner is well ahead of BlackJack in how he handles himself and thus the stock. He shows a lot more eye as well. Jack is all guts but no finesse. He’ll come along but he is going to be a longer term project.

When I put pups on the ground with sheep the first few times, I do very little to influence what goes on. I’m there to keep them as safe as I can but otherwise want to see them present what they have, I want to see their natural instinct. Most will cause motion to start, some will hold sheep on a fence and control motion, some will charge up the middle, some will look the other way or tip toe around. Any and all starts are available with puppies. When they turn on, it can look like chaos has ensued. There are no commands early in the game as there is no need.

showing stalking behavior as wee pup
I used to teach very mechanically (without thought to how it was all connected) and I think most people do until we become fluent in the purpose of what we’re trying to teach. Now I don’t worry overmuch about getting a pup onto commands as much as I do about having a pup be in a good frame of mind while working. This is where I see a big distinction in BlackJack and Tanner. Tanner can approach work with his thinking front brain engaged and hence have greater control of his actions. Even as a youngster he can think while working. BlackJack approaches life with his hindbrain engaged and working with him means constantly finding ways to switch him from hindbrain to front brain and getting him to stay there while he works. This causes him to be far more of a hair trigger dog. They both have very strong instinct to control the motion of livestock but two different approaches to doing so.

As we progress in training I put the commands to what the pup is doing as they’re doing the action. So they learn the commands from me, over time, and through repetition. There are many ways to teach though and others will have their tried and true methods as well. For me I like it be pretty straightforward and non - complex. Life is full of enough complexities as it is.

file photo,  coming around on livestock

A Rough Stretch

I know I’ve had a rough stretch because ending the life of two ewes this evening was the part of the day that felt the smoothest, and for a moment, righted my world with honour and strength for life.

We had an incredibly long day with the sheep yesterday, sorting, weighing, and tagging lambs.  When we were done, it was well past dark.  We had a tiny bite to eat, a very fast shower to wash off the grime, and went to bed.  I didn’t even look at the computer.

In my mind, today was supposed to be a tad easier.  It was anything but, and being as tired as I am after yesterday, all the hiccups of late piled up.  I sat in the grass and cried in frustration and self pity then went about the rest of the day.

There are many, many good days in this life, as you well know through this blog, but on occasion things just come undone and I unravel right along with them.  I don’t always hold it together, and I’m not always able to mind my way out of a tough go.

Yes, it passes, and overall life is good. Yet some nugget is loosened when I write of it and say, yeah, it’s my challenge too, as I’m sure it is for many of you, also working hard to keep a life in some semblance of positive chaos instead of negative.

Ah, The Commands

As many people do when they begin the journey of stock dogging, I learned to train a dog by going to clinics, the majority of which were geared to training dogs for trialing. For what ever reasons, farmers and ranchers who do this day in and day out but don’t have trial accolades behind their name aren’t the ones being asked to teach. Perhaps due to the popularity of trials and in part because there aren’t many of us left who use stock dogs in such a fashion, to make it worth teaching any differently.

So I learned to teach the dogs using the tried and true directional commands for getting around; away-to-me and go-by (the two flank commands). Walk-up is for the dog to approach the sheep directly. Lie down means to stop. Those are the bare bones basics and a lot can get done with just those.

After numerous years of working around a flock and finding myself in all sorts of situations that no one teaches in clinics because it isn’t possible to, the dogs have a few other commands in their repertoire. There is no specific planning to my commands, they are just the words that came out when I found myself in those situations and trying to convey to the dog what I wanted.

Get around - this one means I don’t care what direction you take or how tight you work, get around to the far side and work sheep back to me.

How commands are said conveys further information. Get-around, get-around, said quickly and with urgency conveys just that. That one comes out when I realize I’ve left the wrong gate open and the ewes are headed right for it, and is usually prefaced with oh-shit. -:)

Walk ‘em up - Used when working the large flock, it means we’re just walking them somewhere, stay and work on the same side of the flock as me.

Stand and lie down - I’ve attempted to get a stand and a lie down on the dogs but haven’t succeeded terribly well at that one. More often than not the dogs lie down when asked to stand. And because I’m lazy and inconsistent about how the lie down is obeyed the dogs stop but often stay standing, when asked to lie down. This stopping on the feet is something that dogs earn. When I’m starting a young dog it learns to lie down, but after working with a dog through numerous situations the dog earns the right to stay on his feet and in many ranch situations I prefer the dogs be on their feet rather than off them. It really helps to make the distinction with two separate commands though.

This one - I’m indicating one particular animal I’m after.

Catch ‘em - this one means you’re fine to do what you need to catch that animal.

Get ‘em up, or, push-push - used to convey more force is needed, come forward and make them move. Typically only used when moving the mob down alleyways or into smaller pens they don’t want to go into.

The ever famous that’ll-do. Job is done, return to me or near to me.

Get on the bus - get on the Ranger until told otherwise.

Don’t-you-dare (often just the word don’t will suffice), and, knock-it-off, are two phrases my dogs know well. Probably self explanatory.

Working Sheepdogs by Australian stockman Tully Williams is one of my favourite books because it is geared to breeding and teaching a working ranch dog and he talks about large flock work and plain working dogs. He presents some pros and cons for a simple command system and a complex one. The differences may seem subtle but I think might make all the difference to the dogs. For example, in basic work there is bringing sheep to you, taking sheep away from you, and moving sheep parallel to you. Rather than giving a flank command for every situation and then interrupting the flank command because you want a parallel cross drive and not a gather of sheep to you, he proposes using a cue to let the dog know what task you’re trying to get done. I’m making attempts to incorporate this into the work with the dogs and it is taking some effort to become fluent with it.

While there is loads of finesse in how the dogs work because that is who they are why they’re bred on, there isn’t much finesse in how I handle them. Well, let me restate that, there is and there isn’t. I do not come close to the finesse a top trialing dog and handler team possess. But that is not my gig. The finesse the dogs and I have is something unto its own, because to work in unison with a dog to complete a move with a thousand head of sheep is its own unique thing of beauty.

To move the mob along the trail I told Coyote Mic walk'em up and I went with her and together we did the job. To send her around the mob of sheep I told her ‘aaa-waay’ in a long drawn out voice, meaning a long outrun. Once she is gone around, there is no other command to give her. I have to trust she knows her job. There is no balance point on a mob and lying her down or telling her to walk up when I have no idea where she is, would be useless. There is also no way to help her if she’s in trouble; she is out of sight and sound (a mob of a thousand sheep makes a lot of noise). She is working on her own until I have a sign things are going right or otherwise. The movement of the sheep or the dog showing up back at my feet, will let me know. It’s one of the reasons I adore the Kelpie, they problem solve and work independently quite well. Border Collies do to, although the Kelpies feel different to me in this regard. However, when they get a lot of ranch work that lets them work independently of you, the flip side is it makes it harder to micro manage them and tell them every move to make when we’re working ten sheep. Give and take.  

Once we were at the next gate, I told Mic to lie down, there was no need to put more pressure on the mob as they poured through the gate.  I moved up to control the flow through the gate.  To convince the sheep to move through the dark pass in the trees, I flanked her around the mob again and just let her work (moving back and forth at the back, eyeing sheep and holding pressure to make the sheep want to move away from her) to bring sheep toward me.  Once through the pass the ewes are where I want them so then it's that'll do Mic, that'll do, and we walk away together, job accomplished and hopefully Mic feeling good about herself.

A Mornings Chore

I use stock dogs each night to bring the flock home.  In the morning however, the exit gate is nearby and the ewes are ready to head out so a stock dog isn’t always needed.

When we started night penning it took three nights for the activity to become routine for the ewes. On the fourth night the dogs only had to gather them and get them started, then the ewes headed all the way into the night pen on their own.

Earlier this week I decide to send the girls out to a new pasture which means taking a different route when leaving the night pen in the morning, bypassing the familiar exit gate. A stock dog is probably in order.

We need to go from here, the night pen (it’s about 12 - 15 acres in size, the entire flock is bedded down on the upside of the slope, to the left of the photo)...

... and take the trail all the way around the bush, make a hard turn through a gate, travel across another small paddock and exit through a pass in the trees back where that arrow is pointing. 

Coyote Mic got the job, giving her a chance to do flock work and ready her for evening pasture gathers. She did a lovely job of handling the large group on her own. Since we were recently talking about border collies and kelpies; Coyote Mic is a Kelpie/Border cross. She’s a real treat to work in that she’s full speed ahead and uses a fair amount of eye.

She clears the sheep from the night pen with ease and convinces the ewes to travel past the familiar exit gate and starts them around the bend in the trail.

Up ahead where the trail narrows the lead ewe hangs a right instead of continuing left.  They know there is a gate to the pasture over the hill to the left but that’s the pasture they just finished grazing on. 

Once we catch the rear of the group up to that narrow spot, I send Mic on around the group (the front half is now over the hill) to turn them and send them back left. She has to do a lot of work to turn the entire group and restart their motion. One of the numerous tasks where stock dogs are a real bonus. We get through the next gate and the next paddock with ease. The final hard work happens when we have to convince them to travel through the dark, shady pass in the trees.  They are not going to enter that willingly, so this time I go to the head of the flock to lead them into the pass, leaving Mic to keep working at the rear so there is incentive for them to go.  Once through the pass, the leaders quickly announce the grass really is greener on the other side and in natures capillary fashion the rest of the ewes are drawn along. 

It was repeat performance at night when returning the flock they way they came in. The new pasture is ripe with tall grass and weeds and it took a lot of effort to move the flock through the tall canopy and a good deal of dog work to convince them to leave the pasture and travel through the pass. More work to get them to exit the first paddock and make their way to the night pen via the front gate this time. Gibson was the dog I had along the first night and he almost didn’t have enough push to make it happen. We prevailed though and this time it only took one go of the new route for the ewes to know where to go the next day.  

A Flock in The Fog

Night penning the flock each night gives plenty of opportunity to capture some photos of the flock as they come and go each evening and morning. It’s a lovely time of year to be out with the camera too. Summer is waning, the nights are cool, the mornings are gorgeously calm and throughout the day harvest dust collects in the air.

The grass is wet with dew in the mornings and my shoes get thoroughly soaked when following the ewes.  On this particular morning a deep fog rolled in adding to the overall sensation of dampness,  plus giving that feeling that this prairie time and prairie space are endless.

Of course, a photo shoot isn't complete without a photo or two of the dogs, tough to take against the flat light of the fog. 

Kelpie Clarity

There were a couple comments on barking being a Kelpie trait so I thought I’d share my reply as Kelpie fans would be disappointed if I didn’t explain that as a general rule Kelpies do not bark while working.

The barking kelpie in the videos on the last post is the pup tied up on the Ranger, frustrated because he's not working. I’ve come across many young border collies who also bark like fiends when watching other dogs work. Watching such a volume of sheep for the first time also incites barking in many young dogs, regardless of breed. When at work Kelpies work quietly like the border collies. The two dogs on the ground in the videos never bark while working.  Some yard lines of kelpies will bark but the bark is purposeful, and only as needed.  Cajun will bark a few times, but not incessantly, when he is riding along on the Ranger and knows we want sheep to move, and that's very handy. Put him on the ground though and he doesn't make a peep.

Barking is not a breed trait in the Kelpie but it is in the New Zealand Huntaway which may be mistaken for Kelpies. That said, some lines of Kelpies do bark when forcing, however it is important the bark be purposeful. It should be a bark or two if needed and then back to quiet. It should not be incessant barking.

Kelpies and Border Collies work much the same way, showing eye and working quietly and yet are very different dogs to have around and live with.

Speaking in general terms, the Border Collie in North America is a very, very popular breed and as such is a bit of a specialist with a particular style of work and showing a lot of eye to move livestock. In some overseas countries the border collies are more upright in style, showing eye as needed rather than at every movement of the livestock.  The Kelpie should show eye as needed. When working a mob, the Kelpie will appear very upright in style, showing less eye.  They should not overwork but work where needed.  When on a few head of sheep the Kelpie will show intense eye and style similar to a Border Collie.

A good dog is a good dog, and we use both breeds here, carrying a deep appreciation for the varying styles of work and personality in every dog we come across.  The dogs make this life what it is.

Video Post, Night Penning

I find it very tough to pay attention to recording video while working the dogs at the same time, hence I don’t take many videos.  Still I wanted to try getting a few of moving the flock. 

A video of the entire process would be far too long and probably pretty boring so I've just included these few short clips.  

I have three Kelpies with me on this evening; Cajun, Gibson and the youngster BlackJack is along for the ride and a bit of work if/when deemed appropriate.  It’s his first time watching this much action and he’s the one doing all the barking in the background.  I did allow him a bit of work once we had the sheep flocked up and settled (that video not shown, lol).  

The background to these videos:  We’ve already done the opening gather, meaning the dogs and I have traveled the pasture finding sheep, and moving each bunch in a general direction so they flock up.  

First video: Cajun is bringing sheep up from the far side of a large bush.  Gibson is in front, not doing much work in this case. 

Second video: we’re about half way home, just a short clip of the dogs moving the group.  

Third video:  We have traveled across the pasture, through our first gate and across a smaller paddock and are now at the night pen, front gate.  The dogs have done this many times before so they are familiar with the job, and in this particular case PJ, the llama gives us an unexpected helping hand.    

Almost Made It

With a few evenings of moving the ewes home for the night the girls are now onto the plan and are moving more readily.  In the night pen Wren and Crow are becoming more comfortable with the large group but choose to sleep closer to the building which they are familiar with.  We had a small victory with Wren and Crow staying out at pasture for the duration of the day today.  

I took a few short videos of moving the flock with the stock dogs but be damned if I can get them uploaded to YouTube.  I’ll have to try leaving it upload overnight.  

I almost made it back to the drawing table (the literal one, not the figurative one.  Or wait a minute, maybe it’s both).  With moving house the normal order of life and where our belongings are at, is still all out of order.  I’m in a completely new creative space and still feeling a bit out of sorts with it.  I keep approaching the drawing table and then leaving it as I discover there are items I still need to bring over from the old house. 

Meanwhile, I keep practicing with the camera, aiming for the next good reference photo.  These don't quite have the detail needed but appeal to me nonetheless and make me smile.  I love these dogs.  

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