Friday, December 23, 2011


Here's the first applicant for the job vacancy recently announced. And it looks like he's got the job.

His name is Ernie and he's a rescue dog. He came to us from National English Shepherd Rescue, or NESR. He was a troubled puppy, apparently, but is now much improved in temperament, thanks to the efforts of NESR, particularly NESR foster carer Heather Houlahan, who has her own blog here.

Ernie's history is somewhat mixed. He was a pedigree English Shepherd puppy sold to a couple in Cambridge, MA. We have the papers. They apparently couldn't manage him, which is unsurprising. These proper shepherd dog types that actually still have the herding instinct -- Border Collies, Australian and English Shepherds -- generally make very poor candidates for an urban existence.

They need a proper job to do, and they need more or less constant companionship, either from their people, or from another dog.

When young, they are best apprenticed to an older farm dog who knows the ropes. In their proper farm environment, when they're not herding sheep, they're on guard, and so although they like to play, they're never really off the clock. Having known Ernie for a day or so now, I can easily imagine that if some ill-advised attempt was made to keep him in an apartment 22 hours a day, with his only exercise in streets and parks full of humans and other dogs that he couldn't get all properly herded up and in the right pen, then, well, he would likely have gone stir crazy.

(So would have I, by the way. That kind of existence is not for me. I like my sheep barn, my woodpile, my apple trees and my gardens.)

These hapless Cambridge urbanites gave Ernie up at 7 months to NESR, and to the expert care of Heather, who had him mess in with another half-dozen shepherd dogs on her farm, a lifestyle not unlike our own (only we have fewer dogs). Ernie was exposed to the proper kind of shepherd dog lifestyle, and got a little farm training, as well as a second chance at a more contented, playful kind of late puppyhood, without the stresses of an urban existence. He calmed down, learned some of the ropes, and figured out what his job in life was going to be.

We're very pleased with him so far. He's very well-behaved, he minds his manners, he already is house-trained and puppy trained, he can sit, lie down, walk to heel, and go in his crate. He gets a little stressed out by cats and small children, but we expect that our moggies will sort him soon enough.

He has all the proper shepherd dog instincts for protecting the farm, and getting all his people all herded up together, and so on. He's still plenty young enough to begin his sheepdog training. It shouldn't take us long to get him to move sheep on our farm where there are lots of fences and alleyways that make the job easy. But I'd like to have him try the more open-ground kinds of techniques, where the dog learns to go all the way around the herd and bring them back to the handler.

Something to look forward to for me and Mr. Ernie.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Help wanted -- General Farm Dog

This may seem awfully callous, but we're going to replace our farm dog Haggis as soon as we can. There's a huge hole in my life where my dog used to be, and Aimee misses having a dog around the house too. I realized just yesterday that this is the first time I've been without a dog since 1988, which was the year the sainted shepherd dog of shepherd dogs, Liza Jane, appeared in my life (and promptly got herself pregnant by another dog I got that year, Thumper, a Blue Heeler cross, to begat, among others, Cocoa, who was definitely not a shepherd dog at all but who lived with me until we got Haggis in 2002). My college room-mates called Liza Jane "Mick's dog wife." She was a Montana dog born and bred, but lived in Maryland, Georgia, and Maine, and accompanied me on some huge adventures.

Before that, long before that, I had a different shepherd dog, a Border Collie-cross, called Paddy, which takes us back to about 1973 in the world of Mick's dogs. Paddy used to do my newspaper round with me when I was a teenager and accompanied the RAF Leeming Mountain rescue team on many an adventure. We often would follow the dog to find our way on the hill. This was more accurate than map and compass, although I'm not sure what this says for our map-and-compass skills. (Patrick Elvis McGinty Womersley was the full name my sister and I gave this great dog, who died of a very old age in the 1990s, 17 or 18 years old.)

Paddy, Liza Jane and Haggis were all what I've heard described as "velcro" dogs -- they stuck with me whatever I happened to be doing. They were equally as good at riding in the truck (or an RAF Land Rover) as going for a walk, flying a kite, or herding chickens. This is a characteristic of the various shepherd dog breeds, and probably why I miss them so much.

There's also an as-yet unfulfilled need around here for a shepherd dog that can actually successfully herd sheep. We move our sheep from pasture to pasture all summer, and although the sheep generally know where to go, it would be helpful to have a dog to help round up any strays.

The other more serious reason we need a shepherd is for the coyotes. These predators have already heard that Haggis is gone, and are moving in steadily. I've heard them within a few hundred yards each night since. I can keep them at bay for now by making sure to go outside early and late every night, and by leaving the scent of a man wherever I can. But this won't last forever. Lambs are due in April.

Help Wanted.

Vacancy at Womerlippi Farm
General Farm Dog

Shepherd breed or shepherd cross, prefer Border Collie or Aussie
Male or female, must be neutered
Must like sheep, chickens, old people, small children, in that order
Must hate coyotes, bad stranger dogs, bobcats, and hunters who can't read maps
Loud bark, must be worse than bite. Prefer no bite at all, except when applied to the types on the previous list

Pay and benefits
Room and Board, own bed, kibble and canned food, allowed to clean out pots and pans, treats, grooming, regular walks, own seat in pick-em-up truck, full health care, personal herd of eleven fully-trained sheep

Applications received until position filled. Reference, background and health check required

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Haggis gone

Photo: Haggis and me in happier days:

Aimee and I are completely gutted after having to put Haggis down last night.

He'd been doing well on the prednisone. It didn't solve the laryngeal paralysis, but it kept his throat from getting sore, and so he could eat, and of course he was happy enough to be able to eat and sleep and be with us.

That's really all he ever asked of us, even when healthy. Such unconditional love.

But we couldn't find the smallest dosage that would do the job without side effects. Last week we dropped the dosage on the vet's instructions. The choking and inability to eat got immediately worse, so we called the vet and upped the dose again. The side effects began to kick in. By Tuesday he'd developed nausea, one of the side effects, and by Friday he was again starving to death, only this time from the nausea instead of being unable to eat because of a sore throat.

He worsened a good deal during Friday while we were at work. I came home to find him in terrible shape.

He wouldn't touch his food, couldn't keep anything down at all, and wouldn't even come in the house for weakness and pain. I had to pick him up to bring him in. As I picked him up, I discovered there was this additional symptom of abdominal pain, which could also have been caused by the prednisone -- stomach bleeding is one side-effect. He and I both rested for a few moments, he on his bed, me on the couch close by, while we both waited for Aimee, and he seemed like he might begin to feel better, but then he vomited about a half a gallon of almost pure water, and so I realized he'd been drinking away because of some internal pain, most likely bleeding in his stomach.

Aimee came home later, and although we prevaricated for a minute, we quickly made the decision to put him down there and then. Even if we could find a way to fix the side effects of prednisone, his inability to pant easily would make it impossible to stay cool once the warm weather returned, and would even be difficult during the very coldest weather, when the house is often cosy because of the wood stove, and even healthy dogs tend to pant.

We were prepared for this after these last two months of Haggis's illness, but not totally. Haggis has been such a good dog and such a great friend to have, and so loving. I was going to have to do it myself with the rifle -- our own vet closes at five on Friday and taking him to the emergency vet in Brewer, Maine, forty miles in his condition, with that much pain, just to be put down, wasn't a sensible option or in his best interests.

Aimee stayed inside while I put him down. He was trusting and safe in my hands until the very end, and even wagged his tail for me when I held him after the shot as he took his last breath.

I honestly can't tell you right now whether knowing he trusted me so and was happy to be with me even while dying makes it worse or better.

But I am glad he is no longer in pain and misery.

We'll bury him quietly today on our own land.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lonely boy Bentley

Here's our new ram Bentley, now on his own for the winter, until the lambs are born and the ewes are safely past the period when they might come into heat.

He wasn't at all happy about this.

I took away his ewes yesterday afternoon, distracting him with some food, while I slipped the ewes out of the gate. Once he realized they were gone he began ramming the gate and baaa-ing in frustration, except that in a full grown ram, what passes for a baa is actually more of a grrrrr!

Tough. He'll have to stick it out. Most rams are such knuckleheads that there is no choice but to keep them separate from the rest of the herd much of the time, in well-fortified pens. Rams must lead solitary lives much of the year.

You can put rams of the same age class together out-of-breeding season. They can't do too much damage to each other when they're well-matched, and they're not that inclined to spar when there are no ewes to compete over.

But in season, and when one ram is clearly more dominant, they must be kept separate, or they'll destroy each other. This happened to us a couple of years ago, when a visiting ram, Snorri, beat the living daylights out of our old ram, Abraram. I had to put old Abe down with the rifle and make mincemeat out of him. I decided then and there never to have two grown rams on the farm at the same time ever again.

The other thing I did yesterday is cut away Regina's forelocks where she had become wool-blind. Wool-blindness is when a sheep can't see for fleece over her eyes. Corriedales can be prone to it, especially when crossed, as ours are, with Romney blood. Regina is the yearling in the background. You can see her eyes. That's how you know that this is a new photo of her.

Here's a chicken that looks like it wants to come in the house. For a warm-up, maybe? Or to eat Haggis's food?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Haggis update

Our red shepherd dog Haggis has been a very sad puppy lately, and we've been sad too, as we wrestle with his health problems.

It's a major change in the happy equilibrium of the farmstead, although we're coping, as folk generally do when such things occur.

He recently developed laryngeal paralysis, a condition in which the larynx becomes unable to open and close with each breath as it normally does. The effect is that he wheezes and sucks wind for all but the slightest exertion. He can no longer take a walk unless it's just a mild toddle of a hundred yards or less, nor can he do very many of his other important jobs, such as herding chickens, woofing at the mail lady, or following us around the farmyard.

Obviously we've been trying to decide what to do, and have considered having him put down, or doing so ourselves. There's an operation, but it's uncertain in outcome, as well as thousands of dollars in cost, and we're practical people. We love our dog, but we're not paying thousands of dollars to keep him alive when he might not do so well afterwards. He'll take his chances, as we all must eventually, despite the best of modern medicine. We know we'll have to put him down eventually.

He's been so good-natured and uncomplaining about the whole thing, and has worked so well on finding his own new equilibrium, that for now we've put such thoughts out of our minds. One thing that helps is that he now gets a pill twice daily which works to reduce the bruising and inflammation that comes with this condition. He is now eating heartily, although he no longer can swallow the couple pounds of kibble he used to put away each day. He gets canned food instead, and has let us know through doggy sign language which of the various brands he prefers.

For a while there, before the pills, we wasn't eating at all and indeed lost a lot of weight, from 88 down to 76 pounds. This was weight he could afford to lose. Haggis, like all Womerlippi critters including human ones, was previously quite well-built, if not a little fat.

He can't afford to put that weight back on, because a fat dog pants much more, and Haggis can't easily pant without sucking air, and so the new diet will have to be monitored.

He spends his days much as he did, except that in the past he would get up and do things, and now he doesn't much. He still likes to follow me out to feed the sheep, but he's no longer right at my side. He instead picks a central vantage point and monitors my work from there.

So far he seems satisfied.

A shepherd dog is often quite critical of human efforts in sheep care. Shepherd dogs are the experts. Humans are still learning. We need to be watched constantly. Even a sick shepherd dog has his duty to the sheep.

(Sometimes we call him Corporal Haggis since he's so very dutiful and diligent. Good NCO material. Always ready to serve.)

He can be coaxed into taking a very slow toddle off towards the wooded trail where, this time of year, we used to walk a full mile together and with Mary-dog, at least once and often twice a day. He generally stops at the point where the trail begins and looks at you as if to say, OK, that's enough for me, and then we go back.

At night-time, he no longer climbs the stairs to sleep in our room. He tried that just once a couple nights ago, but the room was too warm for him, and so we took him back down. If the house gets warm, he asks to stay on the porch or be allowed outside.

His greatest pleasure, apart from just being around us, is to roll on the lawn.

I think that as long as I see him roll on the lawn with such pleasure, and as long as he's still so pleased to see us each day, we can work this out.

I am pretty bummed to lose my walking buddy, though.

It's hard to take yourself for a walk when you've always had a dog to take.

We did consider getting another dog sooner rather than later, but are cognizant that it would be very upsetting to Haggis to see me take another dog on a walk. We can't do that to him.