Are sheep dogs lost on the range?
How to help lost sheep dogs
If you see a sheep dog wandering by itself, do not approach it. It may be tending its flock, and it could become aggressive if you interfere. If the dog is lost, it may be defensive. Instead, call your local sheriff or animal control office if the dog seems to be in need of immediate care.
Over the past few years, Debbie Tannel has glimpsed mangy livestock guardian dogs skulking across her property in search of food. These dogs are nowhere near a flock of sheep. Some are injured. Some are frightened.
“There’s nothing like seeing a skinny animal running across your property that you can’t catch or even help,” said Tannel, who lives near Rangely.
“This has been an ongoing problem since before I was born, and I’m 65 years old,” said Vicky Pfennig, manager of the Rangely Animal Shelter.
So far, the shelter has rescued 16 dogs in recent years — many of them Great Pyrenees or Akbash dogs — that workers believe to be abandoned livestock guardians.
Workers from the animal shelter wait to capture the dogs until they’re sure that the animals are not following a herd of sheep (livestock guardian dogs can range a mile from the herd). Then they set traps the capture the animals.
When they’re taken in, the dogs are thin and their coats are ragged. Some are injured. One dog found this year had gunshot wounds through its jaw and chest because it was caught foraging for food on someone’s property. This year, two dogs were rescued and one died.
One dog found in 2014 was tied to a tree next to a litter of puppies. The dog had become tangled in the lead, and it couldn’t reach the pups. A hiker came across the dogs and called the Rangely animal shelter. The dog was wearing a collar with tags.
The shelter alerted the owner, who didn’t know the dog had been left in the field alone. The dog was returned.
Connie Theos, the secretary of the Rio Blanco Wool Growers Association, saw the picture.
“A logical thinking person,” she wrote in an email, “would assume that the herder tied the mother so that she would not leave the pups to go with the sheep.” The herder likely would have returned with a vehicle to pick up the entire family and move them to camp or to a ranch.
Theos believes that many of the dogs taken in by the shelter are either domestic pets or dogs that have been mistaken as lost livestock guardians.
When livestock guardian dogs were imported to the U.S. in the 1970s, the prevailing training philosophy was that the they should be handled by humans as little as possible so they could bond with the sheep. That caused many of the dogs to be poorly socialized (if dogs are too friendly they seek human companionship and don’t stay with the flock) and difficult to catch.
These days, the Colorado Wool Growers Association encourages ranchers to better socialize their working dogs to avoid conflict with humans, and to make sure the guardian dogs are moved with the sheep. However, some do get left behind.
DOGS ROAM ON THE RANGE
Jennifer Fowler, the Colorado Department of Agriculture Livestock Health and Animal Care Veterinarian, said that the dogs can get separated from their flocks.
“Often what happens is that they get separated chasing a coyote,” Fowler said. “They can chase for a long time, sometimes up to two counties away. After chasing for that long, the dogs get lost and can’t figure out how to get back.” Male dogs can also wander from the flock if a nearby female is in heat.
Since they’re not socialized with humans, the lost dogs must be caught in traps.
Theos hasn’t heard of any local wool growers whose dogs have gone missing.
“The sheep industry is small,” she said, “and we’re all pretty familiar with each other’s dogs. If we find a dog from another ranch, we call the owner and the dog stays with us till the spring when the owner can come pick it up.”
It’s important to note that guardian dogs lead a very different life from typical domestic dogs. They’re raised to do a job — they fend off coyotes, bears, mountain lions and any other creature that might hurt the sheep. Some dogs stay tight with the flock while others work the perimeter, often watching the flock from the top of a hill.
Even though the dogs live in the wild with the flock for most of their working lives, there are rules set by the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) on treatment of livestock guardian dogs.
The ASI states that owners must provide livestock guardian dogs with adequate food and water, seasonal grooming and identification on each of their dogs in the form of a collar and ID tag, microchip, tattoo or ear tag.
Many of the dogs found in Rangely were lacking identification, which suggests that they might not be livestock guardians.
ACCOUNT FOR DOGS
When herders are moving sheep, the ASI suggests that they account for dogs so none are left behind.
“If dogs become separated from their sheep,” the document states, “a priority should be placed on recovering the dog within 24 hours of discovering that the dog is missing.” Herders should be required to contact the livestock owner as soon as possible if a dog is missing so it can be returned to the sheep or removed from the allotment.
Theos agrees on this point. “You don’t want to lose one,” she said.
The dogs, which are essential to the well-being of the sheep, aren’t cheap. A pure-bred Great Pyrenees can cost up to $1,000, plus the time and money invested in training the dog to protect its flock.
The dogs picked up by the Rangely Animal Shelter have been found near Bureau of Land Management property that has been leased for sheep grazing along Highway 40.
Wayne East, Colorado Department of Agriculture wildlife liaison, said that he has never heard of livestock guardian dogs being neglected.
“There have been cases where the dogs have looked abandoned, and they’ve been picked up by well-meaning people,” he said. But the dogs weren’t actually lost. They simply weren’t right next to their sheep.
In cases like this, people might mistake a fit, lean dog for a hungry dog.
Working dogs aren’t too skinny, said Theos. They’re just more fit than your average dog.
“I see joggers everyday who look emaciated to me, because I don’t jog,” Theos said, “but I’m certain they are in ‘good’ shape.”
However, if you do see an injured dog that has obviously been neglected, call your local sheriff’s office right away.
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