I seem to be writing a lot about loss lately. Part of it is that my operation is about a decade old now, so the oldest sheep and dogs are getting to the end of their natural lives.
We lost Shep a month ago, on a Saturday. Lisa called me at the house to say that she had seen Shep in the pasture, happy and surrounded by lambs around 2:00, and at 4;00 she was in the same spot, lambs still around her, but she was dead. “At least she died with her lambs,” Lisa said sadly.
It turned out that Shep was our longest-lived dog, and I didn’t realize it until she died. She was 10. I had bought her as an adult, from our breeder, Becky, and so her birth-year was not so firmly in my mind as with the other dogs who came as pups. Becky had sold her to some people who eventually sold their sheep, so the dog didn’t have a job any more and returned to Becky. “Her name is Sheep,” Becky told me, and I said “I can’t have a dog named Sheep,” so we called her Shep. Lolo and Ignacio used to call her “Pastora,” the Spanish word for Shepherdess.
Shep was a great dog, who generally worked alone, guarding lambs, ewes, or, in the quiet season, the retired ewes who live at my house. A few years ago, Christin Coy painted this wonderful painting of Shep with Bugeyes, the old ewe who had been the first lamb born on our ranch.
Losing Shep so suddenly left us with only one dog, so I began a frantic search for a pup. Becky didn’t have any litters in the works, but we found that our neighbors in Nicasio at Devils Gulch Ranch had some recently weaned Maremma-Akbash-Great Pyrenees puppies, and so we got Otto.
Otto lived for the first few weeks in a pen in the barn at night and out in a paddock during the day with three ewes to keep him company. We gavehim short 1-hour sessions with Orbit and the lambs, always supervised. The protection behavior is in-bred in these dogs and they need little training, but they do need correcting for bad behavior, like chasing sheep. We discovered that the lambs were the best teachers possible for Otto–when he got playful with the ewes, they would run away in fear, encouraging him to chase them. But the lambs are inquisitive and not frightened–when Otto gets playful with them, they stand their ground, butt him, or even roll him! And Uncle Orbit, who was lukewarm on Otto at first, and acted very aloof and standoffish, has finally warmed up and decided it is OK to play a bit with the pup, so Otto is getting some play-time.
Last week we started leaving Otto with the lambs and Orbit all day, and things went beautifully, so a few days ago we started leaving him with them 24/7. He seems to idolize Uncle Orbit, and even has developed his grown-up bark, and a very serious demeanor when there is a potential threat near the lambs!