This piece is adapted from Jon Katz's new book, Dog Days: Dispatches From Bedlam Farm, published this month by Villard.
A few weeks after my new helper, Annie, started working at the farm, I noticed a change in the way my sheep were behaving. Usually, when they see my border collie Rose, they bunch together and wait, resignedly, to be shuttled to one pasture or another. But now they were rushing up to me and to other people. Sometimes they sniffed at my pockets. A couple of times they ran right around or over the shocked Rose, and it took some nipping and charging to set them straight.
This was a problem. Herding is a complex synergy, involving the movement and temperament of livestock, dogs, and humans. It looks pretty simple with a dog as competent as Rose, but it's not. It works best when the dog and sheep are entirely focused on each other, when neither is sniffing around humans or otherwise distracted. So, when several of the ewes suddenly turned balky, ignoring or even butting at Rose, causing her to grow more aggressive in turn, it was disturbing.
What was going on?
I looked out my office window one morning to see Annie reaching into her pockets and offering the sheep, clustered around her, something to eat. I went outside and asked what she'd been feeding them.
"Oh, peanuts," she said. "I always bring some with me for the sheep."
Now I understood. The sheep had begun to associate people with their favorite thing—food—and so paid less attention to the dog. To do her job, therefore, Rose had to get uncharacteristically rough, a trait I didn't want to encourage. So, Annie and I began our latest—and by no means last—disagreement about animal care. We'd already argued about feeding the dogs food from the table or from her lunch. We argued about how much time and money should be spent to keep alive a ewe. Now we jousted about whether it was a good idea to give sheep peanuts.
When it comes to sheep, there are a few I know and feel fond of, and they come up to me for scratches or to angle for some of the snacks I'm taking to the donkeys. There are two or three good mothers I respect. But mostly, their lack of individuality—they behave like sheep!—and their one-dimensional personalities don't make it easy for me to attach to them.
Some people—including Annie—argue I'm underestimating the sheep because I encounter them only when I am with my dog. I regard them from a border collie perspective, and they associate me with being herded. Could be true. But I have only so much time and affection to share, I tell Annie. I have to make choices. Dogs come first, donkeys close behind, then the steer, then sheep, and then chickens.
I could say I love all my animals equally, but that would be a lie. It cost well over $1,000 for my yellow Lab Pearl's multiple surgeries to repair damaged ligaments. I wouldn't spend that on a ewe. When Izzy or Rose is sick, we rush to the vet. My pantry is crammed with treats, chews, and toys for the dogs. I've never brought treats to sheep, although I bring the donkeys cookies, and Elvis the steer gets his daily apples. I treat the flock well, provide the best food, freshest water, safest fences. I protect them from predators, give them their shots and deworming medication. But I've always been clear about why they're here: to be herded by border collies.