Shepherds – the good ones I know – rely on their dogs. Border collies (the breed of choice for the shepherds I know) are indispensable; so are livestock guardian dogs. In our part-time sheep operation, we try to keep an older dog, a dog in his (her) prime, and an up-and-comer. This applies to our herding dogs as well as our livestock guardian dogs. And as with our sheep, we only breed our dogs with a specific purpose.
I find it difficult to explain my relationship with my dogs to someone who has never relied on a working dog. As with any partner, each of us can sometimes be annoyed with the other! I’ve loved pets; my relationship with my working dogs goes far deeper. Simply put, I respect them. I’m constantly amazed by their intelligence and dedication to their work. We share affection, certainly; we also share a love for our work.
Our oldest herding dog, Mo, belongs (at least on paper!) to our oldest daughter, Lara. Mo is an exceptional dog – probably the most thoughtful sheep dog I’ve ever worked. When he was very young, I sent him over a hill (and out of my sight) to gather a group of ewes that was due to start lambing in about a week. After a few minutes, the sheep came over the crest of the hill at a smart walk – but Mo was nowhere to be seen. Just as I started to worry (and curse my dog), Mo reappeared. He was gently driving a ewe with a set of newborn twins – he got the rest of the flock moving and then took his time with the new mother! Since that day, Mo has proven himself with every kind of grazing livestock – cows, sheep, goats. He can handle everything from stubborn rams to stompy ewes.
Several years ago, I bought a female pup from my friend Geri Byrne in Tulelake. We needed a young dog in preparation for Mo’s old age. Mae, a smooth-coated border collie who traces her lineage to Wales, proved to be both keen and biddable. As I write this, I realize that “keen” and “biddable” are, perhaps, terms that are foreign to most American dog owners. Keen means eager to work; biddable means anxious to please. Mae is the first sheepdog I’ve trained from the beginning. She’s spoiled me; she’s been incredibly easy to work!
Since Mo and Mae are both intact (from a breeding perspective), and since we needed to anticipate the pending retirement of Mo and his slightly younger half-brother, Ernie, we decided to try for a litter of puppies. When Mae came into heat in April, we hoped for the best. By the time we sheared the sheep (Mother’s Day weekend), we realized Mae was “in pup.” Early on the morning we were weaning our lambs (2:30 a.m.!), Mae delivered her first pup! At 9:30 a.m., as we were working our lambs, my wife Sami texted me that Mae had given birth to her ninth (and final!) pup!
We don’t raise a litter of puppies frequently – really only when we need a dog and want to preserve the genetic lines of our best dogs. And as cute as these border collie puppies are, we’re pretty clear about making sure they go to working homes. Given the working abilities of Mo and Mae, we suspect these puppies will likely have an incredible drive to work. With work, our dogs make outstanding pets – but a working border collie without a job will often create its own job (which can cause problems in a suburban backyard). Sometimes I find that I have difficulty explaining this to someone who falls in love with Mae’s adorable puppies. Fortunately, I think these pups (including the one we’re keeping) will all lead working lives.
Perhaps one of the most delightful parts of raising a litter is making sure the puppies are well socialized. My wife Sami and my youngest daughter Emma have fully embraced this responsibility! I came home from work last week to find Emma and two of her high school friends in the kennel playing with the pups. This week, the puppies have discovered the joys of chewing on toys (and on each other). And they’ve started responding to our voices!
Over the coming weeks, we’ll continue to socialize the pups. They’ll receive their first inoculations, and by the middle of August, all but one will be off to their new homes. Over the coming year, we’ll take the puppy we keep to sheep for the first time (probably at about 6 months of age) – and the cycle of forming a working partnership with a dog will begin anew for me. How fun!
If you’d like to see the puppies, check out my Instagram feed at @flyingmule – I can’t resist posting photos and videos!