Last July, we lost our much-loved and trusted senior livestock-protection dog, Orbit, in the prime of his life. It was so traumatic and sad that I haven’t written his obituary yet, but I will write him an obit, because he is so deserving of it. The loss of Orbit put pressure on our remaining two dogs, the wild and crazy guys Oakley and Oliver, born in October 2019, who in my opinion still had some growing up to do. But now they were the oldest dogs, and at least one of them had to rise to that senior-dog role, the dog mature enough to protect the pregnant ewes, and to protect the mothers with their lambs as young as one week old once they were spending day and night in the pasture.
Oakley was ready for the challenge, and has been amazing this season. We have had a whole string of dogs that I have felt at the time were the best dog ever, from Big Otis to Oso, to Orbit. But Oakley now qualifies as Best Dog Ever.
In all our years of raising sheep, none of our dogs has had the instinct for pregnant ewes that Oakley has. When he was with the pregnant flock, he actively went around sniffing every ewe discreetly and tenderly, and would gauge the one most in need of following. Often he had picked the ewe who was going to be the next to give birth. And if a ewe went into labor in the pasture, Oakley stayed with her. He was so good at this that when we went to check the pasture in the early days of lambing, if Oakley was asleep in the sun, we knew there were no ewes in labor. Because if there was one, he would be right there with her.
The ewes were very tolerant of him, trusting him as he sat by, in some cases as they labored and delivered in the pasture. At our family’s sheep ranch in Idaho, my uncle used to bring a dog into the lambing sheds when a ewe was not mothering up, because the presence of the dog would make her fiercely defensive of her lamb, stamping her foot at the dog and suddenly loving the lamb she had not been inclined to love before. But to our ewes, Oakley was their protector, their labor-doula, and the one to perhaps give a first lick to their lamb and to eat the afterbirth to keep from attracting predators. Eve the fiercest of our mothers did not try to chase Oakley away from their birthing.
After our ewes lamb, they spend three days in a lambing jug in the barn with their lambs, followed by 4 days in a group of mothers and lambs who go out during the day and come into the barn at night. After a week the mothers and lambs are promoted to 24-hour lives in the pasture, and they need a dog to protect them.
A few days ago, we got to the point in lambing when we had lambs old enough that it was time for a dog to spend day and night with them outside, and Oakley got promoted. I told him it was the most important job on the ranch, but it was a rough transition. A week of mothering their lambs without exposure to a dog changed these ewes’ views, and we saw Oakley try to get close to lambs, only to be butted hard by their fierce mothers. It was painful to watch, because Oakley didn’t understand. But his instincts kicked in and he did the right thing. Several times we saw him get butted by a mother, and his immediate response was to lie down in front of her, clearly communicating his submission.
Now Oakley seems content in his new job, and I hear him barking all night outside my window, protecting his precious charges. From a distance for now.
I have told him that soon the lambs will be old enough, and their mothers blasé enough that he will find himself covered with playful lambs much of the day.
Meanwhile, you may ask, what about Oakley’s littermate, Oliver?
Well, Oliver’s story is a bit different, but we are confident it will wind up happy as well. Oliver was the bad-boy of the pair, the dog who didn’t mature as fast into understanding the gravity of his job, and whose playful antics made us reluctant to trust him with either pregnant ewes or with vulnerable lambs. So he was trusted with protecting our “open” ewes, the flock of ewes either too young or too old to be bred.
He is a good protector, but still very mischievous and juvenile in his behaviors. Oh, yes, and Oliver HATES to be wet. He is a short-haired Great Pyrenees, and in January when it was so cold and rainy, he often was shivering with cold. Lisa made him a bed in an old water trough, filled with straw, and he enjoyed its warmth and comfort.
Oliver still barked and protected his ewes at night, but he also misbehaved. Despite Lisa’s kindness to him, he tormented her by digging out of the pasture whenever he felt like it. He didn’t stray far, and still protected his sheep, but it got so we never knew where we were going to find him. Sometimes he would go on a walkabout on the ranch, and sometimes he would dig into Oakley’s pasture to play.
One day in January, Lisa found Oliver in the pasture with Oakley and the pregnant ewes. Oliver was being goofy, trying to engage Oakley, but Oakley was so not into it, like “Dude, grow up. We have a job to do, and I’m going to do mine.” We aren’t really able to lead our dogs, and we rely on them to know what we want them to do, but Oliver was resisting Lisa’s obvious intent that he go back to his pasture. She chased him around on the ATV, shouting epithets about his relationship to his mother (true in this case) and he continued to frolic and taunt her. Then, with a stroke of brilliance, Lisa took a bucket from the ATV, scooped an icy bucketful of water from the water trough, and threw it in Oliver’s face. He was stunned! He rushed out the gate and back to his pasture, and he has not left that pasture once since!
Lolo says when he goes into the pasture with a bucket of dog food to feed Oliver, Oliver eyes that bucket very suspiciously. And Lisa is now the Alpha Dog, no questions asked. She goes into Oliver’s pasture, and if he is being irresponsible, running around and chasing the ewes, Lisa just says “down,” and Oliver lies down submissively in front of her. Rule one of dog-training: you must be the Alpha Dog.
My experience with these dogs is that they mature in steps, plateauing for a while and then spurred by an event to advance to the next step. Years ago our loss of Shep triggered Orbit to make the final step to number one mature dog, and our loss of Orbit did the same for Oakley. Oliver is just a bit behind, but Lisa pushed him up to that next step, and I bet by next year he is protecting lambs, while Oakley takes on his favorite job as labor doula for those expecting mothers.