Bronte is six. Where does time go? When I brought her home, it was in a hurry, to deal with immediate coyote-killing-sheep problems. She was a half-grown pup, who grew into her job, and maturity, very slowly. At the time, there was no time to think about spaying, I needed her out with the sheep yesterday. And, I think part of me thought I may have wanted to breed her someday. But part of me always thinks that, and thus far, has always been wrong. Even her breeder stopped breeding LGDs. The litters are huge, the pups grow fast and eat a lot, it’s tough to find suitable working homes for them, and sometimes you get them back later and have to re-home them.

Later, we got Moses, so I had a backup guardian dog. Moses was already neutered when he came. I started to think about spaying Bronte, but there still didn’t seem to be any urgency. Knock on wood, we just don’t have issues with loose or stray dogs here, so there was little concern she’d be accidentally bred. I considered whether maybe I’d never spay her. I waffled. This would be no ordinary spay, on many accounts.

Last summer, I noticed there was a time when a coyote really seemed to be barking persistently, obnoxiously, at the fence line at night. I realized it as while Bronte was in heat. She seemed to bark back or ignore him, and the relationship appeared to stay adversarial. But, it made me wonder. Wonder about a dozen half-coyote, half-120-lb-Maremma pups. OMG, that would be a nightmare. If she were to be “accidentally” bred, I wouldn’t even figure it out until she was almost due. It made me re-evaluate spaying again.

A pretty nightgown from GoodwillI think the problem is, I’m only about 60% convinced spaying is a good idea. I attended a seminar from a WSU reproductive specialist once, who explained that domestic dogs are weird, as far as mammals go. They are the only ones that break all the rules- they don’t follow consistent ovulation schedules, they have all sorts of anomalies like split and silent heats. And, they commonly have “false pregnancies.” This is because the hormone that normally tells a mammal’s body “I’m not pregnant” is absent in dogs. So, their bodies, and their uteruses, go through some or all of the motions of pregnancy every heat cycle.

The professor thus recommended something that was shocking to we seasoned dog show people in the audience: get your planned litters out of your bitch as early and quickly as possible. Yes, breed her on her first heat. Breed her on back-to-back cycles. Get it done. Then spay her. Because every cycle where you let her “rest” she’s not really resting. She’s wearing her body out, shortening her life, and adding to the risk of ovarian or uterine cancer. So, there’s that. And there is the risk of unplanned pregnancy. With a coyote for a sire. Surprised smile

On the other hand, removing the uterus and ovaries from a body just seems so unnatural. And sending a perfectly healthy dog into major surgery is always risky, there is no getting around it. Thus was my dilemma. But, the coyote suitor sealed the deal, I decided to do it. The next question was, when? In summer, I have two separate groups of sheep, and each one needs a dog with them. In winter, the sheep are in one group, in the pasture closest to the house. So this was the best time to leave them with Moses while Bronte was out of commission. So, I put it on my list to do it in winter.

Come January, I realized, ok, now’s the time. I wanted to get it done before lambing season. I called around, got some quotes. Interestingly, the clinic where my farm vet works refused to do the job, unless I gave her a full battery of vaccinations first. I didn’t want to, her exposure to other dogs is zero, so the risk-benefit doesn’t pan out for vaccinating her for anything beyond rabies, IMO. So I moved on to the spay-neuter clinic I’ve used before, they have no such policy. When it came time to make the appointment, I chickened out and didn’t want to do it, I started re-evaluating why I planned to. Then I realized it’s just anxiety, I really hate sending my dogs in for surgery. I decided to stick with the plan and booked the date. I warned the clinic that this would be an unusual job, a big, dirty, unruly, half-feral dog. They were ok with that.

I was super nervous about this appointment. Bronte has not been off our property since we got her. She isn’t really trained to walk on a leash. She’s shy around strangers. I wasn’t sure how she’d cope with other people handling her. I had visions of her panicking in the parking lot, breaking free, and me not being able to catch her. I could picture her freaking out inside the clinic, turning into a 120-pound fear biter who’s nearly at face height. I decided to bring Moses along as an escort, since he is more civilized. I figured he could have a calming influence, and could be of help if I needed to catch a loose Bronte. I put her in the barn the night before, so she’d be dry by morning, and easy to load up.

I loaded both dogs into my cargo van in the am. I don’t have crates big enough for them, so they rode loose. This also makes me nervous, but it is what it is. Bronte was very anxious, panting heavily in  my ear, and drooling all over my lap while I drove. We arrived, and I left them in the van until the techs were ready for her. Thankfully, it was a very quiet morning in the clinic; where usually it’s a chaotic zoo of ridiculous, unmanageable pets of all sizes, with inexperienced owners in tow. I think maybe they blocked out the morning  just for my job, as I didn’t see any other surgeries check in.

When it was time, I leashed up both dogs and walked them in. She went along with the flow, as I figured she would if Moses and I were going somewhere. I realized that I tend to think of her more as livestock than a pet dog, and handle her more with that mindset: moving her with a group, making sure she has the comfort of a herd to keep her calm. A tech took her leash and Bronte followed her into the back with no trouble. This part surprised me. I put Moses back in the van. I waited in the front while they assessed her in the back. I noticed bits of  hay had fallen on the floor, shed from the three of us. I wondered if they were going to charge me some kind of “cleaning fee” for bringing in such a messy dog. I re-evaluated whether I should have done this in the summer, when her coat is shorter and tidier. But summer is the time of year when I need her working with the ewe group on the edges of the property. Winter was the plan, and here we were, with her thick coat and embedded debris.

Sure enough, they did hit me with an extra charge for doing more shaving/grooming around the incision site. Plus a charge for her being so large, and a charge for her being older. Another charge for her being overweight, which annoyed me, because she’s not. But the total bill still didn’t seem unreasonable to me, so I let it go. It was expensive. But, she is a 120-pound dog, after all; that’s a lot of anesthesia and pain drugs. We agreed to proceed, and I went home to wait until the 2pm pickup time.

I was really worried all morning, as I always am, waiting for a call to say “sorry, something went wrong, she died on the table.” I wondered if it was the right decision. But, no call came, and I went to retrieve her in the afternoon. They said the surgery went well, that it was very long, and they sounded tired. Bronte was in a recovery cage- a double-sized one with the partition pulled out of the middle. She was very groggy and didn’t show any signs of recognizing me. We had to slide her out of the cage around the center post, and she would not stand. The vet techs put a sling around her chest, and we carried her out side and hefted her into the van. They did not have an Elizabethan collar big enough to offer me. That was ok, I had another plan.

As I drove off, Bronte revived a bit, was able to rise, and stand next to me on the way home. I had to call into a meeting at work. I struggled to make make the touch screen on my phone work, as my hand was covered in dog slobber. I kept one hand on the wheel, and one arm around Bronte to steady her while I drove. At home, I put her back in the barn with some ewelambs, which is where she has to stay for two weeks. She’s not housebroken, so keeping her indoors is not an option; the barn is the best place where I can keep her relatively quiet and dry.

To protect the incision, I had purchased an old nightgown for a buck at a thrift store. I slit the neckline to accommodate her big chest, and made slits for her back legs. Then safety-pinned it together so it didn’t drag. She has been wearing it respectfully, and leaving her incision alone. I had to go to work the next day, and my mind drifted to the possibility that she could gut those stiches while I was away, bleed out, and I’d find her dead when I got home. But, no, she’s been fine. The sheep were a little nervous about her in the nightgown; any kind of apparel, I’ve found, makes a familiar dog unrecognizable to them. But they adjusted, and she’s very happy to be hanging out so close to her friends. It really took her until the next day to sleep off the anesthesia and be interested in eating. But she was very cheerful, so I knew she felt ok, just groggy.

The biggest challenge has been giving her the required meds. They sent me home with five days’ worth of two different pain/anti-inflammatory drugs, and a weeklong series of antibiotics. They were very concerned about her going back into a dirty environment, so thought antibiotics were warranted. A 120-lb dog needs six capsules a day, and there were seven pain tablets as well. Bronte has a huge mouth, so getting the pills down to the back of her throat entails sticking my whole hand in her gullet. The pilling was making her panic about choking, so she was biting down pretty hard to fight it. I worried I could lose a finger!

I switched to embedding the pills in string cheese. For a civilized house dog, this usually works like a charm- you can get them catching and gulping plain cheese balls, then sneak in the pilled ones in rapid fire, and they never notice what they’re swallowing. But Bronte has never learned to eat treats from my hand, she’s just not a big food hound to begin with. So the cheese only offered an incremental improvement in helping the pills slide down her throat, and possibly making them more palatable. But I still found I had to pop them in, hold her mouth shut with all my strength, as she writhed and struggled. Fortunately, she is a very sweet and forgiving dog; so as upsetting as this abuse is to her, she still welcomes some petting and attention afterwards to make up for it.

Her nightgown has lost its pearlescent buttons, and got dirty enough that I ran it through the wash once already. But, it’s working, keeping her incision from touching the sheep bedding, and keeping her from licking and worrying it.

The spay was on Monday, so only two more days of antibiotics, and we’ll be done with the pilling drama. I’ll keep her in the barn one more week before I turn her loose in the field. I know what’ll happen as soon as she’s out again: she and Moses will do a big grizzly bear wrestle in greeting, she’s gonna start sprinting full speed to chase cyclists on the road, and she’s gonna crawl around in the mud and get wet standing out in the rain. So best to let that incision bind well before she goes back to full activity. She should be back in full swing just in time for lambing, when it’s important she be with the ewes to ward off eagles! So, phew, I think I’m glad I did it; hopefully it will translate to greater longevity in such a valuable dog. I get a $30 annual price break on my kennel license, which is a small boon. And no more worry about coy-dogs being conceived!