Thursday, May 14, 2020

Wideo Wednesday: Rules about Rules

English shepherds love rules.

The love being your goon and enforcing your rules -- whether or not you have asked them to do so -- and they love inventing rules of their own and then making it so.

While border collies move and control stock out of an obsession with geometry in four dimensions, ES dogs crack kneecaps in the service of How Things Are To Be.

You have to be very careful that your ES doesn't go all "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" on you. There are certain things we do with livestock that we don't let the dogs see, or perhaps don't let immature dogs see, and others that we are careful to introduce in a very deliberate and controlled manner, so that nobody gets the wrong idea or promotes herself to a job above her paygrade.

As every stockdog and livestock guardian trainer knows, adolescence is fraught with peril even when a pup comes from genetics that are totally appropriate to the job she is doing. Pure stockdog trainers would never leave a teen pup unsupervised or only lightly supervised  around stock or poultry the way we have done with six of our own dogs and dozens of young fosters.

But ES are not pure stockdogs by nature; they have a strong guardian impulse as well, deriving from the notion that the animals are ours* rather than the true LGD's conviction that he is theirs. Raising an ES puppy on a diversified farm involves some of the same risks that raising a guardian pup does; the pup will have some unsupervised time with the stock in the ordinary course of things, and teenagers can make bad decisions about fun. Once bad decisions yield satisfying results, they can escalate and become habit. There's a fine balance between too much and too little management of a developing pup.

Sammie has decided that the chickens belong in the coop.

I'm not sure where she got this idea; it has been a mild winter with very little snow, so the chooks have been free-ranging almost every day of her life. But there it is, she is much happier if they stay in the coop; barring that ideal state of stasis, they should definitely not range far away from the safety of the barnyard.

That's not how any of this works.

Frustrating her impulse for World Poultry Domination, the barnyard is partly bordered by cattle panel fences that chickens can easily slip through, but puppies over five months of age cannot.

She generally lets them be except when Perfesser Chaos or I are working in the barn or barnyard, or when she is with me as I return from the south pasture, where I have been doing a lot of maintenance work this year.

When we tested the litter for raw, incipient stock sense at the tender age of seven weeks, using tiny, ridiculous, dog-broke ducks, some of the pups already showed real power and balance. The Peanut's sister Bess was gobsmackingly precocious -- not exactly conscious of her power, but displaying it anyway. She turned the very flocky ducks by just turning her head at the proper moment. Whut did I just see?!?

My little nut wanted to play with the duckies. Sproing sproing pounce. She was a silly puppy being silly.  Duckies are fun!

No worries. I've raised both precocious pups and slow-maturing ones from her family line. I was sure that it would come.

And it has.

When we approach the barnyard from the pasture and her boxy little mind decides poultry must be safe in the box, she begins to work them, showing balance and intelligence. When hens pile up in a corner, she stays off of them, gives them space to escape, but only towards the pop-door of safety. Gradually they flow in there; she has them pretty well trained that this is the best course of action.

This is what it looks like when everybody goes along quiet-like and I don't stop her on her quest for World Poultry Containment:

I have good roosters and territorial dim-bulb guinea cocks who are always the last outside. The roos take their hen-protecting jobs very seriously. That leaves them exposed as single, non-compliant chickens instead of a flock that can be managed with 4-D geometry, so they get chased. I am pretty sure that they run and squawk to distract the puppy from the hens as well, as I have seen a couple of them do once when the fox came shopping in the poultry yard. (Difference is, they then turned around and beat the fox like an old rug. This is why I have a few more roosters than I had been planning to keep. That kind of heroics earns a sinecure.)

Not chased with any intent to catch, but chased out of balance, with excessive excitement on both ends.

And that's where her big sister Verity comes in.

Verity is not at all sure about this new rule. She does not remember Momma announcing such a rule. Daddy opens the pop door every morning and lets the chickens out, so that carries the strong implication that there is no such rule.And there is definitely a rule about getting too excited chasing poultry; she and her brother Finch got their adolescent asses kicked one time on the matter of squishing a dumb turkey and pulling out feathers, and that was all it took for both of them to remember.

So Verity enforces the rule about sparking poultry. Very subtly when she can, with precisely-calibrated shoulder blocks, distraction, redirection.

More forcefully when she must -- in the form of wrestling play, but escalating to serious discipline as necessary.

It's not yet clear to me to what extent this is entirely about Respect the Rules and to what extent it may contain elements of Respect Mah Authoritah. V. is a soft, sensitive dog who feels pressure very acutely and does not attempt to social-climb; she is also a young adult English shepherd bitch looking at her more brash up-and-coming younger sister and thinking about her future.

Momma Chuck seems to be taking a very deliberate paws-off approach to this whole thing. Same with Grandma Rosie and, mostly, Uncle Cole. But if you watch the personified negative space that is Chuck, you may perceive the neutral calm that she radiates. That is itself an opinion and an influence.

I'm being a little bit more involved day-to-day. I generally tell Sammie that'll do when I see her starting to haze the birds towards the coop; the videos are to show what happens if I am not there to provide guidance. She needs to learn that they are actually allowed to play outside, and that only a few places are off-limits to them. Cooping them when there's a predator threat is obviously right on. But I also appreciate that she is practicing self-control and learning balance of the literally flightiest of livestock, and that's a useful thing for her to be developing. So I don't squash it reflexively every time. She calls off well even when things get very exciting, and that's a very good skill to work on during her adolescence, one that generalizes to so many situation where safety is at stake.

And I'm so pleased with V.'s sense of the meta-rules, and her willingness to educate her sister, that I will gently encourage her when she's unsure whether she's supposed to take action, especially when she literally looks to me for guidance. V. takes a very light touch, something that can be hard to provide amidst a family of harder characters.


I shot this as we returned from checking the south pasture growth (me) and trying to flush bunnies from the brush piles there (them), so energies were high. The hen drama as they are rousted from the lilac bush by the house has more to do with the thumping V. is giving Peanut than any overkill by Peanut. Cole participates here.

Notice that the birds have the option of just slipping through the cattle panels and stock fence to avoid the puppy prefect, but they just resign themselves and head for the pop door.

If you have trouble telling very similar-looking dogs apart here, these are their field marks:

Chuck: Two completely white front legs, minimal white collar.
Verity: Two completely white front legs, lots of full white collar, legs up to here, rather pointy
Sam Peanut: One white front leg, one mostly black, a small white neck splash, no collar
Cole: Exact same markings as Sammie. Go figure. Stumpy little shit.

* "We" are the humans, the pack dogs, and sometimes other privileged animals, such as our farm cats. "Ours" is the stock that belongs -- "we" care for it and protect it, but also push it around and control it. "Them" is a range of beings ranging from the mail carrier who we welcome and the hummingbirds that the humans feed all the way up to threats that are neutralized, the human miscreant at the window and the fox running off with a mouthful of feathers, the raccoons that Cole habitually murders, even the mice in the house -- not "prey" exactly, the neutral way that a cottontail is, but "intruder" to be removed or repelled.

New livestock and new dog fosters have a brief period during which the humans have to establish that they are "ours" and not "them," especially with the young dogs who don't know the drill. I'm currently teaching peanut that the new piglets are ours. She's unfamiliar with the species, but is starting to grok them after an initial bad reaction to a surprise pig-scream from an unseen monster in a barrel at the breeder's farm.