MOUNT AIRY, Md. (AP) — For the past three weeks, Tom Barse has gotten in the habit of keeping a Milkbone on him at all times.
He drops the treat in a blue bucket, just outside the pastures where his sheep are. That’s when Wiley comes out, all 80 pounds of her, covered with pale, golden fur and a little tuft of gray on her neck.
It was back in mid-June when Wiley wandered onto Barse’s farm and designated herself as chief — and only — sheepdog. And she’s doing a stand-up job.
Barse and his neighbors had seen the presumably Pyrenees wandering around their farms, making her way around Timmons and Dollyhyde roads in Mount Airy for about five weeks. For one reason or another, she decided to settle in with Barse and his sheep.
“She moved in and has taken over. We decided that she’s hired,” Barse, the owner of Stillpoint Farm and Milkhouse Brewery, said.
About two weeks ago, for instance, Wiley herded the flock into the barn before a thunderstorm hit. She did this with no urging from Barse.
But Wiley is timid and has proven to be a difficult pup to befriend. Barse and his wife, Carolann McConaughy, haven’t been able to get close enough to check her collar or make sure she isn’t covered in fleas and ticks. They also don’t want to traumatize her, so they’ve shied away from darting her or having someone capture her. The couple has instead opted for patience and doing what they can to build her trust.
“Everybody has Milkbones to drop it off for Wiley, just to try to get her a little bit more socialized,” Barse said of workers on his farm.
Little by little, there’s been progress. When McConaughy first began bringing food for Wiley, she would stay 20 feet away and wait for her to leave before chowing down. Now, she stays just about 5 feet away.
And then there’s Heidi, the couple’s Australian Shepherd puppy. They experimentally let her off her leash one day, and she proceeded to shoot through the fence toward Wiley. Although she seemed tentative at first, Wiley gave in to Heidi’s puppy wiles, and the two began chasing each other and rolling around.
“She’s not really that old because she plays with Heidi like a puppy,” Barse said. Heidi has been serving as Wiley’s “ambassador” and is helping her get out of her shell, he said.
Since Barse’s efforts to get close enough to read the name on her collar haven’t been successful, he had to come up with his own name for her. His neighbor, Chuck Smith, was the source of inspiration.
When Smith and his dog Dolly came for a stroll, Wiley ventured out, and the two dogs got close enough to touch noses. This was the first time Wiley journeyed away from the safety of the sheep, Barse said. But when Dolly barked at Wiley, she scurried away, and Smith declared, “She’s just like Wile E. Coyote!”
The name stuck.
Wiley’s standoffish nature isn’t all too surprising to Barse. Many sheepdogs aren’t well socialized, he said. They aren’t like a family pet; they live with their sheep and do their job. Given her behavior and her keen ability to deal with bratty rams that try to sneak into greener pastures, Barse speculates Wiley was a sheep dog on another farm.
The furry new tenant is on the cusp of another promotion, too. Right now she’s only dealing with about 15 sheep, but Barse is about to crank that number up to 50. He’s curious to see how it will play out since the new sheep won’t be used to her.
With sheep herding, you train the sheep and dog together, Barse said. You take the two natural instincts of the animals and use them to your advantage. The dog has a natural instinct to go toward the sheep, and the sheep have an instinct to herd together. With those two instincts at play, the flock can be protected if there’s danger.
“That’s what she does, and she does a pretty good job of it,” Barse said.
This point does, however, raise concerns that Wiley is indeed a lost dog and not just a stray that made a new home for herself. Barse has posted on social media and websites looking for an owner. He and his wife also looked for missing sheepdogs in the Frederick County area, but Wiley didn’t match any descriptions.
“If we get her up and find out who she belongs to, we’ll try to contact them,” Barse said. “But I would hate to see her go, I would really hate to see her go.”