Changing of the Guard (Dogs)

Meet Oakley and Oliver, our two new livestock-protection dogs! They have been here about a month now and we are so happy with them. Oakley and Oliver are from the same breeder who all our best dogs have come from, and she does a truly amazing job. She keeps great working-dog bloodlines. Her dogs are born with sheep, raised with sheep and given almost no human attention. They stay with their working mothers until they are 5 to 6 months old, and then they are ready to be independent working dogs. Our last dog Otto, a Maremma/Akbash/Great Pyrenees mix, came to us from a different breeder at barely 2-months old. We put a lot of work into supervising him with the sheep and he was coming along nicely, but when he was about a year old (and HUGE!) we noticed that the sheep he was protecting were afraid of him. We never saw bad behavior, but it was clear he was chasing the sheep when we weren’t looking. Then we started noticing the bite marks on some of the sheep’s ears. Fellow sheep-ranchers told me I would never be able to trust him with sheep, because once a dog has a taste for chasing sheep it is hard to break him of it for good.
Otto: C'mon and play, Uncle Orbit!
Getting rid of Otto was a difficult decision, because we all loved him. He was the only dog we’ve ever had who would walk on a leash, and he was a sweet, goofy guy who just loved to play. I don’t believe he meant the sheep any harm, but if we couldn’t trust him he had no future here with our sheep. In October we learned that our breeder, Becky, had a litter of pups and we reserved two. Otto stayed with us through the winter, living in empty pastures, but his presence and his barking at night helped to keep predators away even though he was not in with the sheep. In April, right before I was due to pick up Oakley and Oliver, we found Otto a home on a vegetable farm in Vacaville, where he won’t have any sheep to chase, but he will get to roam the farm protecting the crops by chasing deer away. And he will have a new playmate, the farmer’s 3-year-old blue heeler, Max. Oliver and Max first met each other in an introductory session in my riding arena and they were instant friends, if a bit of an odd couple.
Oliver meets Max

Oakley and Oliver were impressive from the moment they arrived. They are still puppies, of course, and play with each other, but they haven’t tried to play with the sheep at all. We began by enclosing them in a small end of one of our pastures, with two ewes. The space was tight enough that the ewes would not be able to run away from the dogs, which might induce the dogs to chase. We picked Una and Ingot, two older East Friesian ewes. Within a day they were totally chill and at ease with the dogs. Once those four were comfortable together and the dogs were settled in, the next step was to introduce the rest of the “flock” to the dogs. We don’t put young dogs with lambs, so the dogs’ first “flock” was to be our 11 ewes who don’t have lambs this season. We introduced them in two installments, still in that small space, and then when everyone seemed comfortable, we opened up the fence and let them have the whole pasture.

Melinda unloading Oliver on arrival day
Mid-day nap with the ewes

The new dogs have been with us for five weeks now and are bonded to their ewes, and the ewes to them. It looks like they are going to be great dogs, following in the footsteps of the legendary Big Otis, Oso, Shep and Orbit. Those are big paw prints to fill!

Oakley and Oliver hangin' with their flock
Oliver at the water trough with Una and Frieda

We have moved them to a new pasture with their flock, and they did all the right things, checked the perimeter, and stayed with the sheep as the sheep moved around the new area, following respectfully and attentively, but never chasing. One of the young ewes got her head stuck in the fence for a few minutes the other day and we watched Oakley sit protectively with her, until she got herself out. We never cease to be amazed at the breeding of the good protection dogs, the complex behaviors that are completely bred into them not requiring any training by humans. WE LOVE OUR DOGS! (Thank you to Melinda for most of the photos here! And in many of my other posts also!)

Oakley having his feet shaved to keep foxtails out

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