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A Useful Sheepdog

This article was published in July 2006 in Stockdogs Magazine

Currently, I run 1000 Debouillet (Delanie Merino/Rambouillet) ewes on wheat stubble about 25 miles north of Pendleton. My experience with dogs is varied.  I have trained and used both Kelpies and Border Collies.  I have been to many sheepdog trials, and  I have also worked cattle while doing some custom grazing work.  The regions I have run sheep and cattle in vary, including the wet areas of Western Washington and now on the dry high-desert region of Eastern Oregon.  I have worked dogs from horseback, foot, pickup truck and four-wheeler.  It may sound like I am trying to convince you that I know a lot about dogs and livestock, I donít.  Everyday I go to work and learn 10 new things about dogs and sheep, not to mention electric fence, coyotes, water valves, etc.  Everyday I am reminded of just how much I donít know.

 When I think about a useful sheepdog, very specific things come to mind.  I will use my dog Mick as an example of a useful, yet far from perfect dog.  Mick does what I ask him to do most of the time.  He also does what he wants to do at times.  He and I donít always get along but most of the time we enjoy working with each other.  Of course I am assuming Mick likes working with me.  This assumption is based on him jumping over and through anything he has to when I call his name to come work.  Mick is a body-gripper, can pout when you get on him, over-flanks, has too much eye, comes on too strong and has just about 100 other bad traits.  But, Mick is my favorite dog.  I trust Mick with lambs that have just hit the ground.  I can send him to gather blind down a very steep cliff and know the sheep are safe.  I never have to look for him, he is always at my side.  He always tries to do what I ask.  He has lots of walkup.  He figures out what job we are trying to get done and works to get it done.  Every dog has there good and bad traits.  It is never one bad trait or one good trait that makes them useful in my eyes.

 I need a dog that can ride on a four-wheeler running at 35mph in a 30mph wind.  Riding on a four-wheeler comes naturally to most ranch dogs.  However some dogs donít like them and you will not be able to keep them on the bike if you begged.  When you have 1000 ewes to gather and drive a couple miles down the road, your dog best ride on the bike when he can.  It saves time for you and saves their feet for them.  The only time I donít let them ride is when we are checking sheep.  This keeps them in shape and it also helps them to understand that when we take the bike out, it doesnít ALWAYS mean they are to work the sheep.  I have seen a couple dogs that would jump out of their skin whenever the bike was started.  ďBike = WorkĒ not in my world.  A lot of times we just need to check the sheep without disturbing their grazing.

 Jumping.  Be able to jump over just about anything.  I need my dogs to be able to jump into the pickup without me opening the tailgate.  I need them to be able to jump into the pens and out again without really trying.  We run sheep behind three strands of poly-wire that is about 3í tall.  This wire is electrified and sounds like a .22 when it shocks you.  Most dogs will get hit by the wire while sliding under it.  A good dog will soon learn to jump the wire and go to work.  If you have ever been hit by a strong electric fence you know that it will make anyone nervous just standing next to it.  My dogs must learn to jump it without fear and go to work. 

 Working in the heat.  I have wobbled dogs before and it is something that I truly dread.  I want my dogs to keep working but know when to back off a notch and figure out that they can do things a bit easier when it is hot.  I donít let them hunt shade or jump in the trough half way through a job.  However, the difference between working a dog too hard and them working themselves too hard is something to watch out for.  If I have a young dog that is 150% about EVERYTHING then I let them be that.  When the heat comes, I keep a close eye on them to see if they start to realize they need to settle down a bit and conserve themselves.  If I find the dog doesnít learn to settle down and over-heats itself, these dogs donít work very well for what I do. 

 Starting young is important.  I have heard people say that a dog isnít useful until they are over 2yo.  Most shepherds I know will not feed a dog for two years before they are contributing to the daily work tasks.  I currently have a bitch named Gale that is about 7 months old.  She had her first day at work before she was 7months old.  I donít expect much from a pup at her age.  I just ask her to basically follow along behind the flock as we move them to a new paddock and come to me when I call her name.  I donít expect her to know any commands, instead I use her name to call her to me and put her in the place where she can be helpful.  This time on sheep is very important.  It allows her to get experience on sheep and it allows me to start to see what type of dog she will become.  If she was to start playing (gripping, chasing sheep, etc) I would take her off sheep for a few more months and try again.  But there would some a time when she would need to get serious about work.  Lucky for me she is as serious as a heart attack and seems to be a good one. 

 Protecting a pup from themselves.  I like them to have the first 5-8 months of their lives to be puppies.  I want my pups to feel like they can do anything with sheep anywhere, anytime.  I always keep my pups off sheep until I feel they are big enough to outrun a ewe.  Also, I go to great lengths to keep them from getting into situations where they cannot win when I do start them.  I donít want to let a pup start working just by playing around with the sheep.   Until the day comes when they are keen, big enough and old enough to start working, I never let them work. 

 Sturdiness.  The work I do can be very rough work.  Lots of hills to climb and rocks, heat, cold, dust, snakes and just about anything nasty you can think of.  I look for dogs that are built to take this type of rough work.  Sometimes when I try to explain this, people think I mean hard headed dogs.  They mistake me.  I need dogs that are NOT hard headed but can take a long hard day and not come up lame by the end of it.  I have had really good dogs that were just wonderful with sheep and smart as a whip but they physically couldnít withstand the rough work I need from them.  For example: we just preg-tested my band of ewes for out of season breeders.  We started gathering at 5am.  It was already 80degrees by 7am.   I was the only one that had a bike so Mick and I did all of the outwork.  We gathered some very steep ridges that Mick had to gather by himself since the bike cannot get close.  Once we had the yards full, we pushed sheep up to the shoot until 3pm that afternoon.  It was 102degrees by 11:30am.  The dust in the pens was so thick that there were times when I couldnít see the other side of the pen or Mick.  Then after preg.-testing we trailed the ewes down to the new watering point.  All in all we put in a 14 hour day and Mick worked about 85% of it and was still on four feet by the end of the day.  That is what I mean by tough dog.

 Yard work.  Pushing sheep in the yards is some of the hardest work I can think of for a dog.  The worst part is that when the heat goes up the sheep donít want to move.  This makes the dog work twice as hard and it becomes very rough work indeed.   On top of just pushing, pushing and more pushing he must be able to jump between pens and understand the job at hand.  It takes everyone in the yards working together to keep the sheep flowing through the sorting gate or into the race or onto the truck or whatever you are doing.  The dog must understand the task and figure out how to be in the right place to be the most help.  And push, push, push without getting out of control or being too hard on the sheep.  Trust me after pushing sheep through the yards for 4 hours I think everyone starts to lose it a little, but the dog must stay calm and workman like.  Sometimes the calmest worker in the yards is the dog.  It isnít easy for a dog to stay calm when it may be getting commands from three different people and those people are starting to get very hot, tired and frustrated.  This is when your dog needs to know the job and just get on with it without getting shaken or frustrated with the sheep.

 On command gripping.  I expect my dogs to never grip unless I ask them to.  I will say ďpush upĒ and this tells the dog to grip if needed to move the sheep.  This applies on a gather or in the yard.  Usually the dogs cannot hear me speak on a gather so I whistle for them to walk-up very quickly and hard.  They understand this harder walk-up whistle means to push hard on the sheep and if needed grip.

 Not holding on.  Gripping is not a problem unless the dog holds on.  Gripping sheep in the right place; nose or below the hock is in my experience, genetic.  Gripping on the body is very un-favorable but I donít always let that dog go.  There are so many traits that go into a useful sheepdog it is hard to let them go over any single fault.  That being said a proper gripping dog is ten times more useful then a body-gripper in my work.  However, regardless of where they grip they need to know how to let go.  I also believe that knowing how to give a useful powerful grip to move sheep is genetic.  I currently have a dog that doesnít have a good grip-placement but he doesnít hold on.  He simply doesnít have the genetics for good grip-placement but he does understand that gripping is a tool to move sheep and not a game.  However this poor grip-placement on his part increases his potential for getting injured.  He tends to use his whole body and almost run into the sheepís body.  This makes him vulnerable to getting stomped on or slammed into the side of the pen.

 A useful sheepdog is one that is your friend at the house and your best worker in the paddock.  I donít think you could ever come up with a rating system for how useful a sheepdog is.  If you could, you would most likely be correcting it for your error more then the dogs.


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