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Stories from the valley

Dogs, Neighbors and Ranching Close to Town

Contributed by Dan Macon

At Flying Mule Farm, herding and livestock guardian dogs play an important role in our operation and in the lives of our family.  I rarely go anywhere without at least one of our border collies, and our livestock guardian dogs (despite the occasional management problems they present) do an incredible job of protecting our sheep from mountain lions, coyotes, domestic dogs and other predators.  In fact, we couldn’t raise sheep without our dogs.

sheep and sheepdogOur ranching operation is close to town and our proximity to suburbia creates both opportunities and challenges for us.  We love the fact that our neighbors and customers drive by our sheep on their way to town, and that many kids first touch a live lamb on our farm.  On the downside, many folks in our community no longer have first-hand experience with production agriculture.

About two years ago, we received an anonymous email from a neighbor (who did not identify him/herself) complaining that our dogs barked late at night and early in the morning.  The email came one evening while we’d been busy at our county fair, so the border collies had been out in our backyard later than normal (some of the border collies sleep in the house, while the others sleep in crates in the garage).  We went to great lengths following the email to make sure the dogs were in by 9 p.m.

sheepdogs laying downWe also have guardian dogs here at home occasionally – recuperating from an injury or guarding livestock that we’re keeping here.  Last year, I received the following email from the same anonymous neighbor:

“Thank you for your continued efforts to keep your dogs quiet. It appears you have gotten another dog, a VERY loud one. It woke us up at 5am this morning. This dog has a very loud and deep bark, and YES it is yours. 

“Indeed, other dogs are also barking– but because you may have more dogs than the average family, they seem to bark more, and start the others going too. I haven’t communicated in sometime, because I can see the efforts you are making. 

“Bark collars really do teach the dogs not to bark, you may consider it as a training tool.

“Thank you for your consideration, as the sound is very upsetting to my wife.”

As you can imagine, my first inclination was not very neighborly!  But at my wife’s urging, I decided to sleep on my response.  The next morning, I spent about 45 minutes composing my reply:

“Sorry to hear that our dogs have inconvenienced you.  Thank you for your acknowledgement of our efforts.

“As you may not know, we are in the commercial sheep business.  All of our dogs are an essential part of our business – either as herding dogs or as livestock guardian dogs (LGDs).  While most of our operation exists on leased land around Auburn, we do keep some sheep and goats at our home place.  These are generally animals that require special care – orphaned lambs that must be bottle-fed 2-3 times daily, older sheep and goats that require special care and feeding, and an occasional injured or sick animal.  Our property is zoned “Farm” by Placer County, which permits these commercial activities.

“Sheep and goats are vulnerable to predators like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs – even in a neighborhood like ours.  Indeed, the only animals we’ve ever lost to predators were killed by a neighbor dog two years ago in our back pasture.  At that time, we did not have any LGDs with the sheep.  The neighbor dog was observed chasing sheep into the irrigation ditch and killing them for sport – we lost 4 ewes in the attack.  Since that time, we’ve tried to make sure that we are always protecting our animals (and our livelihood).  Our LGDs are critical to this effort.

“LGDs instinctively respond to anything they perceive as a threat to the animals they are guarding.  The best LGDs are raised with the animals they spend their lives guarding – our dogs have been with sheep from the moment they were whelped.  Their first response to a perceived threat is to bark.  If the threat persists, a LGD will aggressively challenge the threat.  Sometimes the threat is readily apparent to us humans; other times it is not.  We have experienced our dogs barking at the scent or sound of a coyote in the neighborhood, which we only discovered later.  We’ve also noticed that our LGDs can learn about routine – for example, they don’t bark at folks who walk their dogs past our place at the same time every day.  Since barking is part of their guarding behavior, discouraging a LGD from barking will ruin the dog’s effectiveness.

“When we have LGD at our home place, we are especially aware of their barking – both because it represents a potential threat to our livestock and because we want to be good neighbors.  When a dog sounds a warning bark (and we’ve found that LGDs only bark when they are trying to warn off a perceived threat), we’ll check it out – even in the middle of the night.  Most of the time, our dogs relax and stop barking once we’ve responded to their warning barks.

“I would like to invite you to visit our operation at some point.  The partnership that we’ve developed over many years with both our herding dogs and our LGDs represents an amazing relationship between humans and dogs.  We could not operate a commercial sheep business without this partnership, and watching our dogs work – even for us – is a wonderful experience.  Also, we’d be glad to forward you additional information regarding LGD behavior and training.”

Several days later, I received a reply from the still-anonymous neighbor:

“Thank you for your reply and detailed information regarding your business. We wish you the best success for your business! Someday my wife and I will come by and see your farm. 

“Thanks again for understanding and making great efforts in keeping the barking to a minimum as much as possible. We too have a dog, so we do understand.”

While nearly all of the folks we come into contact with are interested in and supportive of our operation, the vocal few who are not seem to cause a disproportionate share of stress to my life.  That said, my wife’s advice to “sleep on it” before responding is probably the best advice I’ve received in years!