Herd Improvements

Dog work is like horse work. The more you learn, the more you realize there is so much to learn. Dogs, horses, and humans all benefit from Dwell Time. Read more here.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with an accomplished herding dog trainer, Ann Chernoff Allan. She’s had great success with her Australian Shepherds in trials and shows around the country. She also uses her dogs daily to move livestock around her Colorado acreage. I was thrilled to meet her and happy that she agreed to volunteer some time to help me with my dogs, using her sheep.

My dogs are Peeko, Monty, and Kip.

  • Peeko is a healer mix with a crippled front leg. Despite her permanent injury, she’s quick, agile and has done a great job helping me move cows. Ann felt, however, that her injury would be too aggravated by working with sheep. She’d have to sit out these sessions.
  • Monty is a young border collie mix. He’s lightning fast (much faster than speedy Kip and Peeko) and seems to have a keen sense of typical border collie strategies when moving stock: he likes to monitor the perimeter and push cows back to the group. Unlike Peeko, he does not like to heel or push the cattle from the rear.
  • Kip is an Australian Shepherd acquired as a puppy in Iowa. I was told she was 100 percent Aussie. When I sized up Ann’s dogs (all purebred Australian Shepherds), I had my doubts. So did Ann. Her dogs are bigger and stockier.

A simple Wisdom Panel DNA sequence test got to the bottom of it:

Kip was no purebred. According to the test, completed by swabbing the inside of her mouth with special brushes, then sending them off to Mars laboratories, Kip was three-quarters Aussie. The remaining quarter of her lineage had lines from terrier, herding, guard, and sporting breeds.

Read more about the Wisdom Panel tests here.

Read Monty’s Wisdom Panel results here.

Read Peeko’s Wisdom Panel results here.

There was one more helpful result in Kip’s findings: like her buddies, Kip tested negative for the Multidrug Sensitivity gene mutation. The genetic variant, which can cause dogs to fall into comas or die when given certain drugs, is especially common among Aussies. Phew.

Now to get to work!

My dogs are enthusiastic herders. They have all-day energy and love to move cows, people, and each other. So it was a shock when they cowered at the sheep. “No way. Take me home,” they seemed to say as they scuttled between my legs.

These were new creatures. These creatures were making eye contact and emitting new sounds.

Like many horsemen and women I admire, Ann values dwell time and giving animals opportunities to think for themselves. She knows that in the moment and after the moment, the dogs are thinking. “Give them time. They will be different next week. You’ll see,” she said.

We returned the following week.

“Oh, yeah, I got this,” the dogs now seemed to say. In an undisciplined, rookie fashion, they now approached the sheep with vigor. Ann’s job would be to help me and my dogs learn how to nurture instinct, retain spirit, and craft sound brains and bodies into something disciplined and effective. All without the least bit of micromanaging.

The dogs would learn quickly. My challenge was to keep up with them. Ann taught me, for instance, that rewarding my herding dogs by letting them reconnect with sheep was far better than any treat. That’s good to know. I’m not much of a treat advocate, anyway. Check out this slideshow on toxic and dangerous foods for dogs.

Stay tuned for ongoing reports.

Quick End for Beloved Belle

Since many of us count animals as companions and friends, and since many of us have dogs, please Dear Reader, allow me to remember Belle and recount how she died this week.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

You may recall her in another piece here. The Basset hound mutt with a yard-long body and short legs even made it into A Rider’s Reader. Notable as an independent spirit, Belle was her own dog.

On New Year’s Eve, as the day was fading into evening, Belle joined the rest of us on a walk down the road. The road is gravel, four miles long, and follows a north-south canyon with steep ridges on each side. Only eight homes have full time residents. It’s quiet, beautiful, and bordered by undeveloped public and private lands.

When we turned for home, it didn’t surprise or bother me that Belle wasn’t with us. She has a history of civil disobedience and I have loved her through gritted teeth. After all, she’s a hound and her nose demands far more attention than my calls ever did. In her 12-year old form, she’d also become a dawdler. She’d come home in due course. She’d stand at the door, give me that high-toned woof, and be let in. It happened every day, several times a day.

After an hour, though, we grew concerned. With my son, Cormick (home on college break), and dogs, I headed back out, into the dark and snow. We retraced our steps and took long detours into the juniper and scrub oak, using headlamps and calling her name. We followed the dogs as they picked up scents and dropped them. We listened.

Belle as a younger dog

Over the last week, Belle had been rejuvenated by short-but-sweet visits from my three sons. She loved them and they loved her. Aside from me, she was the only being who’d journeyed these 12 years with them. They shared histories of porcupine and skunk run-ins, humid Maine summers by the ocean, long wilderness treks, and long cross-country road trips. While less than obedient in the field, Belle was an in-house ham. She would sit, stay, lie down, and roll over, often in rapid succession. She would bark loudly or “air bark” depending on the request.

When I’d last seen her, she was bounding like a puppy, big ears flapping. She’d caught a scent and was following it with obvious glee.

As the calendar turned from last year to this year, I tromped through brush and snow with a fading headlamp.

Could she have fallen into a drainage?

Could she have tussled with coyotes?

I checked the shallow ravines and watched for any sign of struggle. (Productively following her tracks was nearly impossible with our other dogs in the mix.) We searched by truck, too, covering the length of the road with high beams, stopping to call and to listen.

In the morning, I got horseback and rode the fields, checking streams and peering into the timber for any signs. The challenge of searching miles of snow-patched ground for a snow-and-dirt colored dog struck hard. I started thinking about closure, the need to know, and how I might never know.

In the early afternoon, I headed out again. The falling snow made it too wet for a saddle, so I fitted Shea with a towel and bareback pad. Checking drainages, ditches, and scrub oak crannies, we worked our way up the ridge from where I’d last seen her.

The search had become something of a mind game. In the face of needle-in-haystack odds, methodologies of reason and intuition blend like chocolate syrup and milk. Doubt and determination ebb and flow.

The dogs, horse, and I continued to climb. Four years ago, a wildfire moved through the canyon. Scads of standing, charred trees remain. My white chinks streaked black.

We paused along the side of the ridge and I looked south across miles of country. Had the dogs not gathered to inspect, I might have missed her body, perfectly inconspicuous 15 feet down the hill. Belle looked asleep and almost unharmed save some blood on her side and her head.

Had she been shot?

Did she hurt herself and then die of exposure?

I took the towel from Shea’s back, wrapped her in it, and with Cormick’s help, carried her home, placed her in the bed of the truck, and studied her body. I called some ranching friends. Belle had rough puncture wounds above one eye and under her jaw. It appeared that her neck had been broken.

From all indications, I learned, this was a mountain lion kill. It had been quick and not motivated by hunger but more likely by aggravation. Belle pursued it and the cat had disposed of her. The image at right was taken by my friend a few miles away, earlier this year.

I’ve trained my dogs not to chase game, especially in the winter. They often wear electronic collars so if necessary they can be reminded with a tone or vibration that they must not bother the wildlife. Belle, I’d figured, didn’t need a collar. She’d grown too old and slow to be a threat. Most recently, she seemed to enjoy watching her buddies do all the running and playing.

A mountain lion after a deer kill, a mile from our home. photo by Cecil Thurman

I don’t harbor any ill will towards the cat. (Though that might change if it gets a taste for domestic dog.) It was doing what cats do. Belle was being Belle. Living here requires a balance of considerations: respectful coexistence whenever possible. Mostly, I think us humans get it wrong. William Kittredge wrote about land ownership and stewardship as he reflected on the unwitting havoc his family wreaked on thousands of acres in southern Oregon. His people never owned the land “not in any significant way,” he wrote in Hole in the Sky: A Memoir. We’re all just passing through.

It took a while to dig through the frozen ground and shovel deep enough to discourage coyotes from rooting out her body. We buried her on a knoll above the house, under a tree. It was a spot Belle often chose to survey the neighborhood. I think the old explorer might have approved.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

Progress in strange places

not too old to learn challengeProgress comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be planned or spontaneous, pretty or pretty ugly.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve worked with Jolene at all of the above.

Read more about deliberate tips for working with a spooky horse.

Meanwhile, we had two outings that helped build Jolene’s confidence in a more spontaneous manner.

Outing 1:

susanI rode Shea and ponied the mule on an easy, afternoon ride. Along the way, we met a neighbor. She innocently stepped forward and reached to pet Jolene on the head. This is an event that normally would send Jolene into the next county. I dallied my lead line and braced for a mammoth tug from the thousand-pound girl whose middle name is Distrust.

Remarkably, she stood firm. Her quick breaths told me she was nervous. But our friend was gentle and soft-spoken (which, I believe, made the difference). As her admirer stepped back, Jolene licked her lips.

Outing 2:

Jolene gets used to trash bags full of cans

Jolene gets used to trash bags full of cans

Since certain crummy horse riders like to toss beer cans on the trail, I’ve placed two containers for trash in the area. Periodically, they need to be emptied. (You can read about my initiative here.)

This time, Jolene donned a bareback pad and came with me, Raechel Nelson and our five dogs to help collect the trash. At times, the canine gang was loud and chaotic. Jolene swiveled her ears incessantly, occasionally stopped to account for everyone, but otherwise was calm.

After the 30 minute walk, we arrived at the trash collection site. She watched as we piled cans into plastic bags. I let her smell the bags before tying them to each side of the bareback pad. She was nervous. I snubbed the line around a tree and moved her so the bags bounced and jangled with the noisy cans. After several orbits, I let her chill and graze before heading home.

In both cases, Jolene did great!


Kurgo gives us reason to smile during Mud Season

muddy-dog-by-wout-1024x768Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me follow, down to the hollow
And there let me wallow in glorious mud
Flanders and Swann

Mud Season’s around the corner. How will your back seat look?
Is it enthusiastically trashed by your beloved canine? Does she look at you with that “What? Me?” look as you grind your teeth and pinch your nose?

Kurgo_square_logo_600x600_hi-res copySeat covers are crucial if you don’t want your car still smelling like Mud Season in August or October. There are lots of choices. I recently returned a fancy, expensive “custom-fitted” seat cover. It didn’t fit, wasn’t well made or well designed and attracted dog hair like a magnet.
Then I found Kurgo. It’s a young, Salisbury, Massachusetts company dedicated to all things dogs: beds, collars, drinking bowls, harnesses, even life jackets and car booster seats.
They sent me an Allagash Bench Seat Cover.

Hooray!  I finally have relief from a truck perpetually smelling doggy and featuring a stubborn layer of multi-shaded hair.

IMG_8693The best feature of the Allagash seat cover might surprise readers: it’s the lack of customization:
Let’s face it, so-called custom seat covers never really fit well and can be incredibly hard to take off once you get them on.
Kurgo seat covers are simple and adjustable. They have slits to allow for seat belts and zippered pockets for stashing leashes and travel water bowls.

The next impressive feature is its material:

It’s Hydraweave, a tough, waterproof fabric made especially for the Allagash line. Hydraweave does not attract hair like most every other seat cover.
Yesterday, my three boisterous dogs jumped in and got the IMG_8697back seat muddy. Really muddy. I unclipped the seat cover, hosed it off, and put it back on the seat in a few minutes.
When Kip got excited and had a little accident, I just cleaned it with soap and water. No more smelling smells for months or spitting out dog hair when the windows finally get rolled down.

Welcome Peeko!

IMG_3082We welcome sweet Peeko to the NickerNews family. She may not be great at writing or marketing, but she’s certainly livening up the place.

Peeko came from the wonderful folks at Ruff Patch Rescue, a foster-home centered rescue organization in Riverton, Utah. Led by Stacy Ward, a veterinary technician at Stone Ridge Veterinary Clinic, the non-profit has a team of fosterers who care for incoming dogs and begin basic training.

Ruff Patch rescued Peeko from a rural shelter in Roosevelt, Utah, where she was turned in as a young stray of about six months. Because of what initially was considered an injury, the slight, white pup would likely have been euthanized had it not been for the efforts of Ruff Patch.

FRONT EXTREMITY - LATERAL RIGHT copyPeeko, a small cattle dog/border collie mutt, has an old fracture. She broke her elbow and it never healed correctly. Subsequently, the leg grew awkwardly.  It bows in, making her little paw toe out a bit like a flipper. According to an orthopedic specialist, the abnormality makes one leg shorter than the other but shouldn’t slow her down or cause her pain.

Already Peeko is giving our Ride Along Dog, Kip, a run for her money. She’s fast, super smart, and friendly. She has a natural sense to steer clear of the horses but keep close enough to be part of the party.

Thanks Ruff Patch for rescuing and finding forever homes for hundreds of dogs every year. You make it easy for folks like us to (as your motto says):

Save A Life and Enrich Your Own!”

ruff patch

Trouble on the trail reveals holes in training

111All rides can’t be golden. When things go sideways, the goal may be simply getting everyone home safe and sound, with nothing too traumatic to remember. If you look at those rides with a big lens, you’ll see they are blessings in disguise, for they may reveal missteps and holes in your training.

That much became crystal clear on yesterday’s long ride with my favs, pony Pep and mule Jolene. Read most recent post on mule progress

It was a brilliant fall day as we set out for the radio tower – eight miles away with a climb of 2,500 feet elevation. My plan was to ride Pep all the way there, ponying Jolene. Then we’d stop, snack, and rest before putting the saddle on Jolene and riding her home, ponying the pony. Kip, who has become a great Ride-Along-Dog, joined us.

The trek to the tower was fantastic. We all worked hard, as much of the trail is rocky and steep. I got off and walked for two sketchy stretches that had us breathing hard and stumbling over football-sized rocks.

At the tower, I tied the girls to young aspens, took off the saddle, and let them graze. Green grass is a helluva treat as our pasture is little more than juniper and sage.

Things got awry when we started heading home. I had been riding a wave of confidence with Jolene’s progress and assumed that she’d be cool with ponying. Big mistake.

222At first try, she felt the tension of the line on her haunches and spun to get away from it. By the time she’d relaxed, her belly and legs were covered in small burrs (making her even more agitated) and Pep was loose. I got off, cleaned off the burrs, caught and tied Pep and got back on the mule.

For 100 yards, Jolene was ok. But with Pep consistently behind her, she felt pressured to speed up. Pep sped up to keep up. Jolene went from walk to trot to fleeing this pony-turned-predator. Again, I dropped the ponying line and got Jolene under control.

What to do?

Since Pep wanted to eat, stay with Jolene, and head home, I let her go free. There were no other obstacles (traffic, quad riders, barbed wire, gates or roads) to consider.

It was a quirky scene: Kip led the way, followed by me and Jolene, followed by Pep, more than a hundred yards back, grazing and having a lovely time.

With a mile left, we stopped to rest in a meadow. I switched mounts and saddled Pep since the trails tend to get busier here. We finished up our five-hour ride with hay and long drinks of water.

333It was a tough lesson. But I learn again that there were holes in our training and that I’d leapt forward without filling them in.

Next, we’re headed for the round pen. Thanks to a crummy ride, I know even better what work I have to do.

See more images from the ride on our Facebook Page.

Water, water, nowhere

Liberty bottles tie easily to your saddle strings

Liberty bottles tie easily to your saddle strings

As summer winds down, I’m giving thanks to a spectacular season; one that gave me a crash course in riding and hiking essentials here in Utah.

Watch new video

Sure, there’s the need for carrying a cell phone, a good knife, and for wearing sunscreen. But the biggest essential?

Water, of course.

After too many needless days of screaming headaches and swollen feet, I’ve learned to drink before I’m too thirsty. I’m a happy hydration queen. Read this excellent article on the importance of water.

In the Oquirrhs, there are virtually no water sources during the hot months. Even with a filtration device, we’re out of luck. My saddle bag or backpack was typically stuffed with at least a half gallon of fluids. The horses need water, too, but they typically fare better than humans and dogs when it comes to going without for several hours in the heat. They did seem to relish long drinks and cool showers upon return.

Liberty Bottles, recycled aluminum bottles made right in Washington State, served me well. I can jam two or three in a saddle bag and unlike other bottles I’m not worrying about leaks. If the horses kick them or step on them? No big deal as they are more durable than alternatives. The nifty top means I can tie them to the saddle, too, by simply looping it through a leather string.

The dogs took to their Olly Dog Lapper immediately.

The dogs took to their Olly Dog Lapper immediately.

Call me finicky, but the lips-to-drink connection is important. Since Liberty Bottles are metal, have no threads, and have a wider-than-pop-bottle opening, they’re wicked nice to use. It’s almost like drinking from a glass at home.

The dogs were treated to fluids in an Olly Dog Lapper, a foldable travel bowl that packs easily and takes up very little space. Much more convenient (and stylish!) than alternatives. It can hold more than a liter of water and has enough surface space (lapping room) for two thirsty dogs to drink at once. Like me, Belle can be awfully picky about her water delivery system. But she took to the Olly Dog with no reservations.

Olly Dog’s rectangular shape means you can easily pour the unfinished dogs’ water back into their bottle. Give them another mile, they’ll be craving more.

Read more about hydration scares and tips.

Liberty Bottles

Olly Dog.

The Lapper shape allows you to easily pour water back into bottle

Bernice’s Big Bucket

Bernice-Ende-Card-Photo-2012NickerNews premiered Bucket Lists a few years ago.
Since then, dozens have posted their goals and dreams. Bucket Listers look forward to riding in the Grand Canyon, volunteering at the Olympics, camping in Acadia, and riding on the sand hills in North Carolina.

Exciting stuff.

In researching Unbranded and similar treks, we’ve come across additional riders with some big dreams and heady accomplishments. One stands out:

Meet Bernice Ende.

Since 2005, she’s ridden 18,000 miles across North America. Ende, a retired teacher, has completed major treks from Montana south to Texas, and north to Canada.

Want a big loop ride?

How about a loop including Montana – North Dakota – Minnesota – Iowa – Nebraska – Kansas – Oklahoma – Texas – New Mexico – Colorado – Utah – Idaho – Oregon – and Washington?

No kidding.
200911map1-300x278A recent Today show bit highlighted her feats.
She told Bob Dotson near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana:

“See those peaks up there? It’s like they’re saying, ‘See if you can come up here.’ One peak leads me to the next, and I want to go on.”

Her scariest moment:
She recalled a mustang stallion who tried to steal her mare and get rid of Ende.
“You’re constantly riding that wave of uncertainty,” said Ende. “The ride demands my skill, attentiveness, and caution or I’d be dead.”

Create your Bucket List here.


Horse training mantra gets a dog test

Horse trainers like to say, “Make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.”
I embraced the strategy with my dog, Kip, during our most recent training session.

In this case, though, weather lent me a helping hand.

Photo by Agnes Moyon

Photo by Agnes Moyon

As previously noted, Kip has had a hard time restraining her herding impulse. More than once, this 10-month old Aussie has left me breathless and frustrated as she’s attempted to gather her half-ton charges.
It’s not just a matter of obedience, of course, but one of safety and welfare. Read more.
Our goal during today’s session was simply to hang out in the pasture, have the horses move around us, and be calm. (Simple, you say, but no easy feat for us!)

First, we toured the pasture perimeter. It was hot and humid. With her black, thick coat, she warmed up quickly.
We moved closer to the horses, who were grazing lazily. I asked Kip to lie down and stay in the shade while I hacked at weeds. Being naughty, then, meant getting overheated through movement and sunshine.
For what seemed like the very first time, Kip had an added incentive she could really feel. By doing nothing (against any Aussie’s nature), she was successful.

What a good pup!
kippOur education continues…

Read more Dogs and Horses posts.

Puppy’s first trail test

DSC02926Lessons continue for our Australian Shephard pup, Kip.
Next phase of Ride Along Dog training?

Hit the trails!

[Read past Dog and Horses posts.]

Since she’s not entirely savvy about traffic or strangers, I had to work out some safety-related logistics first:

  • We picked mid-morning and mid-week to minimize the possibility of cars, walkers, and other dogs interfering with this trial run.
  • We headed down to the wildlife management area by trailer, to avoid any road time.
  • I tied a sack of treats to my bareback pad, brought a leash and cell phone, just in case.
  • Again, we took the most patient and slow-footed Shea.

ride alongKip stayed in the truck cab (yipping uncontrollably) while I unloaded Shea. Then I let the dog out, mounted up, and moved out immediately.
Kip was super-excited but managed her energy by making big, irregular circles around us. She tried nipping Shea’s heels once and got a quick verbal reprimand.
When she jogged alongside, I tossed her treats occassionally and praised her.
It quickly developed into just another off-leash jog. Kip checked in, did her canine exploring, and checked in again.
Three gloriously uneventful miles later, we were back at the trailer.
A few more rides like this one and I think we’ll be ready for added elements like another horse and rider and traffic.




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