The Dogs

April 09, 2024 4 min read

The Dogs


What follows is a glance into a primeval story, a story that eclipses our ancient craft - sheep herding - by tens of thousands of years: The collision of two vastly disparate mammalian species, a melding of fate that predates bronze tools and weapons, the wheel and rope, ceramics, literacy and agriculture, cities and industry, a story that invariably defines all human life, from that found in impenetrable equatorial jungles to the most hostile reaches of polar tundra. 

Some 20,000-30,000 years ago, on icy high-desert plains girded by unforgiving alpine terrain and thick boreal forest - not unlike the landscapes found today in Western Montana - the primitive inhabitants of what is today Western Siberia began to exploit the cracks in a previously unwavering adversary seen in gray wolves. 

Equal parts brave, bold and shrewd, a handful of gray wolves spotted opportunity in these human settlements, where hunted game crackled over flame in abundance. Those intrepid canines would inch from the shadows toward the flames, tossed a morsel here and there in what was likely a combination of amusement and wariness on the part of the humans. 

Yet, the wolves had things to offer the humans too; protection from other predators and human interlopers and a significant edge on hunts, among other more modern use cases, such as the pure value of their companionship and the psychological benefit of animal husbandry. A partnership was forged. 

Fast forward roughly ten thousand years from the foundations of what would ultimately be understood to be the earliest example of domestication and we arrive at the dawn of another domestication story: sheep herding, a profession, tradition, and storied way of life dating back some 13,000 years. Dogs - the direct descendants of gray wolves - proved themselves, yet again, an immovable resource, providing much more than just comfort on cold, lonely nights out on mountain pasture.

Today, on our humble sheep ranching operation in Montana (a testament to the timeless value of raising sheep for their wool fiber, surviving the mind-boggling scope of change that spanned those 13,000 years), dogs continue to shoulder immense responsibility in successfully stewarding a lamb to a full-grown, wool-producing sheep, guiding their hooved counterparts through perilous mountain terrain and protected from the largest and most famous predators found anywhere in the Americas. 



In the words of fourth-generation Duckworth rancher Weston Helle: “One good border collie is better than three employees. They’re worth their weight in gold.”

Collies and other “sheep dog” breeds make up one side of the coin on our Montana ranch, comprising the majority of roughly 50 dogs found at any time running through the mountains or lowlands adjacent to our agricultural headquarters. 

Border collies are one of the most intelligent dog breeds in the world, baring an innate sense of drive 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 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 (if dogs could talk, and you were to tell them there’s a world in which they get to chase animals all day and be rewarded for it, not many would turn down the chance).

Due to their intelligence, training herding dogs is a fairly straightforward task, 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."⁣

Through the work we share, a special bond is formed with every herding dog in our Duckworth family, and they receive plenty of belly scratches in their free time as a way to say job well done.⁣



On the other side of that coin are the livestock guardian dogs (LGD breeds). Duckworth employs a combination of akbash, great pyrenees and kangal breeds as livestock protection dogs, a cohort of extra-large breeds (often well into the 125+ pound range) that naturally want to protect sheep, uninterested with trivial tricks and commands of day-to-day companionship reserved for other breeds.⁣ 

Despite their intimidating stature, our livestock guard dogs are actually quite shy, if not wary of humans, but many can be coaxed 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, rendering themselves the core component of a non-lethal predator deterrent strategy. 

⁣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.

Ideally, each band has a minimum of three guard dogs on watch, as they will collectively save the lives of countless sheep every year, living with their bands 24/7, 365 days a year, as predators will never cease to gain an easy meal out of a domestic ewe or lamb.  

⁣Cool story: A few years back, one of our pyrenees, 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.