Thursday, September 19, 2019
Sheep Rancher Tries Bold Experiment with Pyrenees Pups
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Cory Peavey’s work with sheep pups will benefit from a fundraiser from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight at Hotel Ketchum.
 
Thursday, August 22, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

It’s not unusual to see white fluffy sheep hanging out in Uncle John’s Corrals north of Sun Valley on occasion.

But no one could have been prepared for the sight of six balls of fluff that turned up at the corrals along Corral Creek Road recently.

Six Pyrenean Mastiff pups no bigger than shoeboxes took up residence in the corrals, frolicking amidst the tall grass and napping under the shade of a blue tarp stretched across the middle of the corrals as their mother Lily looked on.

 
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The Pyrenean-Mastiff pups were seven weeks old at the time these photographs were taken.
 

They took turns playfully chewing on each other. They bit one another’s tails. And then one discovered a string hanging from the tarp and instantly all six were fixated on tugging on it.

The pups are part of an experiment by Cory Peavey, the grandson and son of Flat Top ranchers John and Tom Peavey.

Young Peavey is trying to change the way sheep dogs are reared, strengthening the human connection in a way that he thinks will be better for dogs and ranchers and the community at large. In doing so, he’s taking a page from his grandparents, who established the Trailing of the Sheep Festival to educate the community about the annual migration of sheep up and down the valley.

“These dogs need a certain amount of interaction, but they also need some distancing to embrace the life to which they’re intended so I can’t cuddle them too much,” he said. “I don’t want to play with them. But I do want to step into their environment and let them know I’m okay so they will come to me should they get lost.”

 
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Nancy Humphrey visits the pups at the corral, which was built in the 1960s and may have been named after U.S. Sen. John Thomas, who started the Flat Top Ranch.
 

Typically, sheep dogs are situated away from people as soon as they’re born. Once they’re pressed into action as working dogs, the only time they see a person is when the herder checks on the sheep. They learn to regard all others, including hikers and horse riders, as potential threats to the sheep.

That can be problematic because Pyrenees do not seem to have a strong sense of smell. If they run off to chase a squirrel or rabbit, they can return to where they left the herd to find the herd gone. Unable to track the herd, they may end up in town or along the highway where townspeople think they’ve been abandoned.

Ranchers would not intentionally abandon a guard dog, Peavey said. But even ranchers who find the dogs sometimes have trouble getting them to trust them enough to come to them.

“That’s why I’m working to make sure these dogs are accepting of me,” he said. “I want them to come to me when I need to transport them. I want them to know me, to know my truck, to get in the truck with me and go home.”

 
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The pups, which can expect to live between six and 14 years, are two-thirds Pyrenees and a third mastiff.
 

To do that, Peavey placed the pups in the corral in sight of his deluxe sheep wagon and a handful of sheep in an adjacent corral.

Peavey, 34, developed an affinity for dogs as a youngster growing up on the Flat Top Ranch near Carey.

“As a boy, I got lost in the fields far from home and one of the dogs felt I was part of the group,” he recounted. “I climbed on the top of the dog and wound my hand in its hair and it brought me home. That stuck with me and ever since I’ve had a bond.”

Sheep ranchers can’t have sheep without dogs. The Pyrenees are Peavey’s first line of defense against predators. And border collies help him push his 1,500 sheep up Long Gulch enroute to Quigley Canyon where they will be used in the Sheep Dog Trials during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in mid-October.

 
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Cory Peavey and his herders are trailing the sheep up Long Gulch and through the Hyndman Peak area. They expect to arrive at Quigley Canyon in time for the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, after which the sheep will be sheared and shipped to California for the winter.
 

The Flat Top Ranch has 45 dogs to help with 4,500 breeding ewes.

“Without dogs we’d be completely lost,” Peavey said.

Cory’s grandfather John Peavey is fond of recounting how he saw petroglyphs of big horn sheep with dog-like animals following behind in Saudi Arabia. Some 10,000 years ago, man apparently found a lost wolf puppy, hunted with it and slowly trained it to herd.

“These dogs are bred for that job,” Cory Peavey said. “They’re not pets. They need to be more wild than not.”

A neighboring sheep rancher lost a dog this year, and Peavey has had to carry a 140-pound dog on horseback to get it stitched up at the vet.

“I could see it was breaking his heart not to be out there so we finally let him go. But we kept him away from wolves.”

The Flat Top Ranch, which lost several lambs to wolves last year, is keeping lambs off the range this year and at home, although grazing is minimal given the land burned in the 2018 Sharps Fire.

“Lambs are free advertising for the wolves. Once wolves figure out sheep are easy prey, it’s game over,” Peavey said. “The only thing that deters them is human presence. I’ve stayed up at night trying to guard against them, and my herders have taken their shifts.”

That said, Peavey is hopeful that his new Pyrenean-Mastiff mix will bolster protection.

Pyrenees’ big bark can scare all but wolves away. But males just tip the scales at 100 pounds. Male Mastiffs, however, can grow up to 230 pounds and female Mastiffs can grow to as much as 170 pounds.

Peavey has taken the pups to the veterinarian for checkups, vaccinations and spaying. He will give them rabies shots and chip them so he can prove the dogs have had their shots if there’s an incident.

“Dogs have been beheaded in the past just to prove they’ve had a rabies shot. I don’t want that to happen to my dogs,” he said.

The pups are up at first light, ready to play. They nap as the day heats up. And, while Peavey is giving them a little bit of kibble, they’re still relying on their mother’s milk—as much as she’ll let them have.

Come evening Peavey takes them on a walkabout to the creek.

When he’s sure they won’t be trampled, he’ll let the nearby sheep into the pen so they can get used to being up close and personal with the ewes.

Once the dogs have attained 50 pounds, he’ll let them follow the sheep on their nomadic lifestyle as they look for the next best patch of green to munch on.

“It’s not their age but how big they are--if they’re bigger than a coyote,” he said. “When the sheep start moving, there’s an excitement, and the dogs fall in line. They’re part of the group—they’re not independent breeds.”

Peavey has stated his intentions to take over the Flat Top Ranch when the time comes. And he sits on the board of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which his grandparents started 23 years ago.

“As a teenager I decided I didn’t want anything to do with the ranching business. But after college, where I studied creative writing and agriculture, I came back to the ranch and fell in love with it,” he said.

“We’re very proud of Cory and what he’s doing,” said John Peavey. “He’s making sure those pups are healthy and he’s trying to socialize them. And I think it’s really neat how Cory’s taken an interest in  sheep ranching when so few young people are doing that.”

Cory Peavey says he hopes he can keep the sheep ranching tradition alive.

“I’m kind of a dying breed—the sheep rancher. But people are becoming more interested in quality clothing and lamb is finding its way on to more and more menus as people become interested in eating leaner high protein. So, hopefully…”

FUNDRAISING FOR FLAT TOP DOGS

Hotel Ketchum will host a fundraiser for the Flat Top Ranch Working Guard Dogs from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, in the hotel’s “Backyard.”

Anyone who donates will receive a raffle ticket offering the opportunity to win several prizes, including male and female snow bikes. Questions? Call Tiffany at 208-721-3349.

 

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