Here on the Helle Ranch in Dillon, Montana, the only source of Duckworth's best-in-the-world quality Merino wool fiber, that tradition is kept alive and well.
Working the rugged, Rocky Mountain landscapes our sheep call home, nearly 30 dogs carry out a wide variety of tasks; these range from sheep band (flock) management, to protecting bands from the formidable predators of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Two types of dogs work alongside the Duckworth team: intelligent, crafty herding dogs, and their massive, lumbering, goofy guard dog counterparts.
Border Collies are one of the most intelligent dog breeds in the world, baring an innate sense of professional ambition as soon as they can walk. And we mean this literally - our herding dogs wake up every morning with an insatiable desire to head out onto the prairie or into the mountains to work with the sheep, and it is clear from their wagging tails and impish grins there is no place they'd rather be. In fact, getting them to start working isn't the hard part. It's getting them to stop that proves tricky!
Veteran sheep dog Paisley loves a good scratch between rounding up sheep.
Due to their intelligence, training Border Collies and other herding dogs is quite easy, and each pup will learn just shy of a dozen sheep-oriented commands (both spoken and whistled), in addition to those more common commands like "sit," "stay," and "lie down."
The dogs need a good rest from time to time - they run tens-of-miles on a daily basis when the sheep are moving through the mountains. It's a never-ending job!
Through the work we share, a special bond is formed with every herding dog in our Duckworth family, and they get plenty of belly scratches and opportunities to play fetch in their free time as a way to say job well done.
Duckworth and the Helle Ranch use a combination of Akbash, Great Pyrenees, and Kangal breeds as livestock protection dogs. These extra-large breeds (often well into the 125+ pound range) naturally want to protect sheep, uninterested with trivial tricks and commands reserved for other breeds.
Guard dog Candy looks out onto the horizon, always alert for suspicious movement in the grasses and shrubs.
Despite their intimidating stature, these dogs are actually quite shy, but a simple "hi" will bring most of them right to your side for a good ol' ear scratch. They know humans aren't their priority, as they're on the lookout for endemic predators hoping to make a meal out of our sheep.
With coloring similar to a sheep's, these breeds will wander lazily through their bands of ewes and lambs, blending in and making friends with the animals they watch over. That is until the opportunity arises to scare away a predator - they then transform into ferocious protectors, ready to do battle, if needed.
With people, the guard dogs are gentle giants and they love a midday nap.
Ideally, each band has a minimum of three guard dogs on watch, as they will collectively save the lives of countless sheep every year. They even live with their bands year-round.
Cool story: The fluffy, white guard dog pictured above with the motorcycle is named Candy, and the label "Good Dog" doesn't even begin to put her extraordinary qualities into terms. A few years back, Candy and roughly 20 sheep disappeared while on the annual Summer Sheep Trail, consumed by the thick conifers of Southwest Montana's Gravelly Mountains. As days turned into weeks with no sign of Candy nor the missing sheep, the Duckworth team feared the worst. Not under Candy's watch. Miraculously, she reemerged with the sheep after weeks in the wilderness, the whole lot unscathed, healthy, and happy.