My oldest daughter Heather spent some time out at her fiance's parent's ranch and she got to learn a couple of chicken lessons. One of the things she told me was, "Momma, you can't let the dogs kill one chicken or they'll not stop killing them."
So, the task and challenge was upon us to make sure that our dogs were gentle with the chicks. I figured the best way to instill this gentleness was to encourage the protective, guarding instinct in the dogs over the chicks. This would require major supervision and positive reinforcement until the dogs fully learned to treat the chicks as if they were their "babies." Extremely close supervision would be a necessity until the dogs and chickens learned to be around each other without any wild-animal-kingdom drama. We were patient for them to become accustomed to each other, and we watched for signs of trouble.
Once we got the chicks home, we brought in the store's box containing the seven chicks, and we let the dogs take their time sniffing the box. Before the jumping, yellow-bundles of squeaky toy delightfulness was let loose, we made sure the dogs were comfortable with the scent. We had to hold firm to the box as the dogs literally pressed their noses against the side holes of the box and the chicks were blissfully unaware of the set of powerful jaws that were salivating on the other side of the flimsy cardboard.
It was a bit chilly outside, so we set up the master bathtub to hold the seven chicks. A camera tripod held the special heat lamp. At first, we kept the chicks inside a rubber tub set inside the large garden tub. We would sit on the edge of the tub and let the dogs stand on their hind legs to lean against the edge and peer down at the chicks with baited excitement. A few times the dogs were so enthusiastic that they nearly fell over the edge of the tub, but we were right there to prevent such a fall; we'd yank them back with a firm warning command. Soon, they learned to gauge their strength at the edge of the tub so that they could stand there for hours absorbed with the activities of the chicks. Well, Howdy would stand for hours. Neither dog wanted to leave the bathroom. They'd even sleep on the floor near the tub.
Frequently, we'd pick up a chick and hold it close for the dogs to sniff. Lyla immediately obeyed her instinct as a nurturer...licking the chicks as if they were puppies. We had to be careful because her tongue was as big as a chick. We had to keep them away from her or they'd be a wet mess and probably die from a chill. But, she was showing great protectiveness toward the chicks; wanting to care for them.
As we'd hold a chick up for Howdy (our Australian Shepherd), he'd sniff them thoroughly with his eyes wide and alert, but he NEVER licked them. He's not a nurturer; he's a protector and a herder. He would stand at the tub, his elbows resting on the tub's edge and his head would jerk back and forth as he kept a simultaneous eye on all chicks. He could do this continuously for HOURS. I would often be forced to shut the bathroom doors just so Howdy would take time to eat. His working instinct was incredible. At least the tub kept the chicks "herded" but he was still busy trying to keep an eye on all chicks at once. As we held a chick up to his muzzle, he'd sniff and get enough to get a nostril full of chick fuzz. He liked taking a good close look at them, but he had no urge to do any nurturing. It was very interesting to see the clear difference in the behavior of our dogs.
The chicks grew. They began to tilt their head sideways and give a good long look at the dogs as they peered up toward the edge of the bathtub. The chicks began to grow feathers and they grew stronger each day. Every now and then, a more aggressive chicken would attempt to fly up toward one of the dogs. The plastic tub was removed; we lined the bottom of the bathtub with newspaper, then pine shavings and they had more room to run around. Still, the dogs watched. Deputy Dave got to work putting the finishing touches on the chicken tractor.
On nice days, in good sunny weather, we'd often take the chicks outdoors in a gated zone so they could become acclimated to the outdoors. During these times, the dogs would stay at the chicks' side, on the other side of the gate. Bit by bit, we would sit outside with the chicks, with the feeder nearby, and we'd let them roam around. The dogs would be given the command to sit next to us, unmoving. Remembering the size of the dogs is important because one mis-step would accidentally kill a chick. They had to learn to move around the chicks without unintentionally hurting them.
I loved the moments when the dogs would be laying in the grass and chicks would hop onto their backs or peck at their legs.
Of course, we continually said, "Watch out for your babies," or "Where's the baby?" or something similar.
One day, when we were first letting the chicks outside, the two dogs got into a scuff because each dog was trying to keep the other away from the chicks. They had to learn to work TOGETHER and to trust each other. Each dog was closely watching the other. That was our biggest hurdle. It turned out the Lyla was more aggressive to Howdy, so she had to have a few time-outs, but she wasn't aggressive toward the chicks, just overly nurturing to a growling fault and snippy toward Howdy with his natural instinct to herd the chickens. But, she was a fast learner. I think she'd fight a coyote to save those chicks.
After we realized that we had two roosters on our hands, that's when the start of a tad bit of worry set in. The chickens grew rather large pretty fast and I'd let Howdy out into the backyard with them, but the Big Rooster would charge the dog. Howdy would do some fast foot-work to duck and dodge, but I could see that this was not going to work.
It wouldn't work because the rooster was relentless, but Howdy was infinitely patient. Sometimes, Howdy would do his heavy front paw pouncing back and forth in an effort to make the rooster shoo away into another direction, a herding technique, but the roosters would not allow themselves to be herded. Instead, they behaved like a bull and would charge at Howdy. We knew the roosters had to go to a new home and they did.
These days, we daily let both dogs into the backyard alone with the chickens. Often, in the morning, the dogs will lay in the grass sun-bathing while the chickens run around them scratching and pecking at their food. But, every morning, as I go outside to let the chickens out of the coop, Howdy races around the chicken tractor in circles, as if he's making sure they stay in one place, in the center, as I am at the back door of the coop setting things up to open the door. There's no way to stop him from doing this. He needs to be allowed to be an Australian Shepherd. It's good practice for him. He runs and runs, then issues a loud "get back" bark. Sometimes, I take my time letting out the chickens because Howdy needs to assert himself and run a couple hundred laps to set himself on a good track for the remainder of the long, long day.
I open the coop door, the chickens descend one by one on the old picket fence board and they are closely watched by Howdy as he stands nearby. This is when he stands still.
All of our neighbors, our family and our friends cannot believe that Howdy is so gentle and protective toward the chickens. They get a kick out of watching him try to herd them into the garden.
Howdy is not always sweet...if I am here by myself and a solicitor comes to the front door, Howdy goes into ferocious mode. He sure doesn't seem as if he'd be kind to a chicken, but he is.
This morning, a big, burly highschool football player came to the door to sell a coupon booklet for discounts to local restaurants as a fund-raiser for the team. He stepped up on our front porch, rang the doorbell and the dogs came charging. He actually ran for the walkway. If you've been reading the blog, then you probably know that our Australian Shepherd has lunged at our full length stained glass front door TWO times. He was never hurt, but the door was in a shattered mess. We've worked with him, but some people approach and set him off in a big way...he seems to focus and charge.
He can sit.
He can shake.
He can wave.
He can lay down.
He can open the back door by himself.
He herds chickens.
He gently pulls the covers off me in the morning as I get out of bed.
He goes to his kennel upon command.
He plays catch and will leap several feet in the air to make the catch.
He understands "drop it."
His "vocabulary" recognition is immense.
He recognizes hand commands.
There's too much that he does and I can't even write it all down.
You know how we dog loving people are...our dogs are always the smartest one on the block or at least the cutest.
But, he won't quit pouncing on our front door when he sees someone he perceives as threatening. He charges with this two front paws, and BAM, he does a quick pounce with all his weight behind him and the glass shatters. He's smart and knows it is wrong, but he doesn't seem to be able to stop himself. Maybe THIS can be blamed on his jewels. The jewels Deputy Dave fought for Howdy to keep. One day, we will breed Howdy, so the jewels will stay in place, but I'm not sure I can blame the misbehavior on his jewel retention.
Anyway, as the highschool student stood a few feet from the front door as my youngest daughter, Stefie, tried to open the door a crack while Howdy readied himself to do some damage. The young, but LARGE football player nervously stated his purpose...he's a neighbor trying to sell coupons for the football team where my daughter attended highschool, so she bought a set of coupons for twenty bucks. However, the football player said he wouldn't approach the front door to make the exchange because he was terrified of the dogs, especially Howdy.
Good. If only we'd had a dog like him sooner, maybe we would have been able to deter all the OTHER boys who approached that threshold. Good dog.
Live and learn.