Monday, June 22, 2015

Livestock Dogs (or Predator and Prey, Part II)

[In our last installment, Katherine had determined through her intensive online research that we needed to get a pair of “Livestock Guardian Dogs” ASAP to fight off the hungry mountain lion prowling the hillside behind our house.  This eating-baby-goats thing was going to stop.  So, back to our story….]

Katherine’s research was thorough.  Apparently, the dogs work better in pairs because they can gang up on the hell beast.  It’s best to get adult dogs that are already trained and too big for a mountain lion to eat.  Some breeds are better with goats, and some with sheep.  Some with chickens.  Some are better at fighting bears, and some mountain lions.  Some patrol the perimeter, others lie in the middle of the herd like a lump.  Some are larger than others.  The Spanish Mastiff, for example, weighs up to 150 pounds.  

In the end, Katherine narrowed it down to two breeds: Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherd.

The AKC calls the Anatolian Shepherd independent, loyal, and reserved.  It is the 92nd most popular breed (out of how many, I wonder?), and was recognized as a breed in 1996.  Other adjectives for the breed are calm, watchful, loyal, smart, protective, and territorial.

The other option was the Great Pyrenees, which the AKC describes as calm, patient and smart.  AKC recognized the breed in 1933, and it is the 73rd most popular dog in the United States.  According to the AKC website, it “conveys the distinct impression of elegance and unsurpassed beauty combined with great overall size and majesty…He possesses a keen intelligence and a kindly, while regal, expression. Exhibiting a unique elegance of bearing and movement, his soundness and coordination show unmistakably the purpose for which he has been bred, the strenuous work of guarding flocks…” (

Anatolian Shepherd                                                                               Great Pyrenees

Katherine started working Craig’s list and found a pair of 8-month old, un-neutered male Great Pyrenees “puppies” kind of on the way home from the goat show.  She found other dogs in Nevada and Washington, so a 2-hour detour looked pretty good.  She’s a clever child, that one.  She called the breeders, asked some questions, and scheduled a visit.  I love an independent teenager – makes me feel like I’ve been doing my job as a mother.

The goat show finished up on Sunday, we loaded the 16 goats into the trailer and two younger siblings (Elizabeth and Robbie) into the back seat.  Off we went.  I’m getting better at driving the trailer—actually in the double digits now—but I’m not the best.  We worked our way through downtown Sacramento and came out the other side unscathed.  The navigation system worked fine.  The elevated levee road narrowed and snaked along.  Wind gusts buffeted the trailer.  We forged ahead like pioneers on the prairie. 

We made two wrong turns, had to turn the trailer around in tight little spots, and needed a potty break.  Lo! there was a port-a-potty right where we could turn the rig around in a little tiny circle.  How lucky was that?  Onward.  We spotted a mailbox with the correct numbers on it, and pulled in with the Suburban and trailer.  Big dogs barked like crazy, so it felt right. “Come on out kids!” I chirped.

A man came out. Great!  Doesn’t speak English.  Bad.  “Dogs?” I said, using hand gestures and pointing.  The eleven years of French I took were a total and absolute waste of time.  Somehow I got the message that the address I wanted was on the other side of the river. Got it.  “Back in the car,” I said while scoping out how to back my trailer out of the property.  I live in fear of backing up the trailer but somehow I got it done that time.  Phew.

To cross the river we had to traverse a drawbridge (see below).  Normally bridges don’t feel so… narrow… until you have to squeeze your Suburban and trailer past an oncoming Chevy Tahoe.  I got this.  Phew.

On the other side of the bridge we spotted the truly correct address because I was creeping down the road at 15 mph.  I was not going to make a wrong turn this time, no way, no how.  Definitely the right place – “dogs for sale.”  It was quite a place: aisle after aisle of tractor trailers, boats, storage sheds for sale, and so much other stuff I can’t even remember.  At the end of the driveway, I spotted a house.  I parked the rig right in the middle of the path. I was  not so sure about letting the kids out this time, but they were off and running before I could say anything. 

Even though Katherine engineered this meeting (from Craig’s list, which I suddenly remembered is a creepy, dangerous thing), I stepped forward and greeted the woman at the door.  She invited us in and introduced us to her husband.  I reached out to shake hands and realized he didn’t have an arm, so I reached for the other hand to shake – no arm there either.  Wave?

The four of us followed his wheelchair into the living room and perched ourselves on two sofas.  I was hoping against all hope that my children would hold it together and not ask personal, awkward questions – especially Elizabeth.  

Elizabeth is 11.5 and has zero filters (see her earlier blog as an example) and always says and asks the first thing that comes into her mind.  Usually I can prep kids for uncomfortable situations (don’t ask questions, don’t stare, look him in the eye, etc.), but not this time.  The effectiveness of my child rearing would be street tested.  And we were the very back of a truck storage lot in the middle of nowhere meeting someone my daughter found on Craig’s List…. “Mother of 7 missing with 3 of her children… last seen driving 16 goats through Sacramento County.”

The man, I’ll call him “Al,” told us his story.  He worked in the wilds of Alaska where he was called upon to stitch up the battle wounds of a Great Pyrenees dog that had been mauled by a bear.  Al used the hair from the tail of a horse to put hundreds of stitches into this tough dog, and he was hooked forever on the breed.  Later, Al was in a horrific hay baling accident and had 14,000 volts of electricity shoot through his body.  His wife had a nervous breakdown, and divorced him; so he married a hot nurse in the hospital – “that’s her over there!” Al said, pointing to his wife sitting on the sofa with Katherine.  Smiles all around.  He has Boer goats on hundreds of acres, and we talked about why some dog breeds are better at guarding livestock than others.  We talked about the miniature dachshunds that Al also breeds.  We talked for an hour.  When he got animated, Al flapped his stumps around.

I was blown away by this man.  He epitomizes the vision of success that I’ve been reading about in The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley.  Fantastic book.  I want my kids to read it but they think it’s boring.  I’m going to hide copies of it in all their luggage when they finally move out.  The basic idea is that truly wealthy people are frugal, unpretentious, and self-motivated.  To quote a cliche, “never judge a book by its cover.”  I sure hope that the kids heard Al’s story.  Even if they don’t remember it tomorrow or next week, I hope they filed it away in the deepest neurons of their brains to resurface at some later more appropriate time when they will understand it.  He is inspirational.

Al asked a few questions about where we live.  I tried to tone it down and make it sound rural and remote and not so wine-country-ish, but of course Elizabeth said, “Mom, we live in ____.”  Thanks kid.  Then she asked it: how did you loose your arms?  Forty-five minutes earlier I would’ve been mortified but by then we felt like old friends, so somehow it was OK. Besides, Al had hinted at the accident that caused it.  Turns out he lost his legs, too. He still operates his own business and has never once taken disability or any kind of government handout.  Wow.  Are you listening, kids??

We passed the interview and he said he would sell us the dogs.  We hadn’t seen them yet, but super!  We followed Al to the back porch where there was a box with brand new baby Boer goats.  There were pens full of miniature dachshunds and a variety of other dogs meandering around.  

The wife directed us to the pen with our new dogs.  I was in love already.  What a sucker I am!  I am surely my mother’s daughter.  Then the wife took us over to a shed where our dogs’ mother had recently given birth to a new litter of little white fur balls.  The next shed had a mama Boer goat and her triplet babies.  We couldn’t decide which was cuter.

I wrote a check, which I handed to Al, forgetting that he has no arms.  He chuckled and asked me to put it in his shirt pocket.  Losing all of his limbs had absolutely nothing to do with his personality, and was easily forgotten.  I hope the children learned that, too.

Finally, it was time to go.  The wife peeked in our trailer and “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” over our load of goats.  I felt like a rancher now.  Time to load the boys.  Katherine and I put down a tarp in the back of the Suburban, like always.  We hooked up lead ropes and dragged the flipping, spinning, flailing “puppies” to the car.  They had never been on a leash before, because they had been living in a goat field for 7 months.

I should probably describe the boys.  Unlike most Great Pyrenees, this pair has short, thick hair like a lab.  If they had a bath they would be snowy white, and they have big blocky heads and droopy puppy eyes.  Their tails are loopy.  Picture a yellow lab on steroids.  Lots and lots of steroids.  Their sire weighed in at 200 lbs and their dam was about 120.  At eight months, our new guard dogs each weighed 100 pounds.  I imagine they’ll get to at least 150 lbs.  So there I was with Katherine and two leaping “puppies” that needed to load in the back of my Suburban.  We got this.  We had done this many times before--heaving random large goats into the back of my SUV.  Katherine may be slight, but she’s strong and stubborn.  Hoist. Close ‘er up and we were off.  No backing up required, either.  Phew.

Back on the road with the goats at 8:15 pm I called my boyfriend, David, who was planning to come over for dinner.  With a 2-hour drive ahead of us, I was not going to cook that meatloaf when I got home, so could he please (pretty please) pick up pizza? Done.  One less thing to worry about.

A beautiful harvest moon was rising, and I drove along with my trailer full of goats and my car full of children and dogs.  Funny how life turns out.  Six years ago, as a well-heeled stay-at-home mom in San Francisco, I could not have even invented this scenario.  Then came a rumbling from the rear.

At Al’s, the dogs had been separated, in “time out,” because they had been fighting – a bit.  That thought had briefly crossed my mind when I loaded them, together, into the back of my SUV but I readily ignored it because I just wanted to get home.  The goat show was already 5 hours ago and tomorrow was a school day.  Then the throaty rumble reminded me all over again that maybe the un-neutered males were having some kind of … issue.

World War III erupted.  The scent of dog urine and blood filled the car and the noise was straight out of a horror movie.  I was driving the trailer and couldn’t turn to look, but here’s what it looked like in the rear view mirror:

The dog fight noises ebbed and flowed, and the dogs would lie down, exhausted and panting, only to rise up again in a fury.  Lets not forget that two of my children’s heads were right there – see the head rest?  My mind raced through options:
1) Pull over – and do what? Get kids out of car and let the dogs fight it out? Where? On the side of Interstate 80 in Sunday night traffic? Not good. 
2) Move the children to the front seat with Katherine – um, three large kids in the front passenger seat? Worse than a dog fight. 
3) Have Elizabeth and Robbie cower in the foot well of the rear passenger seat? Duck and cover. Maybe…
4) Hope for the best and keep on going…drive faster!

I chose option #4.

During a lull, Robbie (age 9) went back to playing on his iPad.  He decided that “Cat Physics” would be fun at that moment.  Honestly, I have no living idea what that app looks like but I do know what it sounds like: cats meowing.  In my mirror I saw two big white heads slowly emerge from behind the back row. 

My life flashed before my eyes – I envisioned 200 pounds of dog flesh hurtling over the puny rows of seats separating me from them, children trampled in the foot well.  Me trying to control the Suburban as we veered off the road, crashing the trailer full of goats. The headline would read “Mother of 7 and 3 of her children die in fiery trailer crash – goats running loose on Interstate 80.”

“TURN IT OFF!” Katherine, Elizabeth and I screamed in unison.  The heads sank down…. Peace in the land.

My cell phone rang.  Thank god for hands free Bluetooth in my luxurious American car.  It was my oldest child, Charlie.  He wanted to let me know that he had landed safely in New York and had gotten a cab to his AirBnB that was close to the TechCrunch conference that he had been hired to work.  “The skyline of Manhattan is beautiful,” he remarked.  It was like my old life literally calling me on the phone to say, “Hey, remember me?”  

The dogs sporadically fought in the background (speaker phone on, of course) and the kids were contemplating the foot well option… and we chugged down the road with our trailer full of goats.  Charlie already thinks I’m crazy and this episode just confirmed it.  He had to ask several times, “What did you just say?”  I started laughing so hard that I had to hang up and call him back.

The dogs finally tired out and we silently cruised through the night, full moon overhead, iPads dead out of power.  We pulled into our driveway, and saw David’s car parked there.  I could almost smell the pizza.  After backing the trailer into its parking space via an 872-point turn, the day was finally over. 

It had been less than four days since I saw that mountain lion.  In those brief hours, yes hours, I worked with a trapper, signed my will, went to a goat show, got lost in the backwoods of California, met a man with no arms or legs, and arrived back home with two blood streaked guard dogs.  I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

[Epilogue: Lets revisit the AKC description of Great Pyrenees: “conveys the distinct impression of elegance and unsurpassed beauty combined with great overall size and majesty…He possesses a keen intelligence and a kindly, while regal, expression. Exhibiting a unique elegance of bearing and movement, his soundness and coordination show unmistakably the purpose for which he has been bred, the strenuous work of guarding flocks…”  Well, here are my dogs.  You decide - elegant? majesty? regal? Best dogs ever!!]


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