Goodbye to a faithful livestock guardian dog partner

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Houdini
Houdini, a 5-year-old Akbash-Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog, enjoys the sunshine, a soft spot on the hay and watching over his sheep, in late February. (Photo courtesy of Blue Heron Farms)

“ … He is the only animal born perfectly trained for the service of others …” (18th century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, from Natural History, on the sheep dog)

This is not the column I thought I would write. But: life.

Our spring lambing season began in mid-March. We’ve had a lot of lambs already, and by the time we’re done, more than 200 ewes will have given birth. I’m juggling newspaper deadlines with the demands of pregnant sheep that don’t care about an editorial calendar. Social distancing is not hard right now.

Not to mention, days of torrential rains turned an already soggy farm into a giant mud hole. We’ve had ewes get stuck or injure their legs over the past weeks.

Injured

And, then, it happened. One morning, I went out to do an early lamb check, and Houdini, our 5-year-old Akbash-Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog, was sitting under a tree in the yard, whining. After he had one of his back legs amputated in the fall, he had to curtail his activity. He struggled, but learned how to manage, mostly. He’d even gotten back his quirky humor and playfulness. That spot had become a favorite lookout for his evening watch.

I examined him. He couldn’t put any weight on his remaining back leg. The night before, torrential downpours swept through. The livestock guardian dogs — Houdini, Maya and Jael — had been on alert late into the wee hours. No doubt, the combo of the weather and the goings-on led to his injury. I helped him inside the house to rest.

Over the next day or so, I watched him, gave him some pain medication and made him rest. But his leg didn’t get better. Knowing the injuries I’d seen in our sheep, I took a deep breath and called the vet. With the increasing regional lockdown, I wanted answers sooner rather than later.

Bad news

The vet visit was weird, as most things are these days. Technicians came out, loaded Houdini onto a table and rolled him inside. I waited in my car. The vet called with the news: suspected tear and arthritis. The chance of recovery? Unlikely.

It was a gut punch, but I knew what I needed to do. The amputation was a gamble. But, as I’ve explained previously about Houdini, he changed life on our farm from the moment he arrived. He’d single-handedly beat off coyotes for years. He proved how important the shepherd-livestock guardian dog bond is, time and again. It was gamble I was willing to take.

I also knew, however, when the time came, it would come swiftly. He would not go gracefully into retirement. He was a workaholic, to his detriment. So, in the midst of all of the new coronavirus craziness, I had to say goodbye to a working partner I never knew I needed.

Life of service

Houdini was relentless in his service to our farm and in protecting our flock. I have countless stories of his heroism. He loved his people. He’d taken to spending some time at my parents’ house, next door, watching over them on his daytime “off hours.” I never asked him to do that, but he knew it was important. And he loved his pack mates. Some of my favorite memories from the past few months have been of them tussling playfully in the hay, while the sheep grazed nearby.

He was infuriating too. Despite his flaws though, he was as loyal, loving and dedicated as they come. He inspired my subsequent — and continuing — dive into livestock guardian dogs. The two girls I got to back him up complemented his strengths and weaknesses.

No comparison

Kenny Rogers, a music icon whose work spanned multiple genres, died March 20, at age 81. He was known for iconic ballads, such as “The Gambler,” and had a career that spanned 60 years.

“You either do what everyone else is doing and you do it better, or you do what no one else is doing and you don’t invite comparison,” he told The Associated Press in 2015.

We have had to move on at the farm. Many more lambs have been born. I have had to fast-track my time line to give Maya and Jael more backup. COVID-19 craziness increases. But I can’t help but think about Rogers’ statement in the midst of it all.

We buried Houdini next to a lookout spot he had long favored. It’s a prime spot to watch over the sheep and the farm, one he taught the girls to love too. It’s a fitting final resting spot for a dog that set out to do what no other had done for us, and isn’t likely to invite comparison again.

He was one of a kind. He was a good, good boy.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I really appreciated you story this morning. Your guard dog was not a pet, but a working companion and will be truly missed by you and your flock. I hope that your other two dogs are able to take what Houdini taught them and protect your ewes and lambs well. That had to be a tough story to write.

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