Saturday, July 12, 2008

Farm dogs

Yesterday, as I was skirting fleeces, I realized that mental exhaustion is the thing that makes me feel beaten. I've discovered that I love physical work. It's like a drug -- the more I do, the more I want to do and the more energy I have. But the mental challenges are the toughest, and they never come from where you expect them.

Before we moved out here, I thought I knew a lot about dogs. I had taken three different dogs through obedience, attended dog shows, and read widely on dog training. But I quickly discovered that everything I knew about pet dogs was irrelevant on a farm. My first mistake was to buy two Pyrenees littermate puppies when we moved here six years ago. They bonded with each other and wanted nothing to do with the livestock. Well, that's not entirely true. They wanted to eat the chickens and other poultry! I found pet homes for both of them.

I went through a string of dog mistakes. Some dogs lasted for minutes before their current owner put them back in the car and headed down the road. Many adult dogs want to chase and kill poultry, so it's a good idea to get dogs that have been raised on a farm. Then there are certain breeds that are better for certain jobs -- livestock guardian dogs for living with the animals and herding breeds for actually moving them.

I thought that when we bought our Anatolian shepherd almost four years ago that we had finally found the dog for our farm. I had researched the breed thoroughly by reading and talking to breeders. I joined a Yahoo group that discussed LGDs and learned that I needed to make sure I bought a dog that had been properly socialized. It's a common belief among some people (even printed in a USDA brochure) that LGDs should be handled as little as possible to preserve their guarding instincts. But on the Yahoo group, I learned that dogs like that could become dangerous to human beings, and I wanted nothing to do with such an animal. Some people could not go near their dogs and had to sedate them with drugs in their food in order to take them to the vet for routine care. So, I made sure I bought from someone who had socialized their puppies.

Sovalye was a sweet little thing when we brought him home. He lived in the barn his first few months, and I even have pictures of him with the barn cats sleeping on top of him. He bonded with all the animals and worked well. He killed his first raccoon when he was only eight months old. He seemed perfect.

Two months ago when we took him in for his annual vet check, they said he had heartworms. I learned that the phrase "heartworm preventive" is a misnomer. It doesn't prevent worms. It works as a dewormer just like the dewormers I give the goats. This is an important distinction, because he should have received the "preventive" longer last fall. I incorrectly thought that when he received a pill on October 1, he was protected for the month of October. But no, the October 1 pill killed all the heartworms that were in his system from September. Given that bit of information, we're lucky he never had heartworms before now.

But my latest big challenge is that since he has been treated, he has turned into a barn potato. He refuses to stay in the pasture. He just wants to be in the barn or the shed, somewhere away from the animals, where he is essentially worthless. For the first month, we were supposed to keep him inside and quiet, but at the end of that month, he didn't want to leave the barn. The vet had said he would probably have a lot more energy after being treated, but instead, he has less!

The irony, however, is that he will go to great lengths to get out of the pasture. We have created the Fort Knox of pastures, and he escapes. At first, he was injuring himself, scraping the hair off his head to squeeze under the gate. We fixed that. Then he pulled the woven wire down far enough to get his body below the electric wire that runs above the woven wire. We added a second wire that was lower. He escaped. We added a third wire ... and a fourth! Yesterday, we saw him clear the fence like a dressage horse!

I'm feeling beaten and emotionally exhausted trying to figure out how to create a pasture that the dog has to stay in. I've been thinking that there is probably no way a coyote could ever get into the pasture we've created for the dog -- and the problem is that even if we could keep the dog in this one pasture, we can't keep him in the others, so he's not worth a lot if he can only protect one pasture. Last year, we put him with the sheep when the coyotes started taking our lambs. We tried putting him in the sheep pasture a couple weeks ago, and he escaped to go to the barn.

I'd surrender if I knew what that meant. Do I just let this 115-pound dog spend the rest of his life in the barn, sleeping and eating two to three pounds of food every day? Six years on a farm has turned me into an incredibly practical person. Everyone around here has a job. Although I do let old animals retire and enjoy their golden years, a dog less than four years old is in his prime. What do you do with a 115-pound barn potato?

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