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Donald McCaig
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Dear Sheepdoggers,

 

Some will be uninterested in this account of sheepdog behaviors and the unusual results at my sheepdog trial but I think the dogs’ responses tell us something about how they think in the real world.

 

It was hot - 86 degrees and humid which always affects sheep and dogs. The 190 ewes were commercial polypays who'd never been worked before. It's a big course, fifty acres/five hundred yard outrun. Outrun, lift, fetch, drive, split, pen and shed: fifteen minutes. Of 35 Open dogs, Saturday only five earned scores: the others retired or were disqualified (off course or grips). These were excellent dogs with experienced handlers; probably half the null scores had enough points last year to qualify for the National Finals.

 

It was a little better Sunday but Monday - the junior classes – were worse More than half the Ranch dogs failed to score, none of the pronovice dogs and only one Novice/novice dog scored.

 

Since the sheep were even, fit and workable, the dogs' failures interested me. Sure - there were handler/dog mistakes but there always are and at a typical trial somewhere between 10 and 25 percent will get letter (RET/DQ) rather than numeral scores.

 

Many dogs made perfect outruns – difficulties started on the lift. The lift is that instant when dog and sheep evaluate each other. Think of it like a job interview compressed into .5 second. If the sheep decide the dog is in charge and neither too dangerous nor too insecure they will move off quietly in a straight line toward the handler. At this trial, the sheep came off fast and at an improper angle. During the subsequent fetch, the sheep veered wildly off the straight and narrow – most missed the fetch panels. From the getgo many dogs "gave" to the sheep, failing to hold the pressure. Afterwards things didn’t improve and usually got worse, but the tone was set in that .5 second lift. Poor lifts and wildly offline fetches happen all the time at trials but not with dog after dog.

 

 

It had to be the sheep – but why?

 

Sheep can be difficult for a number of reasons. Western range sheep might never have seen a man off horseback and the last dog they saw was a coyote eating their Mama. They are very flighty and/or will fight the dog. Unsound sheep, if pressed, will just stand there: “Kill me. I don’t care”, and sheep that have run too many times at a trial may just beeline from the letout to the exhaust – dog or no dog. But these were sound sheep run only once each day.

 

Most east coast trials use hair sheep (Kathadins, St Croix, Dorpers (wool is practically worthless today)) and many of those sheep are “dog-broke” or “velcro” (won’t move off the man). Sheep breed behaviors vary more than you might think – Rambouillettes are so “flocky”, if you put a sick one in the barn you must put another to keep it company. Scottish Blackface graze on barren Scottish Hills, each on her own patch of lichen/grass. They don’t like crowds (or flocks).

 

These sheep were polypays – an uncommon multiple birth white face breed. The dogs had never worked Polypays before and the sheep had never been worked by dogs.

 

I believe dogs - and sheep – were momentarily confused. As if you’d knocked expecting Emily to answer and a turbanned Sikh came to the door. And that momentary confusion cost the dogs their authority.

 

With sheepdogs, context is everything. For a sheepdog, an 800 yard putrun through sagebrush and mesquite to range sheep is unlike a horse arena and docile sheep indoors at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Sale or a clipped New Hampshire meadow on sheep that were trialed last week and the week before.

 

 

Sheepdogs must incorporate the unfamiliar into their experience base, so that next year Polypays on a Mountain Farm will be in their repertoire. I expect most will do so in 2012 after their experiences this year.

 

 

Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,

 

Since the sheep were even, fit and workable, the dogs' failures interested me.

 

Donald McCaig

Okay Donald; here's our reason (excuse). All our returning dogs ran well last year going to the right; all stayed inside of the trees (not going out to the road). Between last year and this year our sheep have started wandering through the old barbed wire fence lines (you know....the grass is always greener); our dogs have since learned to go through field barriers (fences, scrub, rock walls, lines of trees, etc) to gather wondering sheep back to our fields. When we sent to the right this year our dogs turned out (towards the road) at the line of trees; they did what they've learned (in some cases been taught) to do at home.

 

Handler error

 

Mark

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Well said, Donald.

 

Now I've got to go find out what "polypay" sheep are, and if anybody west of the Wasatch Range has some. ;)

 

But you do make an excellent and valuable point. I wonder how many people are kind of handicapped simply by not having enough variety, sheep-wise, within reach?

 

~ Gloria

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I love a puzzle, and even if I don’t solve it sometimes I come up with something that clues the more knowledgeable person to the solution.

 

I noted that there was at least one other person who did not know what a Polypay sheep was, and I had certainly never heard of them. What I found was this:

 

“ In 1968 U.S.S.E.S. crossed the first imported Finnsheep rams on Rambouillet ewes. Large-bodied Dorset rams from North Carolina, California, Oregon and Montana, born as twins or triplets from ewes with outstanding lifetime production, were obtained and crossed on Targhee ewes. The foundation Rambouillet and Targhee ewes were developed by mating two rams of outstanding body size and born and raised as twins on the range. The Finnsheep x Rambouillet (F x R) and Dorset x Targhee (0 x T) born in 1969 were big and exhibited early puberty. The F x R lambs were crossed with D x T lambs to produce the first 4-breed composite in 1970.

Subsequent testing of breeds and crosses established that the 4-breed composite (F x R x D x T) most closely met the prescribed production goals. When the potential of the new composite breed was recognized, Dr. Hulet coined the name "Polypay" in 1975 from "poly" many much or many, and "Pay" to indicate return on investment and labor.”

American Polypay Sheep Association

 

Tried to find more about the Finnsheep breed, but came up with nothing about the breeds flocking response or reactions to sheep dogs, but looking at an fairly closely related breed - descended as was the Finnsheep, from the Mouflon - the Old Norwiegan, I found this”

 

“The Old Norwegian breed of sheep has a unique pattern of flight (escaping an enemy). This also makes it suitable for use in grazing areas with predators. This flight behavior makes it difficult to handle them with normally trained sheep dogs. The dog will only come back with a few animals because the weak ones escape the flock and hide till the animals in best condition are left with the dog. The same flight pattern will occur on the grazing land where a small group of the best animals will end with the predator and exhaust it. There is normally little, if any loss at all of Old Norwegian Sheep to predators compared to other breeds in the same area. More research is needed to prove it.”

OSU Breeds of Livestock page

http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/oldnorwegian/index.htm

 

Is it possible that the poor showing by so many dogs at this trial was simply because this breed of sheep is not inclined to flock, or flees wildly from anything they might see as a predator? Or perhaps their mixed lineage give them conflicting responses to the approach of the dog and thereby they behave erratically and confuse the dog by sending mixed postural and body movement signals?

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Geonni,

And excellent one stop shop for information on sheep breeds is the Oklahoma State University's sheep breeds site. You may have found it in your search.

 

Although the Finn is a more primitive breed, and such sheep (including Shetlands and Welsh mountain sheep, to name a couple) tend to flock less than other breeds, the polypays do not seem to retain the non-flocking genetics of the Finn sheep. And it's not something breeders would have selected for, since sheep on the range need to be gathered on occasion, and sheep that tend to flock would make that job much easier.

 

When I gathered the sheep in the mornings to take them to the set out, they would bunch together and then start to swirl, with the outside sheep circling the inside sheep and no forward movement. I found it helped to have two dogs to work both sides to keep the whole flock moving forward instead of just swirling in one place. That's definitely flocking behavior.

 

There did seem to be more instances than at past trials of a single sheep wanting to go its own way rather than stick with the other three, but in most cases, the dogs were not covering sufficiently to turn the single back to the group (that is, the single didn't just take of pell mell and leave the others behind, but sort of pushed its way off and when the dog didn't make it go back, it continued on its merry way). I would suspect that the dogs who let this happen were worried about the three sheep and the strong draw to the exhaust and so went only as far as needed to stop the single before turning back to the remainng three to make sure they didn't take off.

 

When this flock is out grazing in the field, it also remains a flock--even though the sheep might spread out some, you don't see individuals off grazing by themselves away from their flockmates (something you might see with the more primitive breeds).

 

J.

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Dear Wouldbe Sheepdoggers,

 

A little sheep/sheepdog speculation from the can't-see-them-very-well bottom end.

 

Julie writes:

 

"There did seem to be more instances than at past trials of a single sheep wanting to go its own way rather than stick with the other three, but in most cases, the dogs were not covering sufficiently to turn the single back to the group (that is, the single didn't just take of pell mell and leave the others behind, but sort of pushed its way off and when the dog didn't make it go back, it continued on its merry way)."

 

 

 

That failure to cover occurred at or just after the lift in many/most runs when the sheep were heavy toward the woods/bedground. Although I couldn't be sure from where I stood, I suspected the common problem began with the lift because it usually does. (Wilson's trial has a similar strong pressure at the lift which ruins many runs and must be countered BEFORE its consequences are apparent from the post.

 

Although a panicked galloping sheep can outrun a dog for short distance - 50 yards? - most dogs can physically catch and head cantering sheep. Most unpanicked sheep, including these Polypays don't need the dog at their head to turn; slightly ahead of their shoulder and parallel will do. (Some well dogged sheep will turn when the dog is even further back and very well off: such sheep think, "Well he might turn me if he really pours it on so I guess I'll turn now and save myself the trouble later."

 

There are many reasons dogs fail to take control of running sheep but principally they don't is because they doubt they can. They may be inexperienced, weak, uncertain of their relationship with their handler, afraid, very poorly trained or . . .

 

The first time sheepdogs are put on Suffolks or horned breeds or a group of rams, they often fail to take control. They do learn to handle the difficult-to-handle but it takes time. (I've had dogs chased out of the ram lot who with experience handled the same rams confidently).

 

Sheep split because they lack genetic flocking or . . .? The range Rambouilet yearlings at Joanie Swanke's Dakota trial would split off readily for individual safety. The descendents of range Rambouilets we reared for years would run over a dog to return to their flock.

 

I suspect that at the lift at my trial one or more Polypays told the dog they intended to split (lift splits weren't quite as common as failure to cover but there were some). Different ballgame. The dogs had expected sheep that "came along quietly" if the dog approached (good outrun) and handled them right.

 

Instead, they encountered sheep they'd never met before - and an unusual problem.

 

This wouldn't have interested me if the dogs which had problems had been second rate or inexperienced or had made poor outruns. But very good dogs with satisfactory outruns failed to cover.

 

I think they hadn't figure out the best way to handle these particular sheep and failed to cover - in part - because they feared a breakaway single if they came to the shoulder and turned them. Staying parallel but not covering retains some control and prevents that threatened split. When the sheep got closer to the handler - a source of dog power - most dogs did cover them.

 

But: they had lost most of their fetch points and, more important, told the sheep that if they really, really wanted to push, the dog would give to them; knowledge the sheep employed later in the course, often catastrophically, when they neared another powerful draw - the exhaust.

 

Interestingly, these sheep were heavy to that exhaust THE FIRST TIME they ran. Must have been one or two old ewes in each group who'd been trialed here last year.

 

Donald McCaig

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Interestingly, these sheep were heavy to that exhaust THE FIRST TIME they ran. Must have been one or two old ewes in each group who'd been trialed here last year.

I wondered if initially it was a draw to the shade near the exhaust as opposed to the exhaust itself.

 

 

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