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Saying goodbye to a valued member of the farm - the loss of a livestock guardian dog.

Posted 4/19/2020 12:24pm by Jen Hart.

I have struggled to write this. It feels selfish to seek comfort from the online community in the face of what so many are going through in our new reality. Would this make people feel worse, at a time when we are all looking for uplifting and happy posts in order to provide distraction from our worries?   Perhaps, but this isn't just about me and my thoughts and feelings. The passing of a guardian dog deserves more than a few photos and a passing comment on social media.  They are an integral part of the farm, valued employees, true companions, and they deserve a memorial.  It’s taken me a couple weeks to get past the initial shock of her not being here, and on reflection I can see the beauty she brought, and the trouble she caused.  She was not a perfect dog, and I was a less than perfect dog boss.  But she was my first, and she taught me more than any other dog likely will, so I’d like to tell you about her and what she meant to me.

She was the very first livestock guardian dog I ever knew and loved, and she was laid to rest on the 6th of April, 2020.  Her name was Star and she was a Maremma. 

We arm our farms with Maremmas.  These beautiful, strong, independent thinkers are crucial cogs in the farm works, watching over their charges as well as their human partners. They are the key to safely providing food for others while enabling us to farm in harmony with nature, rather than always battling against it.  They help lower the stress of the herds and the flocks, they make any predator (human or beast) think twice before venturing beyond the gate or over the fence, which means our farm is also a haven for many threatened species of bird, frog and turtle, something which brings us great pride and joy. They make our jobs easier; their existence means that I can sleep at night safe in the knowledge that my lambs and chickens are safe from hungry prowlers and our cattle safe from rustlers.

Star was one of the original residents of the farm, working here before my arrival.  She was still only a pup when I got here, and to say we had a troubled start is putting it mildly.  She had already established her position as boss when I arrived, and we bumped heads, struggling to see eye to eye.  I didn’t know what I was doing, and made many, many mistakes.  Bad training advice combined with a poor mental attitude meant I was a crap dog boss. I was a complete mess emotionally, and she was a real killer. I lost many chickens and a couple of prized turkeys to her youthful exuberance and my complete lack of experience and understanding of this breed and their training requirements. Even though she did her best to protect them, the temptation to play with the little flappy things was too much some days, and I was in serious doubt as to whether she'd ever work out as a guardian dog. But, we persevered, and once she grew out of the terrible dog teens (the age of 6 mos up to a year or so) we began to trust one another, and she became the gentlest poultry guardian.  She would break up fights between drakes and roosters who were determined to kill one another for dominance of the yard and their respective hens – she made it clear who was really in charge.  She would discourage the turkey hens from bullying the smaller birds. She sometimes helped corral ducklings and saved more than one from being killed by chickens (don’t be fooled by cutsie memes and viral videos on The Dodo, chickens are tiny dinosaurs.  Chickens take no prisoners). But mostly she just liked to hang out wherever the little birds were.  I would often find her curled up with chicks who would use her as a pillow. Mother ducks would parade her little ones past her without fear.  Not once in her adult life did she make a threatening move toward any bird (unless they tried to get her dinner – her meals were off limits!). As time went on, I could see that it wasn't her that had been the problem as much as my lack of training and understanding her breed.  I exacerbated the problems when she needed me to be strong and firm, I was inconsistent with my reprimands and not generous enough with praise when she did well.  She needed a partner as much as a boss and I don’t fault her for thinking I wasn’t up to the job of either. She was my first guardian dog and thank goodness she was forgiving.

She only had one puppy. She mothered that one pup and that mothering instinct carried over to all the other dogs.  A fiercely protective side became evident, but also a sweet and generous nature to the ones she accepted into her pack.  She showed the younger dogs how to behave around the birds, calm and gentle, a soft push with a nose if a chick or duckling went astray.  She led by example, which also meant several big white dogs dashing at the fence any time someone dared venture on to the road or tried to work in the field opposite our farm.  She didn’t only teach them the good things; the bad habits were taught as well.

It took months for us to trust one another and I’ll never forget the day I felt our relationship shift for the better.  Despite my mishandling of many situations with her, and my consistent misunderstanding of her motives, she remained constant as my companion, following me around the farm – checking on me?  Perhaps, but also trying to work with me as I came to understand later.  Every day she would accompany me along with Fred the barn cat (also an established farm resident before I got here) as I filled the cow drinker, fed the chickens, and gathered the eggs.  My first winter I would fill the cow drinker every morning from inside the barn, through a big door who’s opening was raised from the barn floor.  She, Fred and I would have the same routine every day.  I would stand with my foot up on the door sill, she would stand beside my bent knee, both front paws on the sill, and Fred would sit in the corner of the door frame.  All three of us would to stare off into the distance, feeling the bitter cold against our faces.  I did not speak, and we did not come into contact (I was still of the mind that the hands-off approach we had been recommended was best for these dogs – oh how wrong I was).  For me, this time looking out over the frozen landscape was a time for reflection, and one day I was overcome with sadness.  This was my first winter in Canada for many years, and it was hard.  I had left a very comfortable life in the UK and so many people that I loved in order to do what I felt was my calling here in Canada, but no one can ever tell you how difficult farming really is, or how isolating it can feel.  I wondered, had I made the right decision?  I had so many great people around me, but I felt so alone, desolate even.  I began to cry, and after a few minutes I realised she had inched closer to me, leaned hard against me, and I heard her expel loud huff before she laid her head on my knee.  As Fred the cat weaved and spun between our legs, purring in his signature way – like a Formula 1 race car – I cried even more for I was overcome by her sweetness, and she did not budge until I was ready to move.  We bonded in that moment, and although it took a long time for me to become truly happy and confident in myself, I knew I had gained her trust, and the dynamic on the farm improved dramatically. 

Fast forward to the end of March, 2020 and she is the old lady of the farm, old for a working dog. Her joints are sore, she mostly sleeps the days away. She’s losing weight rapidly, even though her appetite has not waned at all. She can still run, maybe not like the wind, but fast.  Up until her final days she is on watch for vultures, hawks, ravens, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, weasels and oh! those murderous squirrels and chipmunks who taunt her from the trees, chattering and twitching their deadly tails, daring her to come closer.  She and her team have made the farm very safe, and our losses to predation are slim to none.  Her high-pitched bark called a warning for predators to stay away, and they always retreated. I knew her different barks and what they meant.  Some simply warned "stay over there, don’t come any closer, I can’t see you but I can hear/smell you", while another proclaimed, “I see you on that road, walking with that dangerous baby/chihuahua, don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to!!” and finally the high-pitched yelp which meant the predator was here, danger was in the yard, and she had it cornered.  Once it was a stray fawn (which I managed to get out of the pasture and safely away), sometimes it was raccoons or skunks, and more than once it was a coyote or fox.  Unfortunately, she could not distinguish between someone delivering a parcel and a coyote, and she scared many an unwitting visitor, much to my chagrin.   

I know the joggers and cyclists, and neighbours who have the nerve to work in their yard or to check their own mailboxes, will not miss her. The motorcycles, 4x4s and anyone towing a trailer can now breeze by without mad flashes of white fur and teeth snarling at the fence line. The horse riders can relax a bit more when exercising on a sunny day. Even when she could hardly walk after she injured her leg a few years back, she managed a startlingly quick hobble to tell everyone to "stay off our lawn". No matter how I tried, I could not break her of this habit.  She took her job of guarding the barnyard very seriously, and in my first years her barking drove me to distraction.  Once I got more dogs her barking was less frantic – she had help, she was not alone, 3 noses were always better than one. But always she would show aggression toward the person approaching, walking their dog, delivering mail.

I knew she was ready to say goodbye the day the motorcycles screamed past and she didn't even lift her head.  She was now just skin and bones, and all her bounce was gone, leaving a tired and sad old dog that just wanted to be at peace.  That night she wouldn’t eat for the first time in her life, and she kept trying to wander off farm, likely to find a quiet place to die.  I was able to easily pick up a formerly robust (and frankly chubby) guardian dog and carry her like she was a puppy, she was so light.  I put her into her favourite coop with the birds and called the vet.  It was time.

The vet had been out to see her weeks earlier and said that although there were many tests and scans and x rays we could do, because of her age it was likely going to be for nought.  Her heart rate and temp were good at the time, her disposition was still bright and sunny, and one day soon she would turn a corner and we’d know it when it happened.  When that day comes, she said, call me, and I’ll come.  Social distancing made the event more difficult, but we managed to coordinate the process and bring her end quickly and painlessly. I didn’t have to bundle her off in a car for an hour to a strange place with scary smells and unfamiliar people.  She took her last breath in the place she loved, and the last thing she smelled was my hand holding her face.  The last thing she heard was the birds in the trees, her roosters crowing, and my voice reassuring her that she would be ok.  She went quietly, in the warm spring sunshine, in the only place she knew, with the person she would have given her life to protect sitting beside her.

I buried her with her best pal, Fred the cat, who passed on Christmas Eve, 2019.  I had not been able to bury him at the time as the ground had been frozen solid, and when I knew she was close I held off.  They now lay together, and their shared resting place will become a butterfly and hummingbird garden.  They will never just be lawn.

The yard is so quiet now.  The first few days after she died I would dread going out there. I would forget and look for her out of habit, only to see the little depression she’d dug for herself to sleep lying vacant, almost yawning with emptiness.  Feeding time was hard, and I would cry every time I had to make up 3 bowls, not 4. Her loping gait, madly wheeling tail and bright, smiling face was always there to greet me when I came through the gate, and the lack of her presence was truly painful to me.    

The yard is so quiet now, and I’m realising that’s not such a bad thing.  My youngest dog, Driver, doesn’t bark at every movement on the road anymore.  He’s not aggressive toward guests the few times we’ve had people here for equipment or business.  He’s still big and scary enough to put off any criminals who might ponder venturing onto our land, and certainly sees off predators, but he is not as manic or unpredictable, and has incredible recall for his breed.  I can see now that a lot of the aggression that he and the other dogs expressed was fueled by her leadership, and I know that my love for her made me blind to this.  It will take some time for Driver to settle and gain confidence, but now I’m seeing the difference a few years has made in my skills as a dog handler, and how much better his behaviour (and the other dogs behaviour) has been since she died.  This new quiet is the silver lining in my loss of her, and more and more I can smile thinking about her, remembering her quirks and sweetness instead of only her last sad days and her deterioration.

Despite her faults, she was a feisty little barrel of sweetness, she was a truly exceptional chicken dog, and she was my girl.  I will sorely miss her. RIP my Starshine. Good girl. xxx