Yesterday the dogs and I got to do some real work. We helped shear the sheep at the farm where we train. Let me tell you, it was work! There are roughly 400 ewes and lambs on the farm now, so a pretty big flock. 160 of them needed to be shorn, and we did about 130 of them yesterday (the rest were done the evening before). There were two shearers, the owner of the farm, myself, and the dogs. The owner has his own dog, and I used Hannah and Kess.
Our job (that is mine and my dogs’) was to get the sheep through the shoot up to the shearer. This involved rounding them up out of the barnyard, and getting them into the barn. From there we had to push them into one end of the barn into a small corral, and then feed groups of them into an alley way that led to the shoot.
This was not an easy job.
To begin, we had to gather the sheep out out of the barnyard. This is a very large space with many, many hiding spots for sheep. The area is L-shaped, with a lot of equipment and old farm stuff lying around (giant hills of composting manure, piles of concrete etc), as well as a second barn at the other end that cannot be closed off. Gathering the entire flock at once is completely impossible.
So we did it in groups. I started with Hannah who did a stellar job getting the sheep into the barn. We gathered them in about 4 groups, pushing each one in turn through the small gate into the working area. It was very hot, and Hannah was pretty tired by the time we pushed the last of them in. I should mention that these are sheep that are not used to being worked with dogs, and also that have new lambs. To say they were not cooperative is quite an understatement. Still, Hannah did a very good job getting them all to where they needed to be.
Unfortunately one of the back gates gave way and nearly half of them got out again.
Hannah was pretty tuckered, so I decided to see what Kess was able to do. I had worked her very intensely on some pen work two nights before, and had been amazed not only by how quickly she picked up what I wanted her to do, but also by how incredibly sensible she was being in tight spaces. She used lovely pace, going slowly but confidently around the sheep, moving them with authority and taking my flanks and downs like a pro. In fact this week Kess has blown past Mira in her level and ability to work.
I had complete confidence taking Kess into the barnyard and having her be my next helper. This is really saying something considering that just a couple of weeks ago I was frustrated constantly by my lack of control over her. What we learned at the clinic in May was enough to turn her into a different dog (and me into a different handler).
While she didn’t always listen to me, Kess did a fantastic job getting the escaped 100 or so sheep back into the tight little corral off the barn. From there she worked beautifully inside the small fenced space to push them into an even smaller area. I marveled at her immediate understanding to do a sweep around the edge of the fence, squeezing between sheep and wood and rounding them all up. I know Kess was bred to be a farm dog, but this is the first time she’d been used as one. She did a fantastic job.
This, however, was about the limit of what I could do with this young dog. The sheep were now packed into a very tight space, with the only exit being the 180 degree turn into a poorly lit alley way. Sheep don’t like going into dark spaces, and most of these sheep had been bought over the winter and had never been through this barn’s shoots and alleys. Many had lost their babies and were getting stressed. The last thing they wanted to do was go through that last gate.
We pushed and pushed, but the sheep pushed back. Kess was tired and starting to stress. I decided to put her away and give her a break, and brought Hannah back out. I didn’t have much better luck with Hannah. Later I brought out Kess and Hannah together, and the owner brought out his dog (who’s a tough little dog with plenty of grip), and the three dogs together couldn’t get the sheep to budge. Instead the sheep started turning and charging the dogs, which was just too much for Kess. I keep forgetting she’s not even two yet. Time to put the baby dog away. Time to put all the dogs away, in fact, and let the sheep settle down. We went for lunch.
When we came back to work, I left the dogs behind. Some jobs are easier without a dog, and this one was presenting that way. The sheep were all in their small corral, and it was tight enough that I was able to work a few at a time into the alley and off to the shoot. Without the dogs around, the sheep were more relaxed and I had an easier time moving them. So move them I did.
Eventually there were few enough left that they were able to just dodge past me and avoid the shoot. This got frustrating, so I went out and brought Hannah back. Despite having been stressed by the time I put her up before lunch, and having been rammed a number of times by angry ewes, rested and refreshed Hannah was ready to go. She did not hesitate to enter the pen and get to work. Good girl! In a flash we had the last of them rounded up and into the shoot, and the dogs’ job was done. With two shearers working away, we got through the flock in about 9 hours.
I have recently realized that when I see a big improvement in my dog, it’s almost always because I suddenly figure something out about my handling and training. In other words, I see a mistake I am making, fix it, and suddenly my dog is working noticeably better. I am such a handicap to my partners!
One of the things I learned yesterday – literally through the school of hard knocks – is that I need to get better at reading and understanding sheep. While waiting in the tightly packed pen by the shoot, I noticed that Hannah was staring intensely at the sheep in very close proximity to them. Since we were not trying to move stock at that point (we were waiting for some space to open up in which to drive them), I figured I’d pull Hannah back a bit and easy the pressure she was putting on the sheep. I stepped back a few feet into some empty space and called Hannah back with me. She obediently – albeit quite reluctantly – followed. The second she eased off, however, two huge ewes charged and rammed us. They were going for Hannah, but one of them got me. All I can say is thank goodness they didn’t have horns. Did I mention these were very big sheep? Some of them are probably close to 200lbs.
Clearly Hannah had been holding these ewes at bay, but when she backed off (at my insistence) they perceived that she was giving ground and went after her. We had stepped into a corner and had nowhere to go. I had to do a lot of apologizing to my dog after that one! I sure can be an idiot some times, which I’m suspect was exactly what Hannah was thinking. She actually got charged a bunch of times, and rammed on at least one other occasion when more than one sheep went for her at the same time. But she stood her ground and stayed keen to keep working.
We will be doing this all over again next week as the sheep still need to be wormed and have their feet trimmed. This time we’ll be doing the entire flock (all 400) and it will likely just be myself and the owner doing it. Fortunately the girls and I now know the system, which should make doing this a second time a bit easier and smoother. I also know when to put the dogs away and just work on my own, which will help keep them fresh for the parts they can help me with.
And what about Mira, you ask? Where was she in all of this?
Mira was in her crate in the car, along with Ross. On Monday evening I did a bit of the same kind of pen work with Mira that I did with Kess, and she didn’t do particularly well. In fact she started to shut down on me and display some avoidance behaviour. Mira simply cannot take stress, and I knew the kind of pressure that would have been put on her yesterday would have shut her down in about 5 seconds.
I think I will use her next week however, now that I know the jobs that need to be done. Mira would be able to help do the initial gather out of the large yard, at least of the main part of the flock. I will likely use her for this in order to give her some work, and to help keep the other dogs fresh for the tougher stuff. It’s great having work enough to actually use – to the point of exhaustion – three to four dogs. Of course if my dogs were working every day they wouldn’t get tired as quickly. But this is still a big enough job that two or even three dogs make it a lot easier on everyone. It worked well to be able to rotate them off and keep them fresh and eager, and also to keep them listening well. I am looking forward to next week!