Spiked collars

{Intro from Cat: Last week, a wolf tried to get into a flock of yearling sheep on the mountain, and ended up in a brawl with six guardian dogs. Although the wolf was injured, it escaped without succeeding in killing any sheep. If it lives, I’m hoping it learned a valuable lesson. A couple of the dogs were injured but are fine.
Another flock moved several miles downriver from our house, getting out onto the desert and further away from the Wind River Mountains here in western Wyoming. This is the flock we’ve had here all summer, with no depredation even though the wolves kept checking in on them and testing the dogs. We assumed things would be safer for that flock, but apparently at least one wolf decided to follow their movement downriver.

Bear-Bear, the biggest and toughest livestock guardian dog I’ve ever known (a Central Asian Ovcharka/Akbash cross), was badly injured. Since then, I’ve been getting lots of comments that we need to put spiked collars on our dogs. It’s an easy suggestion, but a lot harder to implement on a naïve dog population that most people realize. If you’ve got a stable dog pack on a set acreage it’s easier, but when you are managing a dog population involving four groups of dogs in a fluid system across large expanses of landscape, it’s much more complicated.}

A spiked collar is a tool, an added defense for a livestock guardian dog. But just like any tool, there are appropriate times and places for their use, and some dogs are more suited to using them than others. Placing spiked collars in a dog pack is something that has to be closely supervised.

We have spiked collars, and have used them in the past with a group of mature dogs with one dominant male leading the bunch (Rant). But we are not currently using spiked collars, for numerous reasons. There are four groups of dogs out with different sheep flocks, and the members of each group change on a fairly regular basis at this time of year (for a variety of reasons) when the sheep are on the move. That means that pack dynamics change as well.

In addition, since we’ve brought in our first outside dogs in about 10 years, we’ve bumped up pup production to get these dogs into the working gene pool. So we’ve got all age groups present, from pups just a few months old that are interacting with yearling dogs, dogs with a few years experience, dogs in their prime, and older dogs.

Adding sharp objects to dog collars in this scenario would lay the groundwork for a disaster. Dogs may get their teeth knocked out from inter-pack brawls involving spiked collars. Dogs are smart and know to use the spikes as a weapon. That is great when dealing with wolves, not so great when you’re hormonal and mad at another dog for stealing a bone or growling at your offspring.

In their countries of origin, there are some areas where the collars are often used; in other areas, not so much; and in some areas, not at all. Even where they are used, rarely are all members of a pack collared – only those lead or more aggressive dogs most likely to be first on the scene to challenge a wolf wear spiked collars. In some areas we visited in Turkey, the dogs only wear the collars in certain grazing areas, and by law the collars must be removed before the flocks return to the village.

Juvenile dogs that are still growing and wrestling and figuring out their place in the pack generally shouldn’t wear spiked collars, and we don’t have any collars that small anyway (as in nothing that would fit Boo, who survived a wolf attack in May).

Last week, four dogs from the river flock went on a walkabout and visited a neighboring ranch that does not use dogs of any kind. The presence of four large dogs was startling enough, but we’ve got dogs from Tajikistan with cropped ears – and for some reason, that seems to scare the hell out of people. Fortunately, these kind people got word to us so we could quickly rid them of their unwelcome visitors.

Perhaps when we’ve got a more consistent dog population (which is during the winter when we’ll be feeding hay to the sheep and the flocks are further apart) we can put collars on some of our dominant dogs. We would have more time to supervise the process at that point. But until then, it’s not a good option.

Retiring Old Mama

The last few years, we’ve been working Old Mama into retirement. She’s a fine old dog that has traveled many, many miles accompanying her flocks from the low desert to the high mountains each year. We gradually placed her with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range a few years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

Every day she cheerfully sticks her tail straight up into the air and trots off to lead the flock in the day’s grazing. Her face and body carry many scars of war, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Yesterday was the start of a new stage of retirement, as we placed Old Mama into a large pen with orphan lambs that were born this spring. She’s healed up from her most recent battle with wolves, and is in great physical condition, but her teeth are worn with age so she can no longer defend herself. It’s something that she doesn’t understand, as she regularly sounds the alarm and charges out with the other guardians to face danger.

The last few months we’ve had our hands full with wolf problems, so we’ve been night-penning the sheep, and Old Mama is usually the last to enter the pen, following her flock into safety. But when she entered the pen last night, I slipped a leash over her head and diverted her into an adjacent pen, where she could be with smaller lambs. Old Mama was happy to spend time with these youngsters, but when she watched me let her flock out of the neighboring pen at daylight this morning, she stood expectantly at the gate, waiting for me to let her out. But I didn’t. She would no longer be their leader.

With wolves frequently coming so close to the house, I’m afraid we may be on the verge of a major canid brawl. Predictably, Old Mama would rise to the challenge, and would give her life in the process. We’re trying to lessen the risk of that happening.

We had hoped to stop night-penning the sheep as soon as we start winter feeding, probably around the first of December. Instead of ranging out to graze, our providing lines of alfalfa-grass hay near the house will keep the flock close by. But our discovery of wolf tracks within a quarter-mile of the house has cancelled that plan. We’ll be night penning until we can get these particular problem wolves eliminated.

Perhaps during the day Old Mama and her lambs can rejoin the flock as it feeds on hay near the house, and accompany the flock back into the pens at night. Perhaps my indulging in the desires of an old dog will lead to her demise. While I fear for her, far be it for me to deny an old dog her last wish.

Registering Microchips

We recently imported several dogs from outside the United States, and those dogs had been microchipped by veterinarians before arriving in the U.S. For the microchips to be useful in the event a dog is lost, the numbers associated with the chip must be registered. Implanted microchips that aren’t registered by the animal owner are of no use whatsoever. It’s the same as having an unchipped dog.

When I asked my veterinarian, I was told to register the number with the maker of the microchip. But since the chip was manufactured in a foreign country, the company’s registration information was in a foreign language and script. I decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

I did a few online searches and found dozens of companies and websites that register microchip numbers, with some requiring annual renewal for a fee, and others offering lifetime registration (also for a fee). Some claimed to be international registrations, while others were U.S.-only. Which one should we use, since they all seemed to be competing against each other?

I wondered where do veterinarians and animal shelters go to look up microchip numbers? They go to the American Animal Health Hospital Association’s website to plug in the numbers. But AAHA isn’t a microchip registry – it’s an online search tool. According to the AAHA, “The tool works by searching the databases of participating companies. It will not return pet owner information contained in the registries’ databases, instead it will identify which registries should be contacted when a lost pet is scanned and a microchip number is identified.”

“The American Animal Hospital Association does not maintain a database of microchips of its own. To register a microchip or update contact information for a microchip, pet owners should contact their pet recovery service.”

So that’s what we needed: a pet recovery service. I looked at the list of microchipping and pet recovery services that participate in the AAHA program and did some more research, finding a similar can of worms of competing services, with various prices and terms. I finally settled on AKC Reunite, which enrolls any brand of microchip and charges no annual fee. Their online records account allows for easy access to update a pet’s record and to upload a photo. Your pet does not need to be an AKC-registered animal to enroll and use the microchip registration/pet recovery service.
Lifetime enrollment with AKC Reunite of your first pet costs $17.50 and can easily be completed online, but multiple pets are given a discount. It cost $50 for lifetime enrollment of our four new pups.

The bottom line is that if your dog’s microchip manufacturer isn’t listed as participating in the AAHA program, your microchip probably isn’t going to help you in reuniting with your lost but microchipped pet.

I selected AKC Reunite not just because it participates with the AAHA program, sets low fees, and allows easy updating of records, but because it also offers a variety of support services in the event a pet is lost. Find out more at AKC Reunite.

Until the microchip companies cooperate to create a universal registry (which I doubt will ever happen), the best solution for dog owners in the United States is to make sure that their chip is registered with one of the companies participating in the AAHA program.

Golden Eagle Migrations

Researchers recently discovered the importance of Montana’s Big Belt Mountains (near Bozeman) as a raptor migration flyway, and their first major monitoring effort for this flyway began in the fall of 2015, and was repeated in fall 2016. This route recorded the greatest number of migrating golden eagles of any site in North America, with 2,620 golden eagles recorded, with a peak of 24 goldens per hour!

The team also recorded another important behavior: Golden eagles continued to migrate at night under a full moon.

And if the golden eagle information wasn’t enough, the researchers also documented all 17 raptor species known to migrate through the region – all on one day!

The Big Belts are a 75-mile long mountain range in west-central Montana, just north of the Bridger Mountains, which are well-known for raptor migrations. The raptor migration counts were conducted by Ronan Dugan and Jeff Grayum of the Golden Eagle Migration Survey and the report on the Fall 2016 counts can be found here.

Guardian/herding dog differences

 

I’ve written extensively about our relationship with our working livestock guardian dogs and have written very little about life with our herding dogs. The difference between the two types of dogs is remarkable.

None of our guardian dogs over the age of about two months old has ever been willing to play with a store-bought toy. Sure, they will fling a dead prairie dog through the air repeatedly, but never an actual dog toy.

Our guardian dogs do not retrieve anything you throw for them in attempt to get them to play. Instead, they tend to look at you like you’re an idiot, and watch while you retrieve it yourself.

We had the exciting experience of teaching a few of our guardian dogs to do funny tricks. But they only did the tricks once (as if to prove it could be done), and reverted back to the typical “this-human-is-a-complete-idiot” look of contempt.

Unlike any herding dog I know, our guardian dogs are nearly incapable of catching treats that are tossed directly at them. It’s a rare event that one of our guardians will open its mouth to catch a piece of meat that is gently launched at them. The meat will hit the dog on the nose, or in the middle of the forehead, before bouncing off and landing on the ground from where it is retrieved and consumed.

With the exception of the “go to the sheep” command, our guardian dogs fail to take more than the most rudimentary instructions from us. Even if they are fully aware of what we want them to do, they will comply only if it was their idea in the first place.

Try pointing something out in the distance, and the guardian dog will look at your hand, unlike our herding dogs, which use both verbal requests and hand signals. I can point out a specific lamb to Hud the herding dog, and tell him to “Get that lamb.” Hud will them chase the lamb through the flock, knocking it down with his chest and holding it to the ground until I get there. (Hud’s the dark dog in the photos, while the guardians are the all-white dogs.)

These behavioral differences are easily explained by the differences in the type of work the dogs specialize in. Guardian dogs are by their very nature independent decision-makers. They assess threats to their herds, and react accordingly. They do not wait for human guidance.

The only exception to this is exhibited by Rena, a guardian dog now suffering from arthritis as the result of a battle with wolves. There is a pesky coyote that she can’t catch, so when it comes around teasing her, Rena will bark and wait until Jim or I follow her out with a gun. All she wants is that coyote dead, so she’s willing to cooperate with us to make that happen.

In contrast, herding dogs are human companions, bred to be pliable in taking instruction, and seem to have a desire to please their humans. Guardian dogs generally don’t care about what humans think, but herding dogs do.

Since most of our dogs were raised together, the guardian dogs are all amazingly tolerant of the much smaller herding dogs. The guard dogs don’t like to have their sheep messed with, but allow the herding dogs to do their jobs so long as no sheep are injured in the process. Shearing day is fun for herding dogs, which enjoy the excitement and the work of keeping the sheep bunched and moving forward, while the guardian dogs sulk around outside the corral, fuming about the disturbance to their flock.

Our adult guardian dogs tend to weigh between 90 and 130 pounds, and our smallest adult herding dog was Abe, weighing in about 25 pounds when soaking wet. Yet honest old Abe was treated as top dog, with a pack of guardian dogs patiently waiting for him to walk away from the food bowl before the ravenous pack would move in.

Abe was a bearded collie/border collie cross, while Hud is a bearded
collie/Aussie cross. Both dogs had the soft-mouth characteristic that we
shepherds find so endearing. Both dogs prefer to simply poke the sheep
with their noses rather than bite. Content just to be in the presence of
their sheep, both dogs could be left alone with the sheep without
feeling the need to “work” them.

All the dogs tend to be well
aware of their surroundings, and often it’s a herding dog that detects
the presence of a coyote. The herding dog will raise the alarm and start
running in the direction of the problem, but will always glance behind
to make sure the guardian dogs will arrive at the point of danger long
before the herding dog. The herding dogs then happily return to their
leisure while the big dogs do the work.

One of Hud’s jobs is to “guard” four goat guardian dogs every morning while they eat. Hud keeps the goats from getting to the dogs and competing with them for their food. Yesterday his job got a little more complicated when a baby goat decided she liked the looks of Hud and came to him. Hud adores baby animals and got excited by the tiny goat since this was only the second time he’d been able to thoroughly investigate a member of this species. Hud towered over the kid, running his nose over her back and putting his nose to her tail. The kid decided that was too close for comfort and raced for me to save her. I told Hud, “Easy, easy,” and tried to convince him to move her back to her herd. But every time she tried to go back to her bunch, Hud cut off her exit by licking her nose and turning her back to me. It was pretty funny, but I eventually told Hud to knock it off, so he let her go, following her back to her herd before returning to the work he was supposed to be doing. The guardian dogs didn’t even look up from their food.

Hud is a prime example of the concept that like their human companions, dogs are creatures of habit. Hud has a few store-bought toys to play with, but there is one special toy that is our bedtime entertainment. When I make the bed each morning, I place the decorative pillows on the bed and place his stuffed Lambchop toy on top. Every evening while Jim and I are on computers or watching television in the living room, Hud quietly goes back to our bedroom to retrieve Lambchop, and then slowly walks into the living room to present it to us, gently pushing it into a lap. The suggestion is clear: It’s bedtime. We usually agree, jumping up to shut off the lights, and following him down the hall to bed. Hud and Lambchop wait patiently in the middle of the bed while his humans brush their teeth and crawl under the covers.

But sometimes Hud tries to put us to bed far too early, and we have to convince him that no, going to bed at 5 p.m. is not a good idea.

This nighttime routine is such a staple of our lives that when I’m away from home, Hud sulks. He refuses to retrieve Lambchop to put Jim to bed, and usually sleeps outside on those nights. His sulking starts the minute he sees me get out my luggage. That’s why I usually try to pack my bag while its deep in the dark recess of my closet.

While Hud would prefer to spend nearly every minute in my presence, our guardian dogs aren’t nearly so devoted. The guardians act happy to see me every day, but usually grow bored with me within a few minutes, dismissing me and returning to their flock. Their devotion lies elsewhere.

Mountain Counts

A range flock of domestic sheep exits the mountains in the southern Wind River Range of western Wyoming. Before the flock begins its slow movement to lower elevations, herders needed a head count. But how do you count thousands of sheep with only two men? It’s fairly simple.

Range sheep have strong flocking instincts, and if you can get the lead sheep to go in the desired direction, the rest of the flock will follow. The herders (on horseback) approached the head of the flock as it traveled downhill, forcing the sheep through a bottleneck formed by their horses. The men count the sheep as they pass through the bottleneck. (Click on the photos for an enlarged view.)

Even though the sheep could easily go around the riders, they don’t, instead following their flockmates down the determined path. This flock of yearling ewes is used to the counting technique and know the drill.

Notice how the sheep in the top left of the photo don’t cut down the hill to join their flockmates but turn to move through the bottleneck as the herder to the left steps back, providing a wider path.

The tail end of the flock easily moves through the bottleneck created by the herders. This is low-stress livestock handling.

The call

We were supposed to shear our sheep today, but a combination of rain and snow pushed back our shearing schedule and I had a free afternoon. I drove about 45 minutes south to meet up with an old friend who was making a quick stop on a Utah-to-Alaska roadtrip with her family. I was given directions to the house and a few minutes after introductions were made with an extensive family, I found myself sitting at a kitchen table with an old man who had spent a good portion of his life running hounds.

Hounds. On bears, lions, and coons.

“With coons, it’s all dog.” I immediately knew exactly what he meant, but I don’t know why it was such an instant connection.

The crowed room faded away as I listened to his stories: of the hound named Cougar, of black and tans, of Walkers brought out of the South. Of training young dogs with too much enthusiasm and without a lick of sense, of the scorn older dogs who had to run in the same pack, of using big Airedales and pitbulls to protect the hounds at the tree, of the good hound that would never backtrack a bear, of taking a Boone and Crockett black bear, of live capturing mountain lions and bringing them out on the back of a mule. I felt like Ben Lilly would have been at home with this man.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a houndsman, don’t own hounds, and have only had a few chances to accompany hounds on a hunt. I know that my uncle and other men I descend from were houndsmen, but it’s never been a part of my life. If I have any regrets in life, that would would be it.

But it doesn’t matter: There is something about hounds that speaks to the very core of my soul. It’s a deep and primal connection that I do not understand. If I step outside in the dark of the night and hear a hound baying in the distance, my heartbeat quickens, and sings.

Tell me, why? What is it about hounds that causes such a primitive reaction? Help me explore and understand.