- April 2020 (3)
- March 2020 (1)
- January 2020 (1)
- November 2019 (2)
- August 2019 (1)
- July 2019 (3)
- May 2019 (3)
- March 2019 (2)
- February 2019 (2)
- January 2019 (4)
- December 2018 (2)
- November 2018 (2)
- October 2018 (2)
- August 2018 (1)
- July 2018 (3)
- June 2018 (2)
- May 2018 (3)
- April 2018 (8)
- March 2018 (6)
- February 2018 (10)
- January 2018 (8)
- December 2017 (1)
- November 2017 (4)
- October 2017 (1)
- September 2017 (3)
- August 2017 (1)
- June 2017 (1)
- May 2017 (2)
- April 2017 (3)
- March 2017 (2)
- February 2017 (1)
- January 2017 (3)
- December 2016 (1)
- November 2016 (4)
- October 2016 (3)
- September 2016 (6)
- August 2016 (4)
- July 2016 (7)
- June 2016 (5)
- May 2016 (6)
- April 2016 (7)
- March 2016 (6)
- February 2016 (11)
- January 2016 (11)
- December 2015 (14)
- November 2015 (7)
- October 2015 (3)
- September 2015 (6)
- August 2015 (10)
- July 2015 (5)
- June 2015 (9)
- May 2015 (8)
- April 2015 (9)
- March 2015 (9)
- February 2015 (9)
- January 2015 (14)
- December 2014 (11)
- November 2014 (8)
- October 2014 (6)
- September 2014 (6)
- August 2014 (8)
- July 2014 (4)
- June 2014 (9)
- May 2014 (5)
- April 2014 (4)
- March 2014 (2)
- February 2014 (7)
- January 2014 (7)
- December 2013 (15)
- November 2013 (10)
- October 2013 (5)
- September 2013 (9)
- August 2013 (6)
- July 2013 (8)
- June 2013 (12)
- May 2013 (16)
- April 2013 (13)
- March 2013 (13)
- February 2013 (10)
- January 2013 (11)
- December 2012 (7)
- November 2012 (8)
- October 2012 (7)
- September 2012 (9)
- August 2012 (6)
- July 2012 (2)
- June 2012 (11)
- May 2012 (10)
- April 2012 (5)
- March 2012 (12)
- February 2012 (8)
- January 2012 (11)
- December 2011 (13)
- November 2011 (11)
- October 2011 (13)
- September 2011 (12)
- August 2011 (12)
- July 2011 (11)
- June 2011 (11)
- May 2011 (18)
- April 2011 (21)
- March 2011 (24)
- February 2011 (17)
- January 2011 (23)
- December 2010 (26)
- November 2010 (29)
- October 2010 (27)
- September 2010 (29)
- August 2010 (24)
- July 2010 (19)
- June 2010 (15)
- May 2010 (18)
- April 2010 (16)
- March 2010 (22)
- February 2010 (24)
- January 2010 (25)
- December 2009 (18)
- November 2009 (1)
Farm Fresh Blog
Wednesday, February 28 2018
The rain, ice, and snow last week stressed my little Marek's infected flock of Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes. I can already see the twisted fingers of disease reaching for them. Yesterday I had to shoot my rooster. By evening I had to help a hen climb into the coop. One by one the disease will take them. As I was kicking rocks I gave it some thought. If they're gonna die anyway, what the hell, let 'em live a little. So I started a chicken bucket list.
They have a rather spacious L-shaped chicken yard which contains a little aluminum quonset hut for daytime shelter and a small fenced coop with a ladder leading up to their raised coop. This is more space than many chickens see their entire lives. But there's a whole world on the other side of the bars. If you're gonna die anyway, you may as well experience it. There is little point in trying to keep them quarantined because their feathers and dander have already blown all over the property. My adult chickens were vaccinated as chicks. Thus far they show no signs of having contracted the disease.
So today I opened the gate.
The youngsters were a bit hesitant at first but soon walked out to peck and scratch along the opposite side of their fence. Untouched grass. Uncharted territory. Even as I watched them enjoy themselves, I saw the signs. This little hen with the copper head will be next. I had to help her into the coop last night.
Today she walks and then plops down to rest. Her legs can't hold her up for long. But she's having a good time, so who am I to say she can't go with the others.
This dark blue may be after her. I noticed her crouching a bit more than before. After losing four birds already, I'm beginning to see the early warning signs. It starts with a weakness in the legs and then progresses.
But for today, everyone got an outing. They scratched and ate grass until they were ready to wander back to their hut. I shut the gate and promised them another outing tomorrow. Perhaps they can become free-range chickens before they die. We can all live our lives waiting to die, or we can live our lives celebrating life. It's your choice.
Wednesday, February 28 2018
A farm crawls into a cocoon during the rain, peeking out only to demand more hay. After a week of wet weather though, even the most stubborn are moved to get out and see what the rains have spawned.
New life. The ponds and puddles are awake with frogs. Even the low temperatures don't slow their chatter. This is the first significant amount of rain we've seen in four months. The frogs must make haste. Like us, they don't know how long the water will last. The pastures and forest are beginning to green up again. The ewes are close to lambing so they've been locked in the barnyard and lower pasture. There isn't much grass there but after a week of rain, the pasture is waking up. I'd prefer not to have any livestock on it yet but that isn't possible this year, so we'll have to make do.
The sheep shuffle out to graze in the gray drizzle. The goats are unwilling participants, but have come because they're tired of standing in the barn. And peer pressure. Everyone else is going. The sheep are fine with the light rain so the goats grumble but walk along.
The Livestock Guardian Dogs are soaked. One lies beside the pond chewing a cow's leg that his brother dragged up one night. It remains a big mystery. No one seems to be missing a cow. The leg was complete - hip to hoof. Full grown cow. Who knows? We chalk it up to just one more mystery that may sort itself out in time. Until then the dogs enjoy chewing it like an all-day sucker.
Briar settles down on the tree line to supervise. She has a good view from here.
The rain gets a little harder. Time to save the camera. Briar walks behind me. Judge and the sheep stay. As I walk away they are swallowed by the mist. Like the frogs, we are all thankful for the rain.
Tuesday, February 27 2018
It's a long lonely walk, that walk into the forest with a rifle. The Livestock Guardian Dog was upset so I let her come. Closure. A gray mist hung on the forest and my boots were silent save for the occasional squish when leaves gave way to mud. The dog kept bumping my bag. It tugged at my heart but I kept walking. She switched sides and bumped at the rifle. I paused to smile into her eyes and pat her head. She's a good dog. Then I shifted my grip on the bag and walked on. The dog followed me with worried eyes. She was determined to come anyway. The dog is scared of guns so I admired her pluck.
Two deer swung their heads up to gape at me. I stopped. The dog stopped. The does stared. I looked around. This place was as good as any. I stepped off the path and into the forest. The branches of a cedar draped to the ground and provided the perfect little nesting place. I set the bag down. Briar was most relieved. She stuck her great head into the bag. Yep. He was still there. Still sick. It bothered her. He couldn't walk. The tremors had taken over. I gently took the dog by the collar to keep her out of the way and squeezed the trigger.
This is the cost.
This is why we do it.
This is why you vaccinate.
In December we bought eight Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte chickens from a big breeder in Central Texas. I found the breeder online and her website looked quite professional. She specialized in rare and exotic birds. I contacted her and asked to be placed on a waiting list for spring chicks. She said she had juvenile birds available and I could buy those now if I didn't want to wait. Well, okay then. We hustled to get a pen and a coop ready, then we drove 4 hours one way in driving rain to pick up 8 birds - two roosters and six hens. So lovely I couldn't take my eyes off them, the little birds were exactly what I wanted.
I got the birds home and set them up in their new coop. They loved the grass and the sunshine. Eleven days later the first hen went down. I opened the coop door to find her paralyzed. In a panic I called the breeder. She assured me that I must have let the birds get too cold and her peers had crushed her. I was crushed. I nursed the bird for a week but it was obvious she wasn't going to survive. I took her for a walk with a rifle.
A week later another hen went down. Same symptoms. This was clearly not a case of being crushed by peers. Suspecting Marek's disease I contacted my vet to have the bird culled and shipped to Texas A&M for necropsy. And I contacted the breeder. She assured me it could not be Marek's disease, but if it was, the birds caught it at my place. Not likely. My adult birds were vaccinated. She said she'd been losing birds too, but the symptoms weren't exactly the same. She then told me that she was opposed to vaccinating her birds for Marek's disease because most of her customers wanted organic birds. Do what?
It never occurred to me when I paid $190 for 8 birds that they were not vaccinated. Even the big commercial hatcheries will vaccinate. One would expect a high dollar breeder to vaccinate. One would be wrong.
After the loss of the first hen I learned more than I ever wanted to know about Marek's disease in chickens. I researched absolutely everything I could find on the virus and the more I learned the more I was convinced my birds were infected with Marek's Disease Virus. My gorgeous splash rooster died before the second hen had even arrived at the university for testing.
The test results came back positive. My birds were infected with the Marek's virus. One by one they would die. Or they wouldn't, but they would be carriers. I had two choices - I could kill them all, or wait to see which ones would succumb and cull them when they began to suffer. I made the choice to give them a chance. If they survived I could incubate eggs and vaccinate one day old chicks. That wouldn't keep the chickens from catching the virus but it would prevent the tumors from growing inside the bird thus save them from dying. I sent the test results to the breeder. She could no longer deny the obvious. She sent me a full refund. Today, exactly one month later, the blue rooster went down, and with him all hopes of breeding these little birds.
I gave him three days to recover. He went from unsteady, to wobbly, to completely unable to walk. When the tremors started, I walked back to the house and got a rifle. The Livestock Guardian Dog pushed her way into the chicken pen with me. She went to the sick bird. Something was wrong with this one. It bothered her. The dog couldn't save the rooster any more than I could. All I could do was stop the tremors. And get mad.
There was no reason for this to happen. Vaccinate your freaking birds. Seriously. If you buy from a hatchery pay the extra little bit to have them vaccinated. If you buy from a breeder, make sure they're vaccinated. And don't buy this organic bird bullshit. You can't eat the eggs of a dead bird. If you hatch your own chicks, unless you live in the middle of freaking nowhere and do not ever plan to sell birds or bring in new birds, then vaccinate your birds for Marek's. It is the #1 killer of chickens. The symptoms will vary depending upon where the lesions or tumors appear inside the chicken so often people don't even know what killed their birds. Before this happened to me I knew nothing about Marek's Disease Virus. I only knew there was a disease the hatchery could vaccinate your chicks for before shipping. I just assumed everyone vaccinated their chickens. Now I realize that buying an un-vaccinated chicken is like buying a puppy without distempter and parvo shots. Like parvo, Marek's is EVERYWHERE.
Vaccination isn't about saving the money. It's about preventing the suffering. It cost me $114 for a necropsy on a $24 chicken, but I had to be sure. I needed to know. I needed to know there was nothing more I could do. I needed to know that I did everything. And now I know. When I see the symptoms, I know how far I will let it go before I reach for that rifle.
Monday, February 26 2018
A couple of folks have asked for an update on Jury, Judge's brother, the dog who made the grievous mistake of murdering one of the feral barn cats. Although it crossed my mind and stayed there for a day or so, rather than re-homing him to a farm without cats, I opted to focus on intensive aversion therapy instead. Re-homing a dog is never my first choice. Not only can it be a death sentence for the dog, but I would also lose an already trained dog. The flip side of that is that I can't have an LGD killing my cats because if you keep a cat-killing dog, you can never have cats. Cats are not pets on my farm. They are a necessity. Rodents attract copperheads and rattlesnakes. Cats kill rodents. Since the introduction of cats, we've gone from 14 copperheads at the back door to three. The cats stay.
After giving the matter much thought it occurred to me that I had dropped the ball in my training. After all, if a dog can be trained not to kill chickens, it ought to be able to be trained not to kill cats. With that in mind, I enrolled every dog on my property in a curriculum which elevated cats to god-like status. The cats were thrilled with this new educational opportunity.
Within a week Jury wanted absolutely nothing to do with cats. Within a month he had resumed his normal Livestock Guardian Dog duties. Each morning I held my breath as I counted cats. Over time I quit holding my breath. Does this mean I can rest and that he will never kill a cat? Absolutely not. He is a dog. Not only is he a dog, but he's a large primitive dog who thinks nothing of killing raccoons, skunks, and young feral hogs. He is, in essence, a killing machine. I have merely brought it to his attention that THESE cats (just these) are not prey. He could have another lapse in judgement. His brother could have a lapse in judgement. God forbid, Briar could have a lapse in judgement. Cats are very similar to the small predators the dogs already kill so the logic leap isn't that far. Because I am woefully familiar with the fact that dogs DO NOT GENERALIZE training, I must be vigilant when I catch anyone bouncing after a cat in fun. It simply cannot be tolerated. Black and white. There is no gray where this is concerned. A dog does not reason that since killing this cat is against the rules, then killing all cats must be against the rules.
So to answer your questions, Jury is doing well. He's back on duty. I wish he and his brother were able to be on duty together but alas, they cannot. I haven't been able to train around this problem yet. Independently they are mindful of their duties (Judge more so than Jury. When they were younger this was the opposite.) When together they are frat boys on spring break and choose to leave the property and go walkabout for a few hours or up to 24 hours.
When paired with Briar they stay near the barnyard or near the sheep. This leads to another issue - Briar. Briar is really beginning to show her years. She's dysplastic and this cold weather is rough on her.
I had hoped that by now I could retire Briar and trust both boys to guard together. That's not going to happen anytime soon, so I've begun casting feelers out for a Briar-like protege, a Pyrenees/Komondor cross female pup. (Yes, I'm well aware that other purebreds and mixes are just as reliable, but that's what I want, so I'm willing to hunt for it.) When Briar is having good days, I feel no pressure to find a replacement, but when Briar has a hard time getting up, or just lies around watching chickens, I feel the clock ticking. The Anatolians cannot train a Briar replacement. They are a different kind of dog. More confrontation to predators. More roaming. They pair well with Briar, but neither can be a replacement for Briar. I still need at least two Livestock Guardian Dogs, and considering the poisonous snakes, feral hogs, and cougar, it's nice to have at least three guard dogs. These dogs are on the front line.
Last week we were coming home a different route and stumbled upon a pasture with sheep and Livestock Guardian Dogs not far from our place as the crow flies. Other Half commented that they belonged to the local dog vet and he leased the pasture. There was no one around. No one. Just the sheep. And the dogs. In the middle of freaking nowhere. In a pasture surrounded by forest. Since the predators around that pasture are the exact same predators my dogs and sheep deal with nightly, I watched forty lambs and ewes bounce around and saluted the Livestock Guardian Dogs. One of the dogs was a big white Briar-like dog. He trotted over to inspect us. I saluted him. Good job, Dog. Good job.
I called the vet's office the next day to find out where he got that dog. Damn. Craig's list. Oh well, I will keep my eyes open for the perfect Pyr/Kom pup for Briar to train before she retires to a life of watching chickens in the barnyard. I think I'll name her Bramble. Don't get excited. It may take me a few years to find her. In the mean time, Briar will still be watching the chickens.
Saturday, February 24 2018
For most of the state of Texas, the only blizzard we ever experience is the one served at Dairy Queen. I'm totally okay with that. We did have a little bit of snow this week. Not much. Just enough to remind me that I don't need to live in Wyoming as I have absolutely no cold weather skills whatsoever. All week we've had some combination of rain, sleet, and snow. And yet, here we are back in the 70's today. Just a typical week in Texas.
The sun made an appearance today and was welcomed like a newborn baby. This is the first time it's popped out since Tuesday so the animals are on the move. Judge has finally crawled out of the barn and onto the picnic table to soak up some rays. He spent much of the week hating his job. It sucks to work outside in cold, wet weather. Been there, done that myself. The sheep don't really care for him being in the stalls either. He takes up a lot of room and tends to be grumpy. Judge missed the kindergarten lessons on sharing. For that reason I had pity on him and let him out of the sheep pens and into the barn. Sometimes the living room but mostly the barn aisle. (Remember that we live in the barn.)
The snow has melted now and the rain quit so all the dogs are back outside. The sheep are in the pasture and the chickens are already on walkabout. Fortunately Judge is back on duty. After the weather we've had this week, the Boogey Beast is sure to be hungry. I was reminded of that when I looked out the kitchen window and saw Judge making ugly faces at the buzzards flying over the barnyard.
As far as Judge is concerned the vultures are Sky Coons - varmits which must be watched carefully. Not only does he monitor the pastures and the forest surrounding the open pasture for walking Boogey Beasts, but he patrols the air space surrounding the barnyard. Sky Coons must not be allowed to land.
Just in case there is any doubt about how he feels towards Sky Coons, check out this look. It kinda sums up his week.
"Die, Sky Coon. Die."
Saturday, February 17 2018
The sun rises and ushers in the daily roll call. I stumble out, coffee in hand, to count heads and see what drama lies waiting to smack me over the head with a stick this morning. I toss hay to the sheep and release the chickens. Theirs is a neighborhood requiring burglar bars and a strong police presence. They march out like happy citizens, pausing briefly to salute the sun before they begin their day gleefully unaware of the dangers lurking beyond.
The farm collies race to the pasture ahead of the Livestock Guardian Dogs who begin a deliberate area patrol.
While house dogs sniff the pasture like caffienated suburbanites scrolling their yahoo feed for the morning news, the Guard Dogs sniff the same spots like seasoned police officers reading a daily crime analysis report. The collies point and gawk at what they smell, sending giddy tweets to each other. "Read this!"
The Anatolian shows no such enthusiasm. He is annoyed, offended, insulted. Coyotes have tagged the fence line. He paints over their graffiti and glares into the wind.
Maybe they are watching him. Anatolian watching. A dangerous sport for a coyote.
The collies continue their play as the Guardian Dogs finish their patrol. The chickens have taken their chances and already pecked their way out there. Still six. Canaries in a coal mine. It's safe to put the sheep out now.
The Guard Dogs settle down near the chickens and watch. And the forest watches back.
Friday, February 09 2018
The lazy spiral of vultures overhead is my first clue. Curiosity gets the best of me so I slip on some boots and trudge out there. The sheep are still eating hay in their pens but the chickens have already wandered off into the wooded pasture - the Forbidden City. It calls to them each morning with promises of bugs, and grubs, and other delicacies found beyond the safe confines of the barnyard.
As I slide through the gate, Briar, the Livestock Guardian Dog, falls into step beside me. She has been watching chickens in the forest. Still six birds. Good dog, Briar. The vultures are circling toward the east, so I march toward the rising sun. In a very short time the cedars open to reveal the object of so much study.
The vultures are waiting on Judge.
One must be cautious when approaching any dog over a kill, but when the dog tips the scale over 100 pounds, extra caution is needed. Now is not the time to play dominance games. Buying dry kibble and shovelling it into a dog bowl doesn't give you the right to take anything from a dog as big as a mountain lion. He pauses as I walked up on him. I don't take a direct route in, but angle my path to glide past indirectly. He glares at me with lowered eyes. The crunch of bones is unmistakable. A few tufts of hair scattered in the grass. A spot of blood. Judge has fixed himself breakfast.
"Lemme see what you have there." I speak in a sing-song voice, careful not to imply that I am inviting myself to his meal, or God forbid, taking it from him. He never stops eating, but doesn't threaten me as I come forward to inspect his rabbit. Poor bunny. Briar inspects his meal at a distance. She thoroughly checks out the murder scene, just in case any morsels or other bunnies are hanging around. Nothing.
The buzzards circle overhead. Waiting. They don't dare land on the ground to wait for him to finish. The Livestock Guardian Dogs despise the birds and had they landed Judge's second course would have been turkey vulture. While I am out there I take the opportunity to walk the game trails and explore a bit. The sheep now graze this pasture unattended. The browse is good but it doesn't come without risks. The best grazing is found in open patches surrounded by thick wooded areas. There are lots of places to hide a predator out here. The sound of crunching bones in the distance wafts through the cedar trees. Judge is proof that a very large predator can successfully hunt out here. I walk on.
Sheep's wool caught on mesquite thorns mark the way like traffic cones. Clearly sheep come this far. I push onward. The path is well worn. I round the corner and almost step on him. A dead raccoon. Briar ignores him. Nothing to see here. Carry on. I examine the body. Tufts of Briar's fluffy white hair are caught in the stiff dry weeds around the body. White bits of hair cling on weeds like crime scene markers. The dead raccoon is of no interest to Briar because she killed it.
"Did you kill this raccoon?"
She smiles. "I don't know what you're talking about."
I keep walking. Down another trail I find the body of an armadillo. This pisses me off. I like armadillos. I don't want my dogs killing them. I turn around to orient myself. The barn can clearly be seen from here. The dogs aren't ranging that far in their crime spree. Or is it?
I can't have it both ways. They either protect the pastures from intruders or they don't. I can't stand in front of them at roll call with a chart and a pointer, highlighting which animals are on the DO NOT KILL side and which animals are on THE BOOGEY BEAST side of the chart. It doesn't work that way. The same dog who doesn't kill chickens lies in the forest crunching up a rabbit. And one of the murdering bastards killed my armadillo.
There are no good answers. The sheep and the chickens are certainly safer because of them. But in the end, a dog is really just a wolf in better clothing.
Wednesday, February 07 2018
The whip-like mind of a Border Collie crackles with electricity. Unlike the snap of a whip which results in a loud impressive pop, the end result of the Border Collie mind snap is silence. Total silence. Their chi, their fundamental life force, every fiber of their being, is concentrated in the power of silence which is filtered and released in the power of the stare. The stare of the Border Collie is the Jedi lightsaber.
Border Collie owners become particularly fine-tuned to the soundless hum of a Border Collie lightsaber being powered on.
Whuuuuuuuuushhhhhhhhhhhhhhzzzzoooooommmmmmmmmmm . . .
A lightsaber has powered on. I look around. Yep. Mesa has the chickens again.
It has taken her three days to turn this simple chore into an obsession. She is a sheepdog who has now added chickens to her growing list of things which must be controlled. The chickens have taken to going on walkabout. They leave the safety of the barnyard to scratch and peck the forbidden fruits on the other side of the fence - in the Land of Boogey Beast. The little Jedi dog has made it her mission to keep the birds where they belong.
The evolution of an obsession goes something like this:
Day One - Note the chickens are out of the barnyard. Cuss. Champion of Justice, the young Jedi warrior, is sent on an impossible mission: Go into the Land of Boogey Beasts to recover six missing chickens. She bows her head, places a hand on her lightsaber, and runs off. Minutes later she returns pushing six cackling hens. You are amazed and tell her so. As if you had approached a cop in the middle of a traffic stop to ask for directions to the donut shop, she raises an eyebrow in disdain and continues to push her suspects through the gate and into the sheep pen. Since you didn't get the hint the first time, you congratulate her again. She turns her head away, embarrassed and disgusted by your praise. And yet - Darth Vader has been born.
Day Two - Chickens are out again. Dispatch the Jedi. She pads off into the jungle and returns with six hens. As she stalks past the gate with the hens ahead of her, you hear the hum of a lightsaber and begin to detect the wheezing, labored breathing of Darth Vader.
Day Three - You are in the barnyard picking up firewood and hear the hum of a lightsaber powering up. You look around. Nothing. You catch glimpses of white sheep in the forest. The Livestock Guardian Dogs are on duty, thus you are unconcerned. You go back to picking up firewood. There it is again. A lightsaber. You walk toward the sheep pens. All the sheep are now in the pens. What the . . . ? Young Vader is standing in front of a hut, her lightsaber humming. You peek inside the hut. She has gathered one flock of sheep and six chickens from the forest and moved them into the sheep pens where she is now holding them.
Day Four - You scatter scratch grains around the barnyard and let the chickens out of their pen. A moment later you notice Darth Vader gathering confused hens and returning them to their pens. You snarl at Vader. Vader backs off but you note the veiled eyes. The wheezing breath increases as black gloved fingers open and close on an imaginary throat. Vader's obsession is growing. Vader doesn't need my praise. It is a self-rewarding activity.
And so it is with all Border Collie owners. We listen for sound of a lightsaber being powered on, heralding the launch of a new fixation, for Border Collies are Jedi Warriors, knights who are merely one step away from becoming Darth Vader.
Monday, February 05 2018
A crunch of paws in the sand. The gentle smash of leaves on the forest floor. Inhale. Exhale. Stillness. The fog is watching us. It is a blanket covering the pasture, choking out the sunrise. The sheep eat their hay, blissfully unaware. The forest is watching them. Us. It watches us.
Before the sheep leave the barnyard the dogs patrol the lower pasture. Like the fog they move through the forest on cat feet, quiet except for the snap of a stick, the crisp crunch of paws on cold sand.
The bells on their collars tinkle and clang as they run. Growling. They storm off into the mist. It swallows them. Minutes later they are spit back out. They emerge along the fence. Stiff. Insulted. Angry.
They push the fog back. Into the forest.
And the sheep eat. Blissfully unaware.
Friday, February 02 2018
My mother used to say, "Give the hardest job to the laziest person, and he'll find the easiest way to do it."
She was talking about me. In general terms. I prefer not to think of it as being lazy, rather, I'd like to say that I'm efficient. Sounds better. If I can figure out how to have a dog do the job for me, then it's even better. Training dogs takes time. See above. Even my own mother said I'm lazy.
Despite that, I spent most of my adult life training dogs. For years I was pretty heavy into training and showing in all manner of dog sports, then I switched to using dogs for Search & Rescue work. Mine were really well trained because I devoted a lot of time to making them that way. Then one day, I just quit. I'm not sure when it happened.
When did I stop being entertained enough by shaping behaviors that I quit devoting the time to teaching "Stupid Pet Tricks?" Maybe it was when I stopped being held accountable for the performance of my dogs. I stopped showing. I stopped doing Search & Rescue. I retired from police work. But I had more dogs. A lot more dogs!
Arguably these dogs do more actual work than my trial dogs. Except for a few retirees, one free-loader, and a puppy, every other dog on this ranch has a job to do each time the kennel door opens. And yet, I manage to put a shamefully small amount of time into training them. If we actually took the time to focus on skills, to practice and hone our communication, then we'd certainly look better.
But I get busy. I have other things that demand my time, so I do the basics and muddle through the rest. The dogs pick things up as we go. Because they're with me all day long, we communicate pretty well anyway. I've tried to select breeds that lend themselves to the job at hand and individuals within that breed who are bred to do the job. I think that's the key to a lazy trainer - get a dog bred to do the job in the first place. That's half the battle.
Now instead of training dog sports skills, I'm molding behaviors that make life easier for me on the ranch - handling the livestock, working and playing well with others, whatever it takes to make life on a farm roll a little smoother. Recently my Other Half has been complaining about the amount of cat food I go through in a given week. Clearly the cats aren't eating all that. I must confess, they aren't. The dogs are. And the chickens.
It began as a hair-brained experiment but has seen much success from very little effort. A win-win in my book! To expose young Livestock Guardian Dogs to chickens, I scattered cat food onto the ground thereby allowing birds and dogs to peck and scratch together. This desensitized the Guardian Dogs to the hens. Over time the chickens moved out of their pen to free-range during the day, so it was imperative that I desensitize the other dogs to the birds. Every morning I now turn the hens out of their pen and scatter cat food around the yard like bird seed. The dogs and the birds love it. Other Half complains. I do what I always do, I ignore him.
I ignore him because I believe in teaching this life skill. It's more than a Stupid Pet Trick and it takes no more time on my part than scattering scratch grains. This morning my efforts paid off.
I was deep in thought about the latest farm mystery. Why did the Livestock Guardian Dog bring home a cow's leg last night? (This mystery is still unfolding.)
With my mind on other things, I hastily did chores, then locked dogs in outside kennels before I shuffled down to the sheep pasture with a camera to document things. (because that's what CSIs do, and that's what retired CSIs still do)
I returned back to the house to find this:
Labradors and chickens do not make good roommates. This is a hunting dog who is not given to cuddling small animals. And he likes fried chicken. I had failed to notice the chicken inside the dog house when I locked Dillon inside and left him alone for ten minutes. I did note the barnyard was eerily quiet when I returned. No barking dogs. I think the Border Collies were waiting to see what Dillon would do with Darwin.
Nothing. Dillon did nothing with Darwin. Dillon waited. Darwin waited. When I opened the kennel door they both filed out like civilized drivers when the red light changes to green. They both had places to go, things to do, people to see.
There's your pay-off for training dogs. Not only did he not kill the chicken, but he didn't teach five other dogs how enjoyable the sport of chicken killing can be on a sunny morning. So just because you're a lazy dog trainer, it doesn't mean behaviors shouldn't get shaped. Just don't expect polish, and expect to run through a lot of cat food.