This pup was an emergency procurement. We’d only had sheep for a matter of months, and had started with a llama to protect them. Plan B was going to be to get a dog if the llama didn’t prove effective. Plan B was invoked quicker than anticipated, as we had coyote kills, right as the llama stood in the pasture with the sheep. We needed better protection, stat!


My friend Sara Jo had a litter of Maremmas. This was the last puppy left. Passed over by other choosers, I’m sure, because she was very shy. Freaky shy. She was about five months old when I stuffed her frozen-in-fear self into a crate in my van. I put her right into a pen with our remaining sheep.  There was no time or opportunity to follow text book advice about starting starting a puppy with a mature, trained mentor to train it up. She had to go straight to work, despite still being a very immature pup, because of need and urgency. She whined when I left her out there, and my heart cringed: this is not the life of a pampered house pet. But she adapted quickly and accepted her lot in life, eventually learning to love her role and fulfill her purpose with seriousness and intent.


She got into all manner of troubles as an adolescent. Chased the sheep, knocked them down. Gnawed on lamb legs, injuring them. Escaped. Chewed things. Stood up like a grizzly bear to put her feet on the llama’s back to harass her. Went through a feral period where I could not catch her, and I  had to tame her by manipulating food availability. She ran from me. She did not understand the word “no.” She was a gigantic handful that tested the limits of my 30 years of dog training skills. Many people re-homed failed guardian dogs, and I wondered if we’d be another example.


When she was two, we added Moses, a “career change” Kuvasz from the dog show world. She was cruel to him at first, and he was very traumatized. Eventually they became good friends.


She was swift and loved to run. Run after cyclists and strange cars and coyotes. And running just to run. I thought all guardian breeds were sharp and serious. Her exuberance surprised me.


For a long time, she had to drag a longline or a chain, to curtail her sheep chasing behavior. It worked, over time, the chain drag taught her to approach sheep with a calm demeanor, they didn’t run away, and she got her wish: to hang out with them as if she belonged. Eventually, she became trustworthy enough to stay in the company of the ewes even while  they were giving birth. The ewes didn’t mind her presence at all, and she’d lick newborn lambs and pant and smile in delight at her good fortune to hang out with her favorite beings in the world: sheep.


She grew very, very big. Topping 120 pounds.

She was very silly.


And very sweet.


And very beautiful.

I could sleep at night, knowing that she had a handle on all threats. I could tell by the way she barked if there was imminent danger, or just something in the distance she was warning away. I didn’t know how much anxiety the sheep-coyote situation had been giving me, until it disappeared when she started to demonstrate she had it under control. I stopped worrying.

When I had her spayed, she patiently wore an old nightgown and stayed in the barn while her stitches healed. She liked being in the barn with some sheep, but was much happier once she returned outdoors to the big pasture with all the sheep.

Last summer, she was diagnosed with bone cancer, at age eight. The vet warned me time was short. It always is with bone cancer. I tried lots of treatments to ease her pain and prolong her life. She did ok and I  had hope that we might buy more time than some. I got a pup to start training to take her place. She was accepting of this, and allowed the pup to follow her everywhere.


In November, she crashed suddenly one day, laying in the field in complete distress.  The foot below her tumor was swollen as big as a bear paw. I hauled her up to the barn in the ATV trailer, then hauled her to the vet. We treated her in the van, as she could not walk. An infection had developed at the tumor site. We irrigated and wrapped it, and I was sent home with more drugs. I noticed her jaw was very hard to pry open to give her meds and liquid foods. Her breathing was very labored.

BrontKnee2We wondered if she’d contracted tetanus. It’s rare for dogs to succumb to it, but possible. It’s hard to diagnose and harder to treat. Bone cancer also often metastasizes in the lungs; so possibly she was just full of cancer everywhere and it was too much. She rallied a little once on antibiotics, and mustered some wandering in the yard the next day; but then lay down in exhaustion on the grass, her breathing very heavy. I hauled her back into the barn and bedded her down in there in the evening. A few hours later, she was dead. Only four months from when that horrendous tumor sprung to life on her front knee.

We buried her in the pasture with the sheep, of course. I miss her lots. The bond we have with protection dogs is different from house dogs. With pets, our bond is almost superficial: we are reliant on their companionship, their snuggles, their antics; all of which entertain and delight us. But the reliance we have on working dogs is a much deeper dependency, both practically and emotionally. They are not here for our amusement and enjoyment; they are here for asset protection and personal safety. They are partners in the business of farming; they carry a heavy weight of responsibility and risk, which unburdens us so that we can sleep at night and leave the farm unmanned for periods of time. Sometimes they lay down their lives for this job. They are an extension of our passion for good husbandry, keeping our flocks safe from harm far better than we could ourselves. They say one good farm dog is worth eight ranch hands, and it’s true. We would need a staff of cowboys to do the job that Bronte has done, maintaining vigilance 24/7 so that the sheep are watched-over day and night. So, the loss of a noble and humble guardian dog is certainly acute, offering a different kind of void to fill than when we lose a companion dog.

Things for which I am grateful, however: that she lived as long in service as she did, that I was able to prevent most of the potential pain that can come with bone cancer, and that her final passage to death was reasonably swift and without prolonged suffering. There isn’t a lot of time to grieve on a farm, as the demands of the living prevent much pause to mourn the lost. The wheel keeps turning, there are three other aging working dogs to tend, and a growing pup to train; pregnant ewes to feed, lambs to butcher, ice to break, water to pour,  machines to fix, earth to till, seeds to plant, eggs to gather, and new lambs to be born soon enough. When you farm, you break to the yoke of the cycle of constant loss and rebirth, becoming very accepting of and acquainted with it, perpetually harnessed to it. You just keep pulling the plough, even through tears. That old Ecclesiastes 3 verse echoes in my head as I feel sad while doing chores, because indeed, on a farm more than anywhere else, to every thing, there is a season.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; 
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What gain has the worker from his toil?

For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.
They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.
All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.

Rest easy in sunny pastures with many sheep, Miss “Big Bird” Bronte. You’ve earned it.