Rancher hopes to improve plight of the sheep industry’s canines

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — The grandson of a longtime rancher and former state lawmaker has recently started a program that has in some ways made him the black sheep of Idaho’s ovine community, the Idaho State Journal reports.

Cory Peavey of the Flat Top Sheep Co., which operates out of a ranch north of Carey in the central Idaho mountains, is the grandson of John Peavey, who in addition to serving in the Idaho Senate as both a Republican from 1969 to 1976 and as a Democrat from 1978 to 1994 also founded the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival held in Ketchum every October.

Cory, age 34, is a fifth generation Flat Top Sheep rancher who’s recently implemented changes to Flat Top’s sheep dog program and is raising the ranch’s first generation of Pyrenees sheep herding dogs to grow up with veterinary care and accustomed to human interaction.

This is a big change for Idaho’s sheep herding industry, which has traditionally treated sheep herding dogs as livestock and not provided much care for them. Reports of abandoned sheep dogs roaming Idaho’s backcountry have dramatically increased in recent years causing concern about how the dogs are being treated by sheep ranchers.

Cory’s hoping to make life better for the canines by changing the way the sheep herding industry raises and cares for them. He hopes the new program he’s started at Flat Top’s ranch to better treat the canines will be adopted by sheep ranchers everywhere.

“I have to explain that my program is still in its infancy, but I have these two litters of Pyrenees pups that will signify the first generation of dogs to be fully trained, cared for, microchipped, rabies vaccinated, equipped with GPS collars and tracked,” Cory said. “There will be a journey for every dog. Each dog will have a name and a story that I can show the public as they continue to work hard and hopefully live a long, healthy life.”

Word of Cory’s plan made its way to Southeast Idaho after well-known Pocatello resident Randy Dixon and his wife encountered what they later learned was likely a Pyrenees sheep herding dog that no longer herded sheep and for whatever reason had abandoned its herd.

During a recent camping trip near Trail Creek Summit about 30 miles north of Sun Valley, the Dixons first observed a group of three sheep herding dogs and three herders moving a herd of roughly 200 sheep up a nearby trail.

“About 30 minutes later, a guy came driving by in a pickup with another one of these dogs, our dog if you will, in the back and he asked us, ‘Are there sheep around here?’” Dixon recalled. “I’m sure he knew this herd of 200 or so sheep were in the vicinity. We told him where they were and he said he had found this dog about 2.5 miles south of us. He took the dog up to the herd and 30 minutes later the dog was in our campground for dinner.”

Dixon added, “I have to be honest, we fed him, petted him, looked him in the eyes and loved on him. He looked older, but healthy. He looked like he had several months’ worth of burrs and what not stuck to him, but he was friendly.”

The dog left after dinner but by that point Dixon was curious, so he decided to walk up the trail to locate the herd of sheep and the herders.

He found the herders, who were Peruvian and spoke broken English. Dixon said that from what he could understand, the dog that visited him and his wife for dinner didn’t like sheep herding anymore.

“I got the impression that the dog was no longer valuable to them,” Randy said.

Around 8 a.m. the next morning, the dog returned to have breakfast with the Dixons before again trotting off into the wilderness.

It wasn’t until the Dixons returned to Pocatello that they were confronted with the stark reality involving the sheep herding dog community. Once a sheep herding dog will no longer herd sheep, it’s often euthanized or abandoned by the herders, Dixon said.

“We found out this is a common practice in the sheep herding industry. These dogs are not pets. Ranchers basically treat these dogs like they are livestock,” Dixon said. “They have no problem shooting them dead or abandoning them in a field somewhere.”

He continued, “Ranchers typically don’t spend a penny on health. These dogs are not vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and there are large groups of these animals being released in the wild without any way for the ranchers to follow their whereabouts.”

Dixon’s research led him to Sun Valley residents Gary Tickner and Tiffany Larson who over several years have rescued four Akbash sheep herding dogs, a breed much like Pyernees with huge bodies and sharp intelligence.

Oddly enough, Dixon encountered the wild Pyernees dog on Aug. 20, the same week that Tickner and Larson hosted an event in Ketchum to raise funds for Cory’s program. By way of a raffle fundraiser on Aug. 22 at Hotel Ketchum, Tickner, Larson and dozens of others were able to raise more than $4,000.

“The elders, (Cory’s) grandparents and everybody before them, always were taught not to touch the puppies,” Tickner said. “They were taught not to give them human contact or the dogs wouldn’t do their work. But Cory has decided that after all these years, he doesn’t agree with the way guard dogs have been raised.”

Tickner continued, “He wants to show the elders that this can be done differently. The black sheep of the family will resist what their parents and their parents believed in, but a small change like this can have a massive ripple effect.”

At Flat Top’s ranch, Cory is one of several ranch hands tasked with tending to about 4,000 breeding ewe. With an average herd sitting at around 1,100 sheep and three to five guard dogs per herd, Cory is responsible for several working dogs at any given moment.

Every dog is around sheep from the moment it’s born, Cory said.

“I house the puppies in a corral in front of my house and they will stay with the group of sheep, safe from the elements and predators,” Cory said. “They grow up in a controlled environment and learn to behave in proximity to sheep. My belief is that they actually think they are sheep but have canine extincts. They bark when there is a threat and work together, but they stay with the herd.”