We shipped lambs this week, and I was pleased to see that two of the Aziat (Central Asian Ovcharka) pups I raised were with the lamb herd. Our bearded collie, Abe, had sat in the truck all morning as we loaded lambs, staying out of the way of unfamiliar dogs, people and big trucks. As we finished up, I let him out, and he was immediately greeted by the big girls he had help raise. Although they outweigh him three to one, they still let him be the “big dog.” I love this puppy-like submissive behavior offered by the girls in these photos, and Abe’s “I am such a stud dog” posture.
On Tuesday, we started shipping our lambs to another desert allotment here in western Wyoming, to combine our lambs with that of a friend’s, into one large herd. By the time the sale takes place in 10 days, there will be over 2,000 lambs in this bunch. Right now, there are four livestock guardian dogs taking care of the herd, and when we dropped off some of our lambs, I was very pleasantly surprised to see two female guardians we had raised. The big dog is Vega, a 1 1/2 year old Ovcharka (my Rant’s sister). The other tall range dog is a short-haired female Akbash. Sweet, beautiful and fierce – good dogs.
That evening, Jim had to walk down the river to retrieve two cows and calves that had crossed over to the other side and had grazed their way down river. As he walked behind them through the thick willows along the riverbank, he found another bear-killed ewe. This ewe had been drug across the New Fork River and deposited in a covey underneath the willows. The carcass was eaten clean.
We honestly believe that the only way anyone will be able to find this bear that’s doing so much damage is with scent hounds. But it’s illegal to use the dogs on bears in Wyoming – even for our federal animal damage control specialists. Drives me crazy just thinking about it. The only tool I can see working, and it’s off limits.
￼Now that I’ve done a depressing post with nothing good, here’s one with something good. I’ve spent lots of time in the sheep pasture lately, and have been toting my camera around to document everything that is occurring. Have I mentioned that burros are very nosy creatures? I have pictures that prove it!
Rena the Akbash (all white dog) and Rant the Central Asian Ovcharka let off a little steam this morning. Here is Rant standing on Rena, looking like some bad ass. He’s younger than Rena by a year, and isn’t near as tall, weighs a lot less. But it’s only a matter of time before he’s bigger.
I don’t believe there were any feet touching the ground in this shot. We moved the camper close to the night pen, and the dogs played tag around it this morning.
Demonstrating the benefits of cropped ears on a guard dog:
There is nothing that makes Rant madder than anyone or anything grabbing his front legs. Rena knows just what buttons to push.
Rant has very big feet, and uses those front legs to slap and grab with. Very cool when he stands up on his hind legs to wrestle – the Ovcharkas do that a lot.
Last Friday morning’s early sheep check led me to a just-killed 90-pound lamb – nothing much eaten but the liver. Once again the scene was so fresh it must have just occurred – blood everywhere, upset dogs. Rant took Luv’s Girl to the ground for coming near the kill, which he was guarding but wouldn’t touch. Things were very tense.
On Saturday, I found another completely consumed lamb along the river – just blood and the pealed-back pelt. I called in all the kills to our Wildlife Services guys, who were responding to major wolf problems at the time. One outfit had 37 sheep and one yearling steer killed and one injured guard dog. A pack of six wolves were killed in order to stop the depredations. The next day, a pack of five wolves were killed after killing three guard dogs and 45 sheep. Our problems were much smaller in comparison, but we were also working really hard to try to minimize losses as well. The sheep were spooky and things were in a general state of unrest.
Sunday morning, an adult ewe – a big, beautiful Rambouillet – was killed. Only her udder was eaten. We could see where the ewe had been attacked, tried to flee, and was eventually taken down. A single bite to her throat was her blessed ending.
The last two nights, federal trappers have set wolf traps in attempt to catch the guilty predator. They have been unable to determine whether it’s a bear or a wolf – it’s one or the other.
I hate traps, but because this predator issue has continued to drag on without resolution, agreed to the trapping effort. In order to do that, the dogs had to be contained so they didn’t get hurt. We have a hay stack pen located right next to the highway in that pasture, so we started locking the sheep herd in the pen at night, with the dogs inside with them. It’s a scary situation, because if a predator gets in the pen, the sheep can’t escape. None of these decisions are easy, and they all have pitfalls.
This is me sitting in the pen, giving everyone good night kisses. Yes, I’m a sheephugger too.
With two nights of trapping, nothing has been caught. This predator is either not appearing for some reason, or won’t come to a bait. Nothing has been killed for a few days, but we’re nervous about the days ahead. Two guard dogs, three guard burros, and a pasture of horned cattle that don’t like canids hasn’t been enough to protect our herd out here in the sagebrush, hundreds of miles from Yellowstone, even when our presence is added to the mix.
I have been simply flabbergasted by the controversy I’ve been reading about dog husbandry and the nit-picking crap described by Steve and our blogger friends in several recent posts. After reading the animosity represented, I suspect that some folks would have me put behind bars since our lifestyle doesn’t conform to their rigid standard for animal treatment. But it also became apparent that there seems to be two underlying differences in our thinking.
The first is that some of us have working partnerships with animals – they aren’t simply “pets” here to enhance our lives. We live with and depend on one another, in various ways. My relationship with my dogs isn’t just about me. I live with livestock guardian dogs, which are by their very nature very independent animals, so they “get a vote.” More often than not, the dogs decide. I try to influence, but then what I get is given to me by an animal that has survived for thousands of years by making its own decisions.
The second involves the reality of risks and death. Life on our ranch involves risks, and the knowledge that the cycle of life includes death. Death isn’t something we’re afraid of, but is part of our lives.
The risk of death occurs daily. West Nile Virus killed one of our sheep last week; my dogs kill coyotes fairly routinely; wolves kill our dogs on occasion; and on occasion, we have dogfights that result in injury and even death. We humans on the ranch experience daily risk as well, be it from lightening strikes, hazards of working with machinery, being charged by mother moose, horse wrecks, and certain hormonal cattle who want to kill us for touching or coming within a half-mile of their babies – just to name a few.
We have a waiting list of other sheep producers who want our pups. Our dogs are a mix of Akbash and Anatolians and now, we’re adding Central Asian Ovcharkas. The males that win breeding rights, in the process of natural selection, get to breed. The females pick where they will den up – we build hay houses and other whelping boxes, but the females decide. The result is some of our litters are born in dirt dens dug out of a hillside, others in culverts, others underneath buildings, and even a few in the hay houses. The females that use the hay houses seem to know what we’re doing as soon as we construct it. We feed the female atop the house for several weeks before whelping, and they usually begin nesting and making it their own just before having their pups. The females always have the pups by themselves, and I’ve only lost a few from being rolled on during the birthing process. Most of our litters include 8-11 live pups.
The pups are never locked in, and I simply can’t resist touching them from the time they are born. If it’s a real big litter, I supplemental feed with a bottle of milk replacer. Within a couple of days of birth, the bitches usually wait for me to arrive for babysitting duty before they exit at a run, headed for water and to empty their bladders/bowels, then hurrying back to the pups. I try to line the natal dens with wool, and some females allow that, while others kick it back out as many times as I put it in. No matter – mama decides and the babies do just fine. We provide hard dog food, soaked in milk replacer, before the pups ever open their eyes.
The babies start coming out of the den as soon as their eyes open, meeting their first sheep and getting butted when they try chewing on ears that don’t belong to them. They grow and venture out further, tangling with porcupines, digging up prairie dogs, harassing moose for better or worse, chasing off magpies and hawks, and meeting up with their first coyotes and fox. The pups have wild adventures and seem to be truly happy animals. They usually have their first coyote or fox kill while they still have puppy teeth. And mercy, but they are proud when that happens. Coyotes challenge our herds nearly every day, so the guardian job is a big one.
The pups bark and growl all night long, roll on dead things, and stink to high heaven sometimes. They swim in the river when and if they want. They steal fish from ospreys.
Most pups survive, but some don’t. We had a moose kick a pup in the chest and break its sternum a couple of years ago, and another died of the infection from a deep wound down its back that was inflicted by a bobcat that tried to enter the herd. We spray for fleas often because with our prairie dog populations, we have an unlimited source.
I socialize the pups by getting them to come to my voice, or to my whistle. I play with them, get them used to collars, leashes and cables, take turns taking them for rides in the cab of the truck to the house. That way, it’s not so traumatic when they have to go into the vet’s office in town. They slobber, and puke, have stress-induced shedding, and survive civilization, but gleefully jump out of the truck and back to their herd.
The dogs don’t live in doghouses, even in the bitter cold of winter. They will not leave their sheep, no matter the condition. They curl up to the wool bodies they protect, fan their tails over their faces, and wait out the storms. The sheep don’t use buildings, but seek out the shelter of sagebrush and natural landscape contours for protection, and the dogs stay with them.
These livestock guardian dogs live very active, adventurous lives. I feed them well, providing good dog food and meat on the bone. The dogs love me, but prefer their herds. They rarely die of old age. Wild animals rarely do. They live lives of bravery and I am privileged to get to share in that life with them. I mourn their passage, and am thankful for the time I’ve had with each one. Animals such as these are good for my soul.
I just received my first copies of the about-to-be-released bilingual version of my Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs: How They Guard Sheep book. This was my first children’s book, and is still my favorite, because it’s some of my favorite subject matter. The Spanish translation was done by Aida E. Marcuse, and the new edition is being released in both hard cover and paperback. This new edition was just honored as a Junior Library Guild selection and is featured in their monthly magazine.
There are three kestrels claiming territory on the lambing pasture fence this week. What beauty and fierceness.
Aziat Rant is a yearling now, and in charge of the bums. They are just getting up from a nap in the kennel in this photo:
And an old barn I drive past every now and then just so I can enjoy the view, and imagine the lives and adventures that it saw in days of old:
Every year during lambing, I end up with orphan lambs (although husband Jim claims I am just as likely to steal a lamb as to wait for one to get lost). I love having bum lambs – they are lots of work, but it’s all good. If they are ewe lambs, I keep them and put them in the herd when they are old enough. I swear I have one of the calmest, gentlest herds on the planet. A few ewes still in the bunch are bums from 10 years ago.
We had a big snowstorm hit at 4 p.m. yesterday, just before the bums were due to be fed, so I grabbed them out of the kennel and threw them in the house while I made bottles. Of course, the dogs had to come along as well. So this is what my work area/office looks like.
Rant, the yearling Aziat stud dog, has gone nuts over these lambs. If I make him get out of the kennel while the lambs are inside, he frantically tries to dig his way back in, crying the entire time. Fantastic natural guardian behavior.