Because my dog is my constant companion and because she has some herding instincts, I am always aware of where she is relative to the ponies. I now know her well enough to anticipate problems and prevent them if she takes an inkling to ‘herd’ without my direction. Since I am about to add another dog with herding instincts to my farm, how I manage my dog around my other animals has been on my mind so that I can train the new dog when it arrives. I appreciated a story told to me by my friend Eddie McDonough recently as I ponder the possibilities.
Eddie keeps Herdwick sheep in Lancashire. He occasionally shepherds with his Fell Pony Bess. Eddie also raises and uses genuine working bearded collies (Eddie emphasizes these are not to be confused with registered Kennel Club types). His dogs are so capable that they and Eddie are often enlisted to work flocks of sheep owned by friends. Because he works sheep both mounted and from the ground, he has learned that not all his dogs like working with him when he’s mounted. One of his dogs in particular, Jess, keenly dislikes when Eddie is mounted on Bess.
One day Eddie, Bess, and his dogs were helping a friend with a shepherding chore. His friend was moving muck out of a byre, so every ten minutes or so he needed to go out the paddock gate with a load. Eddie and his dogs were charged with keeping the sheep from exiting the gate when it was opened to allow the tractor’s egress. “Sheep have an uncanny way of knowing when a gate is open,” says Eddie. That day Jess had a particular problem with Eddie working from Bess. Between gate duties, Jess would retreat to sit on the crest of a bridge over Bridgewater Canal while the other dogs would rest at Eddie’s side. Eddie saw Jess out of the corner of his eye and noted the strange behavior but kept on with the task at hand.
Eddie occasionally cast a glance in Jess’s direction, in part because he had a suspicion that she was going to express her distaste for the situation. It was a particularly bitter day, and Eddie’s wife Susan brought some hot tea during a break. Eddie was sitting on Bess with his cup of hot tea, turned away from Jess. Out of the corner of his eye, Eddie saw Jess start moving at high speed in his and Bess’s direction. “Thank goodness I was on a Western saddle,” Eddie said. Jess went for Bess’s heels, and Bess reared straight up in the air. “I had a close encounter with Bess’s poll, hot tea went everywhere, and I only stayed mounted by grabbing the saddle horn.” Fortunately, Eddie and Bess have such a good working partnership (Bess has tried to protect Eddie from attacking dogs in the past) that after Bess went up, she returned to just standing, while Jess retreated to the bridge again.
Managing animals’ interactions with each other is part and parcel of working with them. In my case, with ponies and dogs and ducks, I’m always aware of where each of them are relative to the others. The other day I was doing something in close proximity to a pony’s hooves when my flock of ducks took a very audible wing-assisted run nearby. Fortunately, the pony wasn’t bothered by the sudden noise and didn’t move, or I might have been in an unpleasant predicament.
I sure hope the dog I add to my farm likes ponies better than Jess did. Regardless, managing the interactions of my animals is always important, usually peaceful, and unendingly fascinating.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012