Now that you’ve learned a bit now about the dogs that are so crucial in helping the men move the sheep (see parts 1 & 2 if you missed that!), what about those big white dogs that never leave them? Those dogs that chase your vehicle when you get too close to their herd and have quite the intimidating bark? The dogs you see out on the range year round and wonder how they live, what they eat, and what they’re doing out there. These are the protectors of the flocks. The gentle giants that lick the nose of their beloved ewe, but viciously ward off predators such as coyotes and bears. The invaluable guard dogs.
On our ranch we use mostly Great Pyrenees, with other breeds mixed in such as Akbash and Anatolian. They are all white, except for some with brown coloring around their ears and noses, and the Anatolians have black faces. We have both long and short haired dogs and all shapes and sizes from small and slim to big and stocky.
We try to have around 5, give or take, guard dogs with each herd year round, plus our few around the ranch. These dogs live with the sheep from the time they are born. As puppies, we set up a little shelter in either the corral or the feed manger where the sheep are. As their eyes open and they go out adventuring, the sheep are the first thing they see and who they get to spend their time with. It is crucial that they bond to the livestock they will soon be protecting in their first 6 months of life. This is how they learn that the sheep are their animal, and it’s their instinct to protect their animal. Although it is instinctual to guard, they still require this training period of learning to stay with the sheep, learning how to be tied up, and disciplined if they play too rough with their lamb friends. Even though we raise our pups with sheep, these dogs can be protectors of any animal. We have had people get pups from us that go on to guard chickens, goats, cows, and the ranch kids.
Guard dog puppies are the cutest little fluff balls to play with growing up! They are so sweet and timid, eating grain with their lambs, rolling in the hay as the sheep try to eat around them, and trying their hand at being ferocious barkers when newcomers show up. It takes these pups about 8 months to get grown up enough before they are able to go out with the big herds on the range. This is because our range herds are always moving and depending on the time of year, covering a lot of country. This would be too hard for the little, growing dogs. They are still maturing and learning to stay with their sheep and follow the older dogs’ lead during this time in their life.
Since the pups are raised and trained at the ranch, we grow attached to them. We spend quite a bit of time with these sweet loving dogs, but very few, if any, get names. Except for the ones that stay at the ranch; we have Sampson, Delilah, Urbie, and Berta- all great guardians and companions. Once they are out with the herds, they all come to the call “wikey, wikey, wikey.” This means supper time, and they all come running knowing that their food will be poured out for them for the day. As mentioned in a previous story, we buy dog food by the pallets, and these guard dogs, just like their fellow Border Collies, get fed every day. Some of the dogs come in to camp each day for their meal. I’ve seen them meander in about mid morning, after their sheep are safely off the bed ground. As soon as they get their fill, they head back out to the herd, and another dog may take his turn coming in for lunch. Some of these might stay and sleep at camp for part of the day, as the bulk of their work is done during the night when the predators are out, so they rest during the day. Some of the dogs on the other hand never leave the herd, and the guys take food out to them in a white salt sack they pack out with them on their saddle horse.
Most of the pups we raise at the ranch stay friendly and let us catch and love on them as they grow with the herds. Many of the other guard dogs we have however don’t like human interaction and refuse to be touched. This is sometimes due to the fact that we didn’t raise them, although not always. When all of the many sheep herds from Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah are on the trail and on the winter range, they are in close proximity to each other. During this time, the dogs will sometimes leave their herd and go to the neighboring one. With the wild, untouchable dogs there is nothing we can do about it, causing one rancher to lose a dog and the other to gain one. This happens enough throughout the years and we all try to have enough dogs per herd that it isn’t a problem and evens itself out. My mom and I can usually tell the ones we raise though, and we have often gone to the neighboring herd to retrieve our missing dog. Remember our “wikey, wikey, wikey” call? This is also the call we use to catch our dogs from out in the herd. Although the ones are not fond of human interaction, this does not make them mean, and we have never had an issue with any of our dogs being aggressive towards humans. Even so, the public shouldn’t touch them, because they are out doing their job.
The head honcho of Rock Creek Ranch- Sampson and I. Picture taken by Alex Beer.
This job can look a bit different between the dogs with their different personalities and instincts. Some of the dogs never leave the sheep. They stay right in the midst of them at all times and don’t even go to camp for food! Other dogs spend much of their time paroling the parameters of the area where their sheep herd is, making sure no predators are coming in. Oftentimes, people have seen these lone dogs and think they are lost or abandoned, but they are simply doing their job. Another misconception folks have had around these dogs is their sleeping conditions. Just like the sheep they protect, they are animals that have never been inside and would likely freak out if they were! Animals are made with hair or wool to protect them from the environment. There are also plenty of brush, trees, and gullies where the animals curl up behind or in to get away from the wind, rain, or snow. There is also quite a bit of heat put off of 2,000 sheep all laying together, and the dogs lay right in the mix. Just like the wolves, coyotes, bears, deer, elk, and every other wild animal that sleeps outside, so do these dogs. That’s where they want to be, with their sheep.
These dogs have not always been a part of the operation. Our ranch didn't start using them until the late 1980s early 90s, and they have made a world of difference in predator loss to our herds. In the summers before having guard dogs we would lose about 80 lambs per herd to predators alone. With 6 herds containing lambs that’s about 480 lambs each year! That’s not counting ewes and other death loss. Now we lose around 10 lambs per herd each summer to predators. That’s a drastic amount of lives saved thanks to the work of these dogs! They are so incredible. These gentle giants have certainly been a blessing to so many sheep operations across the country. I don’t know how we’d make it without them, the invaluable guard dogs.