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THE LIVING TOOLS OF SHEEP RANCHERS
Sheepdogs in the Wood River Valley
When did humans learn how to harness the power of dogs anyway? Some conclude that this change came about in the distant past when humans took in a wolf cub or litter (dogs are decendents of wolves) and provided shelter, food and protection—earning the canine’s trust and companionship. Sheepdogs in particular have played an integral role in ranching in Idaho and throughout the world.
Sheep, dogs and shepherds have been part of the Northern Rocky landscape for over 150 years. It is said that in 1918 Idaho’s sheep population was 2.65 million, nearly six times the state’s human population. Second only to Sydney, Australia, the Wood River Valley shipped thousands of lambs by railroad to markets around the West and was a major sheep center during that time.
Though that industry has shrunk in recent years, sheepdogs are still an integral part of sheep ranching in the Wood River Valley. There are now two types of modern sheepdogs: guardian dogs which, in the Wood River Valley, are often Great Pyrenees; and the border collie which, according to fourth-generation Idaho sheep rancher John Peavey, he couldn’t run his operation without.
The guardian’s job is to protect the sheep from predators. As pups, they are put in a pen with the sheep where they become family. The dogs will typically bond to a particular ewe and even ride on the trucks with them. “The key to raising effective guard dogs is very little human attention,” says Peavey. “Their job is to bond with the sheep, not the shepherd.”
The Great Pyrenees is an ideal choice because they are mellow and reluctant to chase. Like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, it is believed that ancient shepherds tried to match the color of the dog with their sheep so that they would blend in, making them harder for prey to detect. While the great white dogs are certainly intimidating and will chase off an intruder, the chase is typically short lived and the dog returns to its flock.
The border collie, on the other hand, is all about the bond with the shepherd and does the heavy lifting in the relationship. Their job is to cut the workload of the shepherd by sizing up a situation and acting upon it. Ultimately, there are two things the dog wants to do: please its handler and its herd. Most border collies will naturally herd just about anything—ducks, other dogs, children, bikes, cars ...
The handler’s job is to understand the breed’s natural instincts and guide the dog by associating commands to those instincts. “We let the dogs tell us when it’s time to place pressure, that’s when we start giving them more,” says dog trainer and breeder Don Helsley.
Helsley has been actively involved in raising, training and judging sheepdogs for more than 24 years. He believes that to be successful the handler must trust, respect and be fair to his dogs and expect the same in return.
Taking a puppy through the learning process is long and can take a man through various stages—from euphoria to utter despair, thinking your dog has forgotten everything you ever taught it. However, Helsley concludes that training pays off—thereare times when he can step outside and communicate with his dog without words, as if it can read his mind. And those moments are what have kept him involved with sheepdogs for so long.
Helsley has had several successful dogs but when he speaks of “The Wizard,” his current top dog, his breath slows a bit and you can hear the tenderness in his heart as he explains his philosophy on what makes a great sheepdog. “I like a dog that would give his life for me and in exchange I would give my life for him,” he said. It’s a true partnership. -Nancy Glick