Building new traditions with livestock guardian dogs

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dogs at sunrise
Maya and Archer, two livestock guardian dogs, on an early morning trek to the back fields with the sheep. (Rebecca Miller photo)

Most mornings, I’ve grown accustomed to picking my way along in the pre-dawn darkness. I follow narrow sheep trails skirting the rocky cliffs that line the valley leading up to the back fields. Clawed feet make light footfalls around me, as my livestock guardian dogs trot along the cliff’s edge, their outlines stark against the early morning sky. The flock follows behind, in meandering lines, bound for the upper pastures.

It’s a tradition I started earlier this year, after the pandemic shifted the work routine to home more than the office. It also started because Houdini, our veteran livestock guardian dog, died. Something of a workaholic, he was punctual in his routine, which started each morning by leading the flock out to graze. He would criss cross back and forth in front of them, making sure the way was clear. His habits were military crisp. He learned how to be a sheep guardian at a particularly tense time. We had just come off a few years of steep losses.

As I added more guardians to the pack over the past couple of years, Maya and Jael, I watched him evolve. He started to tuck up close to the flock at night, content to let the other dogs span out and patrol. But the morning routine was sacred. It was his.

New routine

In his absence, I began training up a new guardian, Archer. He is different. At 10 months and already 100 pounds, with a booming bark and resonant growl he uses in a grumbling, talking kind of way, he’s going to be a force. But he is different. The militaristic OCD habits, a la Houdini — which sometimes didn’t work well with our farm’s changing dynamics — are not part of his persona.

Even so, I decided to begin the morning treks. At first, it was like a comedy routine. I would get out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and find the hillside around the barns vacant, the sheep spurred by the early summer light and impending heat. The dogs and I would scramble to catch up. I’d move my alarm forward, and get out before they did for a few days. They’d start to relax, so would I, and then, one day, I’d walk out at the same time, and the sheep would be gone already.

It has continued like that, an ebb and flow, based on my schedule, their capriciousness and the weather. All along, the dogs fall into step. First, it was just Maya and Jael, who filled the hole when Houdini went down. Then, it included Archer.

Just as they watch over the sheep at night, they also shadow me during those morning treks or set up camp as I put up fencing for rotational grazing or sort lambs for market. They even keep an eye on the farm’s visitors, hunters and workers alike. It’s a partnership that has evolved and deepened over recent years.

Doing things differently

I enjoy working with my guardian dogs, but it’s unlike the “traditional” methods. Many say the dogs won’t work if you don’t immerse them in livestock bonding as puppies. Heaven forbid, you bring them inside or take them off farm. Some don’t even believe you can obedience train them.

Instincts are hard wired. If it has a working lineage, a livestock guardian dog will be a guardian, whether you teach it to be a good citizen or not. But, setting that aside, having seen the traditional methods — both with previous dogs we’ve had and on other farms — I decided they didn’t work for our setup. So, I started doing my thing. Livestock guardians in the house. On road trips. Hikes. Friends’ cookouts. Errands. We just live life together, on and off the farm.

That has led me to start digging around existing research, as part of a longer term project. One of the writings I’ve run across discusses how different U.S. farming is from Turkish shepherding. We are comfortable with being static. We are not dynamic. We don’t go places. We have pieces of land we tend.

Transhumance, the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, is not a part of U.S. agriculture, particularly back East. The essayist believed it fundamentally affects how we work with livestock guardian dogs and with the land. As I’ve made those early morning treks up to the back fields, I’ve mulled over the question: do we have a dynamic relationship with agriculture? I’m not sure.

Working together

This fall has been full of ups and downs. First one dog, then another, had to be nursed back to health. (It’s easier to do when one can bring the dogs in the house, by the way.) At one point, with one dog running off her feet, I pulled her for one night to rest. That night, a coyote took down one of our ewes. We were all furious.

Over the following days, I worked with our border collie, Pili, to move the sheep into more defensible nighttime spots. We all scanned the woods. The dogs were on edge.

Then, the morning of Election Day, I let Jael, the last dog to require nursing, out to stretch her legs, with Maya, in a 5-acre pasture. Less than 40 minutes later, they had taken out a young, male coyote. Now, I can’t tell you if that coyote was responsible for the attack, but I can tell you the sheep were very skittish up until that day. He was in an area that was out of the normal bounds for coyotes, now that the dogs have staked their claim on their territory.

Invaluable

I shared the story on social media, including a photo of the dogs sitting by the coyote, who, for all intents and purposes looked like it was asleep. One person questioned why I shared the photo, claiming he didn’t want to lose the right to use guardian dogs because someone might use it to campaign for animal rights. If sharing the things these dogs do to protect us and our livestock causes us to lose the ability to use livestock guardian dogs, then we’re not doing a very good job of conveying their value, I told him.

As the days have passed, Jael is once again taking the front lines, as is her preferred role. Maya is floating, based on where she’s needed. Archer is either watching over our replacement ewes, hanging with the main flock or anchoring the barnyards, depending on what I ask him to do.

And, in the mornings, I move out ahead of the flock, the dogs falling into step.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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