A few years ago we bought a dog to work livestock. This year we bought livestock for the dog. The irony here is not lost on me.
As The Pig Dog has grown, it’s become clear that we got very lucky: he’s the perfect dog for us. Though I tend to be of the mind that, when you’re raising a dog from a puppy, it’s probably going to become the dog you’d want anyway, I hear this is not always — or even frequently — the case with working Collies. Some might be cut out for cattle, others sheep, few might even be able to work both. And pigs? Pigs aren’t even a normal part of the equation so few people have really pinned down the capacity of any given subset of the Collie population to work the beasts. Yet we’ve found ourselves with a dog who has been able to help, in one capacity or another, with all of the above.
I don’t mean to make him sound like a dog prodigy. He’s not. But he is incredibly versatile, adaptable and intelligent. Which means what he lacks in technical ability and correct technique, he more than makes up for in keen perception and an impressive ability to read my mind. He’s still very green, but his ability to do the job almost entirely regardless of what that job may be never ceases to amaze me.
That said, our crash-course working-dog education has taught us that he requires tune-ups to work to his potential. Which means both frequent work, and the right type of it. Pigs, as you have probably already figured out, are not sheep. They don’t look like sheep, they don’t behave like sheep, they don’t think like sheep and, for a dog, they don’t work like sheep either. Which on its face might not seem like that big of a deal, we never really needed him to work sheep anyway. Except that sheep really are the easiest animals on which to teach a dog what works and what doesn’t in herding just about any type of animal. Their natural inclination to flock together and move as a herd makes for an ideal situation in which to teach basic commands and to tune them up when the dog’s taking too many shortcuts.
What he learns and applies and practices on sheep directly translates to what he’s able to do when we put him on cattle and pigs. Mistakes on sheep aren’t as catastrophic because their size and behavior make them, to some extent, easier to get back under control; they’re more forgiving. Cattle are so large mistakes are dangerous, can even be fatal. And pigs though no less excitable than sheep, take longer to get their wits back about them once they’re worked up, plus when spooked they tend to scatter, rather than flocking, making a mess for both dog and handler.
But, because we haven’t had sheep, I’ve been in a bit of a bind. In the spring, summer and into fall I was driving him more than an hour each way once a week — whenever I could — for a quick tune-up at a trainer’s sheep farm. I even left him there twice, for a month each time, so she could work him daily to help him progress in his education.
And it worked reasonably well. When he stayed he progressed very quickly, of course. And he maintained his abilities during the times when I was able to cart him down there each week for a quick session on her sheep. But it was also expensive and incredibly time consuming. We spent no less than four hours and fifty dollars in gas and training fees each time and he was merely getting by.
Earlier this year it became clear that we’d be better off getting a small flock of sheep for him at home. Even doing sheep chores would take less time than I was committing to the drive, they would be less expensive since their products — lamb, mostly — would offset the price of keeping them and having them here would mean I could give him tune-ups more frequently.
We sought out a neighbor in the area who runs a sizable (for this area) sheep operation and asked about ewes. He told us he’d be sorting out the ewes he no longer wanted or needed soon and that he’d call us to come take a look when he got that done. That was quite some time ago and I’d pretty much given up on sheep until spring, at which point I’d planned on buying lambs instead. This week however, that neighbor called back. He’d gotten busy and not sorted the ewes out earlier like he’d planned, but had a pen full of them for me to choose from now. We went down that night and talked to him and while I looked at the ewes while we were there I’m not as dumb as I once was and let him — a man with decades in the sheep business — go ahead and pick out the best of the bunch for me. He shipped the rest of the ewes earlier this week and when we went to pick them up last night there were four left; all “good ones,” he said, even though we were only expecting three, so we brought them home.
They’re all crossbred and likely pregnant with lambs as they’ve been exposed to a ram on his farm for the past two months. They’ve got some Bluefaced Leicester, maybe a little Romney, perhaps a splash of Polypay; he rattled off a list of breeds they’ve incorporated into their flock over the years and kind of shrugged. They’re good mothers, he said, and the lambs aren’t too leggy. They finish out nicely at a lighter weight — around 100 pounds — if we want, or can be raised longer. And that was good enough for me.
For now, they need names. Something old-fashioned, maybe. That tends to be our style. Of course, they have quite a list of sow names to work around. That one in the front is the oldest of the bunch and always in front. She’s the ring leader so I’m thinking something strong. What do you think?