I have been simply flabbergasted by the controversy I’ve been reading about dog husbandry and the nit-picking crap described by Steve and our blogger friends in several recent posts. After reading the animosity represented, I suspect that some folks would have me put behind bars since our lifestyle doesn’t conform to their rigid standard for animal treatment. But it also became apparent that there seems to be two underlying differences in our thinking.
The first is that some of us have working partnerships with animals – they aren’t simply “pets” here to enhance our lives. We live with and depend on one another, in various ways. My relationship with my dogs isn’t just about me. I live with livestock guardian dogs, which are by their very nature very independent animals, so they “get a vote.” More often than not, the dogs decide. I try to influence, but then what I get is given to me by an animal that has survived for thousands of years by making its own decisions.
The second involves the reality of risks and death. Life on our ranch involves risks, and the knowledge that the cycle of life includes death. Death isn’t something we’re afraid of, but is part of our lives.
The risk of death occurs daily. West Nile Virus killed one of our sheep last week; my dogs kill coyotes fairly routinely; wolves kill our dogs on occasion; and on occasion, we have dogfights that result in injury and even death. We humans on the ranch experience daily risk as well, be it from lightening strikes, hazards of working with machinery, being charged by mother moose, horse wrecks, and certain hormonal cattle who want to kill us for touching or coming within a half-mile of their babies – just to name a few.
We have a waiting list of other sheep producers who want our pups. Our dogs are a mix of Akbash and Anatolians and now, we’re adding Central Asian Ovcharkas. The males that win breeding rights, in the process of natural selection, get to breed. The females pick where they will den up – we build hay houses and other whelping boxes, but the females decide. The result is some of our litters are born in dirt dens dug out of a hillside, others in culverts, others underneath buildings, and even a few in the hay houses. The females that use the hay houses seem to know what we’re doing as soon as we construct it. We feed the female atop the house for several weeks before whelping, and they usually begin nesting and making it their own just before having their pups. The females always have the pups by themselves, and I’ve only lost a few from being rolled on during the birthing process. Most of our litters include 8-11 live pups.
The pups are never locked in, and I simply can’t resist touching them from the time they are born. If it’s a real big litter, I supplemental feed with a bottle of milk replacer. Within a couple of days of birth, the bitches usually wait for me to arrive for babysitting duty before they exit at a run, headed for water and to empty their bladders/bowels, then hurrying back to the pups. I try to line the natal dens with wool, and some females allow that, while others kick it back out as many times as I put it in. No matter – mama decides and the babies do just fine. We provide hard dog food, soaked in milk replacer, before the pups ever open their eyes.
The babies start coming out of the den as soon as their eyes open, meeting their first sheep and getting butted when they try chewing on ears that don’t belong to them. They grow and venture out further, tangling with porcupines, digging up prairie dogs, harassing moose for better or worse, chasing off magpies and hawks, and meeting up with their first coyotes and fox. The pups have wild adventures and seem to be truly happy animals. They usually have their first coyote or fox kill while they still have puppy teeth. And mercy, but they are proud when that happens. Coyotes challenge our herds nearly every day, so the guardian job is a big one.
The pups bark and growl all night long, roll on dead things, and stink to high heaven sometimes. They swim in the river when and if they want. They steal fish from ospreys.
Most pups survive, but some don’t. We had a moose kick a pup in the chest and break its sternum a couple of years ago, and another died of the infection from a deep wound down its back that was inflicted by a bobcat that tried to enter the herd. We spray for fleas often because with our prairie dog populations, we have an unlimited source.
I socialize the pups by getting them to come to my voice, or to my whistle. I play with them, get them used to collars, leashes and cables, take turns taking them for rides in the cab of the truck to the house. That way, it’s not so traumatic when they have to go into the vet’s office in town. They slobber, and puke, have stress-induced shedding, and survive civilization, but gleefully jump out of the truck and back to their herd.
The dogs don’t live in doghouses, even in the bitter cold of winter. They will not leave their sheep, no matter the condition. They curl up to the wool bodies they protect, fan their tails over their faces, and wait out the storms. The sheep don’t use buildings, but seek out the shelter of sagebrush and natural landscape contours for protection, and the dogs stay with them.
These livestock guardian dogs live very active, adventurous lives. I feed them well, providing good dog food and meat on the bone. The dogs love me, but prefer their herds. They rarely die of old age. Wild animals rarely do. They live lives of bravery and I am privileged to get to share in that life with them. I mourn their passage, and am thankful for the time I’ve had with each one. Animals such as these are good for my soul.