After my gate-as-starting-line sheep experience and my crate-stuffing sheep experience, I felt confident of my direction in life. It was toward mastering the art of getting sheep through gates calmly. Call me crazy, but I knew my interest in trying to lift above waist height a struggling sheep which outweighed me by sixty pounds, was never going to increase from its current level of absolute zero.
I developed a graduated plan of attack for this challenge. I would start at the easiest possible level, only moving to the next level after repeated successes. My plan looked something like this:
So, guess what happened. On her first work, Bonnie moved through her levels one after the next without the slightest problem, ending with taking all my sheep (not trying with Kam's yet) for a nice walk all over Kam's field and through every gate I could find. No issues. At all.
Then I bring out Ty with the doggiest four sheep. He can't take them through any interior gate without the sheep trying to bolt. He's not being bad, either. He's doing pretty much what Bonnie was doing. It just isn't working for him.
I can't think of anything better to do, than to just go one step at a time, and help him as much as I can. We go through the same gate over and over until the sheep know the routine and are really convinced they aren't going to be able to successfully make a break for it. Then I proceed to the next gate and do the same thing. Every interior gate has a different draw, a different awkward narrow place to negotiate in order to cover. None of them are easy for Ty.
This is all very close work, and Bonnie, self-effacing and modest, veteran of a thousand nastily-positioned gates, is simply a pro. Ty, who is a calm and biddable worker but cannot be described as a self-effacing personality, has a difficult time reproducing the kind of resigned obedience in sheep that Bonnie does, in such tight areas. He has no trouble fetching in the open, where he has plenty of room; he's proved that.
He's a fast learner though, and, as any shepherd knows, sheep are faster learners than any dog, when it comes to their feeling of safety. We all make very good progress before I quit for the day. But we haven't moved past the doggiest sheep, and the interior gates.
The next afternoon, I am home watering my fruit trees, and Kam phones me. "Did you know all the sheep are out in the big field?"
"You must have left a gate open." I agree I must have. Except I know I didn't.
"Just leave them all in your night pens when they come in, and I'll take them all across with a dog tomorrow morning," I say confidently. It shouldn't be that hard, with Bonnie, I figure. It was a trip Ty had no problems making with just my own sheep a couple weeks ago; with a strong draw back to the pens behind us, and unlimited space to get around to cover, it is the easiest of all the gates on the place to negotiate. So I figured Bonnie probably could do it with Kam's sheep in the mix, as they had proved very willing, in my arena works, to be guided by my sheep's behavior.
In fact, if I hadn't had my Stupid Hat on, I probably could have saved myself all the trouble I'd had previously if I'd simply thought to bring Bonnie.
The next morning I arrive bright and early, leave the dogs in the car and go out to the pens to do a little recon.
The goats are there, the lambs are there. I ask Kam's dad, who is out feeding the emus, where the sheep are. He doesn't know. They weren't there when he came out. "There wasn't anybody here to let them in last night," he explained.
I see, I said. Sigh. Scratch Plan A. I decide to walk out to the arena with the dogs, figure out how the sheep got out. No point putting them in one gate to have them run out another. I hope I spot them on the way, but no luck.
There is one arena gate that is badly sagging and extremely heavy, with a welded pipe pin latch at about eye height, so rusted that it takes two hands and all my strength to close it. It's the only one without a safety chain around it. It's a hard gate to idly forget to close. It was wide open. No sheep, but, how about that, the horses are in my arena. They've eaten all the hay I put out for the sheep, broken the feeder half off, knocked down and broken an obstacle panel leaning against a fence, shoved one of my interior gates so hard it won't budge until I hammer it open, and added a large amount of manure to the feeding area. They observe me mildly. How did that gate get opened? It's so rusty and saggy that an animal couldn't push the lever open unless it was as strong as a . . . . wait, I think I'm getting an image.
I put up the dogs, shoo out the horses, break out a new bale of hay, top up the water trough, and then go look for the sheep with Bonnie. I'm carrying some sweet chop in a bucket in hopes of luring Molly the donkey who is surely with the sheep, although I haven't had an enormous amount of luck with that in the past.
We find the sheep, plus donkey, grazing in the farthest corner of the field from where we started. However, I am grateful because, first, they are in a corner, more or less, and second, it is a flat corner, although the hill rises steeply a few yards away. The thing I most do not want is for the sheep to race up the hill when they see us. Sheep enjoy going straight up hills, probably because they can virtually always beat a dog that way.
I set up my dog where she can cover the draw to Kam's pens (visible from here) and the hill too. I set my bucket where I think it looks attractive and Molly pricks her ears and starts for it and the sheep follow her. So far so good. Then the sheep get wary and start drifting toward the hill, and I give Bonnie a go-bye to cover. Instead, she starts on a way-to, apparently thinking to cover the now alarmed Molly instead. Hey! Go BYE! She can't get around them in time, and the sheep start straight uphill. Molly surges into the lead as she joins them.
But my heroic dog, in hot pursuit, manages to thwart them from disappearing entirely, and they turn as one, pelt downhill, and race past me toward Kam's pens, where I can see the horses and emus have already congregated. I call Bonnie off and let the sheep settle as I plan my next strategic move. How can I get the sheep threaded through the aggressive emus and the unpredictable horses? What about that &*%$# donkey? All eyes are upon me as I lay Bonnie down at a distance and edge up a little to set down my pathetic bucket again.
Molly takes one look at the bucket and bolts for the hill and I send Bonnie on a go-bye to try to block the sheep from following her. This time she actually takes it, and the sheep are turned back toward me. The horses and emus, disturbed at this to-do, trot off, Bonnie scoops the sheep neatly up and they are ours. We take them back to the arena and deposit them. I'll get that donkey later. I look at my watch; it's only been a half hour. Plenty of time to do a little more gate work with Ty.