Sunday, February 17, 2019


Yesterday was a difficult day for my family. We had to put down two animals that had been a part of our family for more than a decade. Reno, our oldest (and best) livestock guardian dog was ten or eleven; Woolly, our oldest daughter's first ewe, was fifteen. Both will be missed, but both also left a lasting legacy in our sheep operation.

Reno came to us as a six-month old puppy from a small-scale goat operation east of Nevada City. There were times in that first year when we didn't think he'd work out. We were still new to using guard dogs, and Reno tested our abilities (and our patience). He chased lambs. He chewed on ears (indeed, we had a one-eared ewe for many years who we called Vinnie - for Vincent Van Gogh). Thankfully, Reno outgrew puppyhood and ultimately became our most trusted guardian. Somewhere, I have a photo of lambs climbing on him.

He also had a mischievous side. If he got out of our electric fence (which rarely happened), he'd explore the neighborhood. He enjoyed these excursions even more if he knew we were trying to catch him. As I've written previously, I think Reno would have flipped me the bird if he'd had a middle digit on his front feet. I finally realized that Reno was playing a game when he went on these jaunts. If I ignored him, he'd quickly come back to me so I could put him back with his sheep. He also never turned down a chicken dinner (if he could get it fresh), and he didn't care for cats or raccoons (much to their detriment). A cat-killing dog doesn't do much for relations with one's grazing landlord.

Woolly was a Dorset ewe that we bought for Lara when she was 6 years old. Lara's cousins still tease her about the summer visit when the three of them tried to halter-break Woolly (Hanna was 9 and Sara was 12) - apparently Woolly drug Lara face down around the pen several times. I suspect this was the same summer that Lara and Hanna sneaked off and ate four dozen ears of sweet corn from my market garden one afternoon, so the accuracy of their story can't be entirely trusted. Woolly later gave birth to the first lamb Lara showed at the Gold Country Fair - a sheep-showing career that ultimately earned Lara enough money to buy her first truck. After ten or eleven sets of lambs, we let Woolly retire - she lived out these last years grazing our home pastures.

As anyone who loves animals knows, the departure of an animal leaves a little hole in our lives and in our hearts. Part of our responsibility as animal owners is to prevent pain and suffering - and yesterday we realized that the time had come for us to let both of these animals go. As I've mourned their loss over the last 24 hours, however, I've realized my relationship with these animals is different because they were not pets - they were both an important part of our sheep operation. As such, they both leave important legacies for Flying Mule Sheep Company.

Reno helped me understand how important proper bonding with livestock was for a livestock guardian dog. He taught me to be patient with puppy misbehavior, but also to insist that he outgrow this behavior. And in his later years, he helped me realize the importance of allowing a younger dog to learn from (and be corrected by) an older dog. The video below from last lambing season shows Reno insisting that Bodie keep a respectful distance from a ewe and newborn lamb. I realize that Reno was just protecting his access to this ewe's afterbirth, but this correction was much like Bodie's graduation from puppy to guardian. Bodie is in charge this year as we begin to lamb, and we're fully confident in him.

Woolly gave birth to a number of ewes that are still in our flock. She was an outstanding mother - she usually had twins, and she could always count to two (meaning, she always took care of both of her lambs). Her maternal ability, and her ability to thrive on all kinds of forage, will live on in her daughters and granddaughters that remain in our flock. Her genetic influence lives on in our operation, much to our benefit.

To some, I suppose, my sorrow at losing these two animals may seem mushy - I'm a rancher, after all, and ranchers aren't supposed to be sentimental, right?! And yet I think we are - every rancher I know mourns the loss of their animal partners. And every rancher I know pays attention to the legacy that these animals leave in our operations. A ewe who passes on her maternal traits and ability to thrive in our specific environment is incredibly valuable. A dog who passes on his protective instincts lives on in the dogs he helps us train. I'm not sure I can articulate this, but I feel the loss of Reno and Woolly (and the other canine and ovine working partners I've lost as a rancher) far more profoundly than that I've felt for any pet. I owe them both my gratitude.

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