Animal behavior is one of my favorite topics and the working dog relationships at EEC Forest Stewardship are endless discussion. Most of what I share here is direct experience with my two working dogs, and the livestock. Expertise is based off fifteen years of dog training, and ten years of livestock production. Greatest takeaways include knowing that humans are the only thing “at fault” in relationship with animals around them. Yet even with this clear rule of thumb in practice, I still catch myself being disappointed in my animals’ choices from time to time. They also humble me more often than I’d like to admit- especially when it comes to their own development with each other. I’m new to the pack relationship of having two dogs working together with me. Especially two dogs with very different gifts. Valentine, the Australian Cattle Dog mix, has a physical, driving energy. She pushes the sheep from behind, and often amps up the energy of the sheep, causing them to be on guard and take flight- rather than being relaxed and moving slowly from one pasture to another. There are moments when the driving cattle dog energy is helpful. Valley can get the herd unstuck form a corner in the pasture, and works as a wedge for me at fence opening when I don’t want the sheep getting out. But for these first few years of herd “training”- I have not done any formal work with her, I just point and give basic, one word commands. She’s struggled with doing much more than running at the sheep, and through them when I signal her to engage. It’s been a little tedious at times, especially when she runs them in the opposite direction of the barn when I’m trying to get them home in the evening.
The sheep have great habits already imbued in them with the routine of rotational grazing. They know the fresh grass they are moving onto, and like going back to the barn when it starts to get dark- you don’t need a dog to help move them in the right direction during those moments of clear understanding. However, when I need to get the sheep in earlier in the day, or want them to move to a pasture out of sight and not right next door, they can balk, hesitate, and refuse to move with any cooperative spirit. It’s up to me to recognize this hitch in the giddy-up and move to smooth, rather than overexcite and scatter the herd. Valley will settle down with maturity and confidence, and she is thinking hard through our learning exercise. The more time we can spend in the field and engaged, the more she’ll naturally pick up her instincts. However, driving the sheep is not ideal, so there is limited direct contact allowed. To train without the sheep, I work with Valentine on moving around other obstacles like a grove of trees, or around a fence instead of jumping over it. My hand and body gestures are cuing her in a specific direction along a certain rout. She can also understand verbal cues to halt, slow down, or back off, and execute them in the field without the sheep.
Gill is continuing to channel his centuries old instinct bred into The Kangal for sheep care and protection. He spent most of the summer out with the flock in open fields. By August, when we put the flock out, the dog would join them instead of hanging back at the gate with people. Livestock Guardian Dogs should be bonded more to the animals than you, yet able to obey basic commands and defer to your presence when you are there. The dog must be approachable for health and safety reasons, yet aloof and focused on the livestock they are protecting. Working animals in collaboration with people are balanced and happy. It’s up to humans to respect and understand their animal counterparts, working with them instead of projecting onto them. Gill showed me just how willing he is to adapt and collaborate when we had our first vet visit since I adopted him last year.
We were late to our appointment- which also included Valley, and our two cats Lucia and Muir. Gill loaded into the back seat without hesitation, then stayed there while I drove the half hour to Cascade Animal Clinic in Monroe. This vet has been amazing, and I highly recommend the services of Dr. Buchholtz. Gill is leash trained, and people friendly, so we had no problem with social distance hand off to a total stranger at a totally strange place. This might seem like an impossible feat for LGDs, but it’s actually the recommended social standard to keep the breed safe and healthy. Not all breeds are easy to train like this, and Gill was in a household environment through his puppy-hood, once rescued off the streets. He’s taught me that trust means full honest self at all times. I’ve always approached him head on, face to face, with clear intention. If I’m even thinking about trying to pull one over on him his entire demeanor changes and he becomes aloof- rightly so! That’s total instinct honing form those thousands of years the breed has been selected.
A downside to breeding can be genetic predisposition, and for Kangals, ear infections are common. Hanging ears are a vector for dirt and bacteria. Gill is an active digger, roller, and mud wallower. He uses his muddy paws to scratch his big ears and dirt gets in. Taking a 120lb dog by the ears and putting a liquid cleaning agent into his ear canal is a challenge, but Gill knows what I’m doing and lets me because I am honest, gentle, patient, and helping him to avoid infection and pain. Now, he may not grasp all this as I do, but he trusts my actions by allowing me to impart the medicine, even though it’s awkward and uncomfortable. What a guy! Valley is far less accommodating with most health care, preferring to receive belly scratches to claw trimmings. Still, she’s approachable and patient when I groom her, apply tick and flea meds, or check her body condition. Both dogs and cats receive glowing reports from the vet’s office for being handleable, and friendly. That’s one of the most important behavioral skills a working animal can offer.
Temperament is very important in working dogs; Gill and Valley are socialized to people and other animals. Australian Shepherds drive stock, but should not harass or chase livestock when not working with a human shepherd. Valley is capable of being called off a deer, which takes some training, and breed genetics. Gill works around territorial boundaries, with high fencing a clear demarcation of his work zone. He kills anything (other than people, sheep, and Valley) trespassing on his turf. This has been a problem with chickens. We’ve lost a few to his jaws. Usually, he plays with them, just trying to have fun, not kill aggressively. The small boned birds do not stand a chance. The behavior is unwanted, and I’m trying to navigate the best answer. Chicken wire is going up along the fence-line, but I would like to train the dog to guard the flock of bird as he does his sheep flock. Again, lots of behavior training to work on, and studying the breed to better approach that training helps focus on strategies that work with the dog’s natural talents.
Overall, this pack is weaving a tight basket of guardianship and herding. Continuous learning and the working relationship engages important instincts. Moving the sheep grows easier as Valley learns to lower her energetic volume, and Gill keeps the coyotes and raccoons away from the stock with a beautiful bark and imposing presence. The pups are also fondly pet on and given lots of yummy treats in thanks for their effort, but I can tell by the tail what really feeds them- and it’s being outside, moving across the landscape, with intention. There are moments, when I’m daydreaming on a walk to the back pasture with the flock and dogs, where I see the ghost of wolves, original canine ancestors moving in a pack through dense rainforest in search of elk herds in the river valley below. Gratitude for this sacred relationship between The People and The Dog Nation.