How the Hen House Turns: Dogs As Bird-Sitters

How the Hen House Turns
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Dogs As Bird-Sitters

When our first chickens arrived in a cardboard box 40 years ago, including Peeper’s mom Peeky, we had already adopted Poncho.

As a “Santa Fe Shepherd,” his instincts were just about right. He helped us herd the chickens back into the pen for the night. (Chickens don’t herd, but that’s another story.)

We didn’t try to train Poncho as a sheepdog, but we did train DeeDee and Scooter, pointer-heeler shelter dogs we adopted after the 2000 fire in Los Alamos. They were natural born hunters, but once convinced that little chicks were part of our family pack, and after I taught them a few herding commands, like “back” and “leave it,” they made reliable bird-sitters. 

Of course, I close the doggy door to enforce their working mode, “watching” the turkey, two geese, three chickens and four ducks. I lock them out because they slept through the coyote attack in broad daylight that did in Meatball. (But that’s another …)

They still do pretty well at age 13. At least they’re able to distinguish the crows I holler at ─ waving my arms and rushing down the hill ─ from the chickens and the English call ducks I feed and call “sweetheart.” Luckily, I was nearby when the ducks first flew up from the pen to the stock tank, triggering the dogs’ catch-em mode. It was too tempting, too much like the tweetie birds they like to smoke out of the canyon bushes.

DeeDee and Scooter are both very reliable when it comes to not biting off chicken heads when the birds take an irritating peck at their paws ─ even when the hens try to steal their dog biscuit-rewards for bird-sitting.

I wish I had a video of the time turkey, “Little Bear,” decided to nip DeeDee’s ankles.  Here was this 20-pound turkey chasing a 60-pound dog around the chicken pen, DeeDee turning her head back every few feet with a timid “Gr-r-r-r,” until I rescued her. She got the praise she deserved for Great Restraint. Turkey got a scolding, which didn’t do much to enhance our relationship.

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