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.

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.

Old Mama

She’s not much to look at, some cross between livestock guardian dog breeds. Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 10+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.

She’s a typical range dog, gentle and attentive to her ewes and lambs, while fiercely protective of canine intruders to her range. I’d crossed paths with her for years, as we sorted the range herds for shipping the lambs to market each fall, and as I visited the herds along the trail throughout the seasons.

Reserved with strangers, Old Mama slowly approaches her shepherds, standing quietly for attention for a few minutes before departing back to the job. The scars on her face reveal her persistent character – she’s not one to back down from a fight with a predator.

About four years ago, after lambing season, the flocks were on the move north, preparing to enter the wilderness, but Old Mama was swollen in pregnancy. One of the herders took her to the ranch where she had a selection of places to den to give birth to her pups. Our family’s flock was about seven miles north of the ranch, still within Old Mama’s home range. Old Mama stayed at the ranch a few days, but there were plenty of other guardian dogs already attending to the small flocks of sheep there, so she moved across the range, seeking that perfect isolated spot to give birth to her pups. She selected a rock outcrop high above a rugged canyon, five miles north of the ranch, but only two miles from our flock.

She appeared one morning near my flock, greeted by our guardians as one of their own. We could see she’d recently given birth, so Jim and I put out food for her, watched while she ate and then departed, headed back to the south. We’d had bears trying to get into our sheep flock nearly every night, but our guardians were persistent, keeping the bears at bay. One night, a bear moved to the cattle herd in the adjacent pasture, and the bawling of the cattle drew the attention of two of our guardians, which rushed to the rescue. I sat in the dark listening to the voices of our dogs as they were joined by a third, as Old Mama arrived on the scene. The three dogs worked as a team as they set to harassing the bear. The sounds of the night told the story: the cattle bawling, the bear roaring and bawling, with sharp barks of the dogs as they moved the bear away from the cattle and back into the forest. The night grew quiet, and my dogs returned, bouncing with excitement and adrenalin. Her work done for the night, Old Mama returned to her pups.

She made regular visits to my camp for food, and we eventually followed her back to her den, much to her outrage. We dug her growling pups from their rocky hiding place, and moved them to my camp, sticking the pups in a stock trailer with softened food and water. When Jim went to check the pups before daylight, he found Old Mama waiting to tend her litter.

We sheep producers often disagree with our guardian dogs about where they should have their pups, but we usually let the bitches have their way during that time they seek seclusion to give birth, waiting a few days before we retrieve the new families for closer supervision. This is nothing new to traditional shepherd cultures – guardian dogs give birth in primitive dens on the range across the world. Some shepherds put bells on the collars of pregnant females so they can follow the sounds of the bells to find the natal den.

I was glad Old Mama’s den hadn’t been found by anyone else. Someone might have thought this dog family needed “rescued” and taken them to a vet clinic or animal rescue in town, far from their rangeland home and away from livestock.

We and our rangeland neighbors have had various guardian dogs “rescued” on numerous occasions over the years – even within a half-mile of our house when the dogs were in the pasture with their flock, as well as a four-month old pup taken from its mother’s side while with its flock.

I used to be somewhat sympathetic to the good-hearted souls who thought they were doing the right thing. But I’ve grown weary of it. Just because a dog is not within sight distance of a house or herd doesn’t mean it’s been left behind or abandoned. Others see range dogs they feel are too skinny, expecting these athletic and hard-working dogs to be as fat as the dogs that live in their houses.

Granted, sometimes the predator situation gets so intense on our range that we have to rotate the dogs to force each dog to get some rest because the dogs will work themselves into the ground. When predators won’t flee, the dogs engage in fights, and getting their ears torn or bites on their front legs is rather common. The dogs will limp around for a few days – as would a human with a temporary but not serious injury. A few tablespoons of blood scattered down the legs of a bright white dog is a shocking sight to those who are not familiar with the lives of working dogs. Most of the injuries to the dogs are minor, and if they do require treatment, we can take care of it ourselves. Livestock producers routinely practice vet care on all our animals, and we have the medicine and the equipment to do so. Many times we administer care in the field, but sometimes the animals are moved back to ranch headquarters. More severe injuries, like those inflicted on our guardian Rena when she fought with wolves, are rare, and do require emergency vet care.

Old Mama rejoined us on the range last year as our flock grazed the sagebrush steppe along the foothills of the western front of the Wind River Range. When we gathered our animals to leave that range in late fall, we brought Old Mama with us to spend the winter months with our flock on a much smaller range. Cool as ever, she’s adjusted to the new experience, relaxing with the reduced workload that comes with the winter season, and leading her flock from their hilltop bedground to the haystack to wait for the sheep to be fed every morning.

Curs On Coyotes

We parked the truck under the crest of the ridge and the two yellow female curs jumped from the cab to the ground, sniffing around unconcernedly for ground squirrels. Jeff quietly called the dogs back to the truck so he could snap electronic collars onto their necks. The girls remained quiet and seemed calm, but as I glanced at the seven-year old female, I could see the muscles of her back legs quivering in excitement. Although the collars can send electric shocks, for these seasoned pros, that would not be necessary. Instead, Jeff would use the collars to emit electronic beeps to communicate commands. There would be no voice commands in the field.

We spoke little, walking quietly with the dogs until we’d reached a rock outcrop perched at the end of the ridge overlooking a small pond, with sweeping views up several drainages along the face of the Wind River Mountains. We sat with our backs against the rocks, the dogs sitting patiently in front, as Jeff blew on a coyote call. We sat still, mosquitoes buzzing around us, sweat dripping down our backs, while the dogs slowly moved their heads from side to side as they scanned the hillsides for movement, occasionally adjusting their rumps for a more comfortable position. Plenty of birds, butterflies, and a few pronghorn antelope, but no coyotes, so we gathered ourselves back up for a hike to the next ridge, headed to check a location where a female coyote had denned the year prior.

The morning was long past and it was 80 degrees by the time we reached the rugged bluffs above the Big Sandy River, checking on one last den site before calling it a day. I could hear lambs calling to their mothers from the riverbed below as we began hiking toward the den, the curs trotting out in front of us. It was far too hot for anything to be happening, but the curs quickly jumped an adult male coyote that had been lounging on a ridgeline away from the pups. One yelp from the dogs and the chase was on, away from us and out of sight over the ridge.

Within seconds I saw a dog’s head pop up on the skyline, as one of the dogs took a look to locate her human partners. A few barks and yelps later, the two curs came charging back over the top of the ridge, with the male coyote a few paces behind.

The coyote was agitated at the intrusion into his range, barking aggressively, and trying to get close enough to grab a mouthful of dog. But the curs were fast and determined, swinging back around and coming to a full stop to urge the coyote forward when he faltered.

The temptation was too much, and the coyote again gave chase.

 The girls brought him in at a run directly across a small draw from our location, where Jeff was waiting with his .22-250 Remington. The dogs slowed and stopped, as did the coyote, giving Jeff a clean and close view. One quick shot and the coyote was down.

The dogs raced back to us for praise, then returned to rough up the carcass a little before leading us back along the ridgeline. After a quick water break, the dogs escaped the heat by climbing back into the cab for a well-deserved nap.

Spring Reds

 This seems to be the spring for red fox in western Wyoming. It’s not that we have more of them, but we’ve got a few litters that have been more visible than usual. Fortunately they aren’t near our lambing grounds, so they aren’t in areas where conflicts would be expected.

I spotted six kits at this den at the entrance to a cattle ranch along a county road.