Our livestock protection dogs are truly amazing. The Great Pyrenees dogs are a testament to the genetics of behavior, having been selected for centuries, most likely millennia, for protecting sheep. Their protective behavior is hard-wired genetically and requires no training from humans. They are born knowing what to do, and how to do it. Two dogs together work as a team, dividing up the protective responsibilities, one staying with the flock while the other checks the pasture perimeter, for example. Alone, they handle all their responsibilities with a clear internal priority list, keeping close watch on the most vulnerable–the youngest lambs, the ewe in labor, or a member of the flock who may be injured or trapped.
We get our dogs from an excellent breeder, who raises working dogs, born with sheep, raised with sheep, with minimal human contact and well-proven working parents.
But still, a young dog is like an adolescent human, and they manage to find ways to get into trouble. And some of the Great Pyrenees have a rather long childhood. There was Gordy, the dog who seemed like he would never grow up. I found myself shouting “Gordy, you worthless dog,” so many times I finally decided to give him away. He went to live with our friend Chad in Montana and lived a long life there, as one of Chad’s best dogs, guarding his flock from coyotes, mountain lions and grizzly bears. Orbit, one of our best dogs ever, went through a phase of digging out of the pasture to hunt deer. And Oliver, at 3 1/2 years old, was digging out of any pasture we put him in, so now we have him in “jail,” a pasture with an electric wire strung along the fence at ground level to try to break him of the habit.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up our newest dog, Owen, from our breeder, Becky, 10 days ago. He was a year and a half old, and Becky said he has the makings of a great protection dog.
We installed him in the barn for his first night at the ranch, and planned to put him in a small enclosure with a small group of ewes the next morning, to help him acclimatize to our sheep and our ranch.
He was not thrilled with being confined in the barn, but we felt it was the wisest thing, as he arrived in early evening. The next day, when Lolo and Melinda went to put him out with the sheep, they lost him! He flew down the alley, passing under gates like a ghost passing through walls, and wound up in our front pasture, by the road. The fences are very tight down there, and Lolo and Melinda were able to capture him, crate him, and bring him back to the sheep.
As they were putting him in with his group of ewes, our senior dog, Oakley, was at a neighboring gate with some of his charges. Owen went over to him, and they had a very serious meeting. There was no play-bowing or other puppyish behavior one might expect from a dog Owen’s age; he and Oakley sniffed each other, then Owen solemnly submitted to Oakley. “It was beautiful,” Melinda said. Such a clear expression of dog-respect.
Owen spent that day, last Wednesday, in the paddock with his ewes, sometimes sitting by the gate, sometimes in the midst of the ewes. He acted very mature, showing no chasing or other puppyish behaviors, and we thought he was settling in. Melinda hand-fed him his dinner that evening. The next morning I texted Melinda and Lolo at 7 to ask them how Owen was doing. “He’s gone,” Melinda texted back.
He had disappeared in the night. Melinda had seen him at dusk, but he left some time after that. Given how quickly he had fled the previous morning, we worried that he was gone off the ranch and could be trying to find his way home to Willits.
I put out the word on local e-bulletin boards, and to all my ranching friends and neighbors, to keep an eye out for him. That evening he was sighted at Millerton Creek Ranch, about 8 miles from here. But they couldn’t get near him and when they tried to, he took off again. The next morning, Friday, Melinda and Lolo heard him howling in our front pasture, and were amazed that he had come back! But when they tried to approach him, he took off again, across the road and down a canyon on the neighbors’ ranch.
Lisa, who lives over there, saw him in the afternoon and tried to approach him with a bucket of kibble, but he fled again. We began to worry that we would never catch him.
That night I couldn’t sleep, thinking of the poor, frightened, hungry, Owen, out there in the cold, alone. Saturday morning, I was really depressed, thinking we would never see Owen again, and wondering what would become of him.
Then I looked out in the pasture below our house where the ewes and lambs were grazing in the early morning light, and there was Oakley, lying in the grass, watching over them. There was something very white by Oakley’s side. I got my binoculars, and was totally blown away–it was Owen! He had come back on his own in the night, and found his way into Oakley’s pasture with the ewes and lambs. He and Oakley looked so settled and happy together.
Owen has been home for a week now and shows no signs of wanting to wander again. He seems to really look up to Oakley and they are working well together. He is showing none of the pupping behaviors most of our dogs have at his age–he is a really serious guy.
He has made his message to us clear–he does want to work here, but on his terms, and that involves an apprenticeship with Oakley.