June 10, 2007

Do you know where your dogs are?

I love sheep.

My first border collie showed promise as a stockdog, and I got my first sheep for her. We needed practice for sheepdog trials, and the better she got, the more important it seemed to have our own stock close at hand. My first sheep were culls --- three wicked range ewes, Suffolk crosses, one of them half-blind --- and they were free, a gift from a commercial sheepman who was also kind enough to give help and valuable advice to a novice shepherd. That was twenty years ago. I've been keeping sheep on a twenty-acre farm on the edge of town ever since.

I never planned to fall in love with sheep, but shepherding gets under your skin. These days I'd keep sheep even if (God forbid) I had no dogs to help me tend them, and I hope to have sheep for the rest of my life. My favorites of all the ones I've kept or worked are Cheviots. (Those are Cheviots in the photo above.) My Cheviots are very canny --- they can bolt like gazelles in every direction if the mood strikes, or stand and stare a weak dog out of the pasture. They are bold, smart, independent sheep, and beautiful.

Back in the day, the groves around the farm were a favorite dumping-ground for dogs whose owners were too stupid or too cowardly to take their unwanted animals to the local shelter. (My first pit bull, my heart dog, was one of a litter of pups dumped in the orange grove across the street from the farm.) Sometimes these hungry, abandonded dogs would pack up and run out of the groves and into the pastures while the sheep were grazing, causing a fierce amount of shouting and rock-throwing on my part: the threat of a dog attack can turn the mildest-mannered flock guardian into a mother grizzly.

Stray dogs are always a worry at the farm, but the dogs that cause the most trouble are the ones that belong to neighbors and visitors.

There was a black chow that belonged to a grove-owning family nearby: he was always loose because family members left the gate at the foot of their drive open. Animal Control invited me along one day when the dog was being returned to his family for, like, the million thousandth time, and the owner told us, "Our other dog was killed by a car --- we thought that would teach this one [the chow] not to leave the property." The ACO was a patient man with years of experience dealing with the public, and the family did keep the gate closed after that visit.

The owner of a big Akita knew someone who worked at the farm, and whenever he came to visit he would bring his dog along and turn it loose.

"I can call him back anytime," he'd say.

Except he couldn't.

He would shout and shout and the dog would ignore him and keep right on chasing ground squirrels or barn cats until finally, when there was nothing better to do, he would turn and amble back to his beet-faced owner. My sheep are kept in a secure pen when I'm not at the farm, but I hated to think that someday I'd have them out grazing in the pasture and the Akita would show up. "Don't worry --- he's perfectly friendly," the owner used to say.

No, you idiot. That has nothing to do with it.

The friendliest dog, the best family dog, the most perfect dog you've ever known, would love nothing better than to chase and kill livestock. Any normal, healthy dog with a shred of prey drive will chase sheep --- and kill them, if he can. This doesn't mean that the kids are next, or that once he's tasted blood he'll always want more, or that he's "turned into Charles Manson" [as a Vogue magazine essayist wrote of the family's golden retriever after it was allowed to run loose in the country and killed half a dozen sheep]. All it means is that he's a normal, healthy dog. Dogs are predators. They chase livestock. Or will, if their owners are irresponsible nitwits.

And unless he's a trained stockdog, I don't care how perfectly behaved he is, how many "herding titles" he's won or how gently he plays with the family cat: please keep your dog leashed when he's at the farm. I love my sheep --- and if I have to hit someone's loose dog over the head with a board to save them from harm, I'll swing for the bleachers. And then I'll go after the owner.

The second dog attack in as many days decimated a flock of sheep in a pasture in Wiscasset on Monday, said police and game wardens.

West Alna Road residents found carcasses scattered throughout the neighborhood after the attack, which killed 14 sheep in the same pasture where more than a dozen sheep died the night before.

"Somebody has to know whose dog it is," said Lee Straw, 52, of Newcastle, a farmer who owns hundreds of sheep.

Police and game wardens spent much of Monday searching for clues to help find the dogs that are suspected of killing 29 sheep since Saturday night.
My heart goes out to the shepherd.

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