Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Right Tool For The Job

The videos in this blog are long, so those of you who are not dog folks, or not interested in stock dog training, may not want to watch them, or at the very least you may not want to watch all of them.
We were both feeling more than a little frustrated as I looked at my beginning farmer son and said “that was like trying to drive a 10 penny nail with a screwdriver”.  He nodded in agreement.   We were both struggling to analyze and comprehend what we had just seen.  It was our first attempt at stock dog training with our beloved Millie the Barn Dog.
To say our first attempt was a failure would be a discredit to this wonderful animal we call ours and to our teachers, Campbell and Kaelene Forsythe from Manitoba, Canada.  It was, however, a lesson in choosing the right tool for the job and an awakening for me. 
This first run of the day was before lunch.  As we sat and ate our soup and sandwiches and discussed the shortcomings of our Millie, still feeling embarrassed and dejected as all the other dogs seemed to have no problem chasing and moving the sheep around the little round enclosure, we discussed the thought of future dogs on our farm and Adam’s future need for a real stock dog.  Campbell must have heard our discussion as we passed our table and enquired if we would be interested in a ‘broke’ dog.  My first thought was, “I already have one that’s broken, why would I want another?” then I realized in stock dog terms, ‘broke’ means a dog already trained to work stock. 
I’ve trained dogs for over 30 years.  I train for obedience and rally obedience and house manners and all sorts of useful jobs but I have never trained a stock dog.  This is why I just had to take advantage of this opportunity to see the best in action and learn a few things about this wonderful working job for dogs on farms.  Little did I know that I would learn more than I bargained for, like stock people think of their dogs as ‘stock’ just like horses or cattle but a little higher up the evolutionary and pack order on the farm.  I have never thought of my dogs in that way.  It’s not a bad thing.  Good stock dogs are a thing of beauty as they do what comes so naturally for them, bred into them over hundreds of years, working in tandem with their instincts and their handlers.  A joy to watch, these animals have a job and do it with enthusiasm and zest.  I on the other hand have always thought of my dogs as a team member, my right hand, more like dancing with a partner than using a tool.
In our first attempt in the pen with the sheep,  Millie was very confused.  She kept looking to Adam, her dance partner, for guidance and direction.  She was as unsure of her role in this as a vegetarian at a sausage factory. 
Up until this exact moment in time, Millie has always been trained as an obedience dog, where focus on your partner (trainer) has been the number one rule and Millie was determined to follow her training.  

She had been taught NOT to chase or harass the sheep, had been scolded for it, as that is how it works on our farm.  When Adam moves his sheep from one area to another, he often lets the sheep roam freely for a while, munching on every little bit of new forage they can find.  And in these peaceful moments, we have not wanted Millie to move them anywhere; we have asked that she just let them enjoy their few moments of freedom.
Even when another dog, a true ‘broke’ stock dog was brought in the ring to entice her to chase the sheep, she continued to stay almost in heel position and focus on Adam as she was trained to do.  Campbell eventually decided they should try allowing the sheep out of the round pen and into the open, hoping a little more space and a little more action from the stock dog might assist Millie in breaking free to chase the sheep.  No, go.  Adam left the ring frustrated and Millie left confused as to what that whole exercise was about.
We spent the rest of the day watching other dogs work the sheep.  Many of them were young and all were at least half if not wholly Border Collies.  What a breed!  What a joy to watch in the ring.  These dogs so focused on their job, with the ‘Border Collie’ eye always on the sheep, anticipating their moves and fearlessly moving the sheep. 
We learned as we listened to Kaelene and Campbell give training tips and direction to the owners and suggestions for improvement and next steps in training. 

Then it was our turn again.  This time Kaelene along with a fresh set of sheep were to be the participants in Millie’s education.  The second try went better than the first.  Millie seemed more intent on moving the sheep and began to understand the rules of this new game.

Afterwards, Adam and I returned to our hotel to discuss what we had learned, about ourselves, our dog, and what we had seen.  We reviewed the videos of Millie with the sheep and analyzed her behavior and Adam’s reactions to her in the ring.  Less dejected, but with a much clearer vision of what the world of stock dogs is all about we came to some conclusions.
Millie is the best farm tool a person could have.  She makes SURE her livestock are protected from every manner of threat, owls, hawks, coyotes, skunks, rates, and snakes.  She protects her people and her property from damage and harm.  She is attentive and caring to every living thing in her charge.  She lets us know if the sheep are out of the fence.  She lets us know if the chickens are fighting or in danger.  She keeps the rats and mice out of the barn and outbuildings and grain tubs.  She keeps the gophers and snakes out of the production lots.  She will defend and care for all of us to the end.  She does help with the sheep.  She knows what a gate is and is determined to keep the sheep well within their confines – no slipping through gates or over downed fences.  She will group and move the sheep to their new location each time Adam moves the portable fences he uses for cell grazing.  If she is a farm tool, this is the type of job she should be used for.

We ‘broke’ this dog in our own way.  We demanded from her things that will make it difficult to teach her a new way and a new use on our farm.  And that’s OK,  because right now, she’s the BEST tool for the job we have on this farm. 
In the future, as Adam realizes his dream of a multi-species grass fed, cell grazed meat operation, he will need a ‘real’ stock dog and most likely a livestock guardian dog.  But those are dogs of the future.  For right now, Millie is the most valuable tool on the farm.
The best partner you can have in farming or ranching is a good dog.  The most valuable tool in the farm is a great dog.

PS – if any stock dog people are out there and you would like to chime in on suggestions as to how we might continue to work with Millie to at least get her to drive sheep or ‘ware’ them – we’re totally open to it, she’s young and trainable and with love and patience all hope is not lost.