The most important tool in my life for any livestock related job are my dogs. There is not a job I could do without them, and there’s not a job I’d rather do with anyone else than Villa, an 8 year old Border Collie/Kelpie female, and Marty, a 4 year old Border Collie male. Not only are they my best help but my best friends. They go everywhere with me. If you see my dirty red pickup at the grocery store, they’re in it. If I have a meeting, a dinner, or stop for a drink, you can bet they’re waiting patiently outside. They happily work side by side with me through the rain, the long hot summer days, or the below zero snow blizzards. Like the Sturgill Simpson song goes, “a good dog on the ground is worth 3 in the saddle…” and isn’t that the truth! I’d rather work with my dogs than any human. (Shh… don’t tell the people I work with.) They read stock (sheep, cattle, goats, etc.) the way I read them and work them the way I want to work them because I can tell them exactly what I want done. They eagerly await my commands and give every job all they have, no matter how many hours we’ve already been working that day.
Good herding dogs are truly amazing. They are extremely intelligent, able to pick up on different voice, whistle, or body commands directing them to move in different directions from the stock, lie down, stay, walk up, or go out quite a distance to retrieve. For example, if I need my dogs to go left to turn a bunch of sheep into a gate, I say “left” and they circle around the sheep that way. A more common command for sending dogs to the left or clockwise is “come bye”, and some people use distinct whistles for each command. To send them right or counterclockwise, I say “right” but more commonly used is the term “away”. I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started training Villa 8 years ago, I surprisingly wasn’t raised around well trained herding dogs, and have stuck with those terms through the years. Once they have gotten to the position I want them, I lie them down. I can either make them stay there to watch that position so nothing goes by them, or have them “walk up” to put more pressure on the sheep to keep them moving away from them.
Look closely to the left of the sheep and you'll see Villa
Not only do the dogs follow my commands to know what to do, but they have a keen eye for watching and reading the stock and knowing what to do on their own. They are bred with a strong instinct to keep everything together. If they see something falling behind the rest, or going in a different direction, the dog pushes them back with the bunch. Border Collies are also very instinctual in bringing stock to their handler. Wherever I am, I can send my dogs in any direction after stock, and they will circle around them and herd them right to me, with little or no commands. This is extremely helpful when I have to send Villa several ridges away after some cows, or into the thick timber where there may be sheep. I can’t see her and she can’t hear me, but she always knows where I am and brings the stock in my direction or in the direction of where I am pushing the rest of them. It is also helpful with a lone sheep to have my dogs get her close enough to me for me to rope her.
There are very few jobs I can't do alone, as long as I have my dogs. Load cows into a trailer off a fence line with a couple panels, just me and my dogs? No problem. Herd and lamb out 1,600 ewes alone? Impossible without Villa, I tried for one day! Gather a pasture of sheep or cattle and trail them several miles near or through other pastures containing other sheep or cattle? Piece of cake. Pick up straggler ewes or lambs that get left behind and are found alone or in little bunches of 2-10? A lot of work and they are wild, but still not too much for my dogs and I to handle. A good dog is absolutely irreplaceable in my line of work and worth their weight in gold, plus some.
I may have to share individual stories about each of my dogs just to add all of my other favorite pictures of them that I couldn't fit into this. Or possibly just a photo album, maybe I take too many of them?! Until then, stay tuned for Part 2 about some of the other working dogs here on the ranch.