Friday, August 25, 2017

What Is The Way of The Pack?



What Is “The Way of the Pack?”
The first chapter from my book in progress.

© Copyright 2017
Brenda M. Negri 

“If you like sweets and easy living, skip this book. It is about men tremendously…intent on enlightenment.” --- Ekai, called Mu-mon, The Gateless Gate, early 13th Century


Before I even knew enough to name it, I was living it.

In the latter 1970’s into the mid-1980’s, I was making a hardscrabble living off the back of a horse as a full time buckaroo on huge cattle and sheep ranches, scattered across the far West in remote corners most people have never heard of. Fields, Oregon. Likely, California. Battle Mountain, Nevada. Weiser, Idaho, and countless other microscopic dots on old maps – many which no longer exist. Summering for a large cow/calf operation in a flimsy cow camp cabin with hole-pocked walls, an ancient wood cook stove, a resident pack rat and no electricity or any modern conveniences, nestled within groves of quaking aspens and ponderosa pine, accessible only by a rutted dirt road in a remote corner of Modoc County in California on the Nevada border, this is where my introduction to The Way of the Pack informally began.

Basque sheep herders passed through our area with huge bands of thousands of head of sheep to stop at our cabin and rest a day, parking their creaking horse or mule drawn wooden sheep wagons with fading, cracked green paint under the shade of a tree on the only water we had: a babbling brook tumbling down out off a mountain. Greetings were made in an awkward yet musical combination of broken English, Spanish and Basque. As night fell, a fire was built, cast iron Dutch Ovens greased and readied, and huge fresh medallions and chops of lamb, coated in butter, garlic and drenched in sangria wine, were braised then tossed into the ovens and covered in a deep pit with coals. Handmade hard crust sheepherder’s bread, slathered in hand churned butter, red wine drunk from traditional Basque leather wineskin botas, and thick wedges of smoky, hard Manchego cheese accompanied a fire lit feast under a Milky Way filled expanse of endless night sky. Far off, coyotes wailed their haunting, age old songs to us while the herder’s Great Pyrenees guardian dogs came up to the circle of firelight where we were seated; heads lowered in greeting and with softened, half lidded eyes, they cautiously yet trustingly approached us, to be given greasy chunks of lamb fat, bread soaked in drippings, meat-covered bones, and a welcomed rub behind an ear.

Call it holistic, call it “eco-friendly agriculture” before the term was even coined, let alone thought of, but it was co-existence in the purest of form. This ancient ritual was in fact, The Way of the Pack.

During those many seasons, not once did I ever witness a Livestock Guardian Dog being beaten, or wearing an electric shock collar, or kicked, or pushed away from a campfire or herder. In those days the continuum of it all was the “us” of it; how humans, nature, guardian dogs, herding dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, predators, sun, snow, wind and rain were all connected. Nothing was held at arm’s length, it was a life and a way embraced in its wholeness. We lived full time with our livestock: moving it, watching it, fretting over it, admiring it, branding it, castrating it, wondering at it, occasionally cussing it, and protecting it with our own lives 24/7. It was always thought of in terms of “us” – never “them.” It wasn’t “out there” but “in here.” It was a simple way to live that embraced and demanded loyalty, back breaking work punctured with moments of rest, and our utmost attention and commitment; it was the modest, sometimes dangerous life of a shepherd and a Great Basin buckaroo, humble caretakers of beasts clad in wool berets and dirty denim cuffed pants or dirty, blood spattered leather “chink” leggings and silver spurs ringing sweet like church bells; a way of life that was pure and often tragic, harsh and unforgiving, but true, endlessly and unspeakably beautiful, an existence drenched in awe, infused with the kind of peace only a Spartan existence in the wilderness can bring, and a foundation built on simplicity. The desolate vastness of the country we lived in demanded our utmost respect or it ate us alive. Our losses of stock were minimal because of the human presence that made predators keep their savvy distance. The dogs we used to move and protect our stock were always at our sides, and never considered simply tools, but were cherished family, friends, and confidants, who ate at our table, and slept often in our bedrolls beside us when not scattering a pack of coyotes or running off a mountain lion. The trust between shepherd and dogs was earned and mutual, the bond and respect deep and lasting.

Sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, men: we were all a family in the raw, purest sense. We were a pack that transcended species. It was a way of living that was not easy, that required courage, humility, devotion, commitment and a burning desire to understand what was going on around us in a much deeper level than we’d ever experienced. It was a way that had ancient pastoralism and transhumance as its roots and a profound, never ending, eternal soul to it.

A way so simple, that it can get along without even being named. This is The Way of the Pack: a way that is based on these five core values in living with, the use and training of Livestock Guardian Dogs:

Patience do not expect too much, too soon and give the LGD pup time to mature
Compassiondo not use harsh or cruel training methods or gadgets
Respect respect shown to your LGD will be returned
Trustallow the pup or dog to show you what he is capable of doing
Consistencydogs, like people, appreciate a routine and a level of predictability

Nothing happens fast in the maturation of a LGD pup, thus, man needs patience. Cruelty towards LGDs only begets fear, anxiety and loathing. Respect of these dogs garners respect and loyalty from them in return. Trusting an LGD enables the dog to fulfill its potential and destiny. Consistency builds contentment and security and reduces fear of the unknown.

This is a way of raising, living with and training LGDs that demands the owner taking complete responsibility for their actions and inactions. It requires honest ownership of these dogs – and of livestock. It requires accurate, frank self-assessment of the owner’s abilities and shortcomings in terms of their total dog experience, ability and capabilities to own such large, powerful and historically independent breeds. It requires an unflinching open mind willing to learn a productive yet compassionate and kind way to use these working dogs to their fullest. It requires letting go of obsessive control tactics, and trusting a dog’s instinct, even above one’s own. It demands keeping eyes and ears open and developing acute and persistent observation skills of their dogs and livestock that will enable a more fulfilling and responsible ownership experience. It calls for respecting dog’s emotions and limitations. This goes hand in hand with the owner’s developing patience and modifying expectations that are more in sync with the LGD’s capacity to provide as guardians of flocks, farms, ranches, commercial operations running on open range and herds and flocks kept under fence. It also means using other methods of non-lethal predator control in conjunction with LGDs; i.e., not laying it all on the dogs.

There are no shortcuts in The Way of the Pack, nor will you find any in this book. No easy ways out, no compromise, no tolerance of any training method that is harsh, hurtful or does not adhere to common sense. Nowhere will be found advocacy of use of physically and psychologically painful “quick fix” gizmos like electric shock collars, prong collars, heavy tire drags, and grotesque inhibiting neck “yokes.” Those are gadgets used by lazy shepherds: people who have no empathy or connection with their dogs or their livestock. Those ways have no place here.

My Livestock Guardian Dog experience began out of the blocks with a pack. I brought home three Great Pyrenees siblings to protect my thirty-plus head of goats. By starting out with this family “mini-pack,” these three grew up to be staunch, dependable guardians with minimum if any behavioral issues. They never chased or worried my livestock out of boredom because they had each other to play with. They staved off attacks from predators at a much earlier age because as a trio, they together presented a much more formidable deterrent to livestock predation than only one. By running three siblings, I was fostering and encouraging the lessons and important social skills that come naturally at a pup’s mother’s side, and in a dog pack. In turn, these three Great Pyrenees went on to mentor and teach countless pups I added on to my LGD pack and program over the years. Reliable, self-confident, trustworthy, safe and sound minded guardians, they benefitted greatly from being brought up and raised as the family they were. I became the parent, and carried on the learning process.

I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just opened the door to The Way of the Pack.

Throughout this book the LGD training methods used and promoted always put the dog’s well being first, not last. The old ways that honor the pastoral history of these breeds are recognized and followed in advocating the dog be treated as part of the family. The family is The Pack, and The Pack includes the owner/user of the LGD. The dog is respected, never demeaned. I promote the LGD owner as a nurturing and parenting pack member, not a hands off, disconnected, harsh ruling “alpha”. The training methods prescribed in this book are not magic; no PhD is required to decipher canine body language and communication; the reader need not own thousands of head of livestock, or live on hundreds of acres nor face packs of wolves on a daily basis, in order to benefit from and use these techniques with their LGDs.

What I prescribe in this book is nothing new. It is ancient. It is profound in its simplicity. I am no master, no guru of new training. I’m only one who opened their eyes and emptied their cup to see and learn from my pack of LGDs an ancient, more compassionate and ultimately better way to own, train, use and live with Livestock Guardian Dogs.

Now, it’s your turn.