By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily
We’ve spent the past four years trying to convince an old range dog to retire. Old Mama is a fine old livestock guardian dog that has traveled many, many miles with her flocks. She’s not much to look at, and her face and body carry many scars of battle, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.
Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 13+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.
As she aged, we gradually placed Old Mama with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range four years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.
One dark night in the fall of 2017, a pack of wolves attacked our sheep flock on its bedground, and Old Mama was one of three livestock guardian dogs injured in the brawl. With the help of a dedicated local veterinarian, Old Mama recovered from severe wounds, but the attack and her advancing age led to the decision to end her free-ranging days out with the main sheep flock. Old Mama had always enjoyed leading her flock out to graze for the day, sticking her tail straight into the air and stepping daintily as the sheep followed along. But those days were over.
By this point, Old Mama was still in great physical condition, but her teeth were so worn with age so she could no longer defend herself. The other guardian dogs would surely come to the defense of their comrade, but with wolves coming in so close to the sheep night pen, and confrontations escalating, I didn’t want to risk losing such a magnificent creature as Old Mama to wolves.
It was a tough decision to slip a leash over her neck and hold her back that cold morning, standing with the old dog as she watched her flock go forward without her. I turned her head and directed her into a large pen of lambs we’d kept from that spring, and Old Mama seemed happy enough to be with these youngsters.
There are always at least a few sheep around the ranch headquarters, and in the wintertime we feed hay nearby, so Old Mama always has access to the thing she loves most – her sheep. Last winter, Old Mama stayed close to the house, sometimes seeking shelter in the barn, but more often than not sleeping in the haystack next to the flock’s night pen.
Old Mama is going deaf, she can’t see well, and now she’s a little wobbly on her feet. It’s lambing season again, and I’ve got a small pen of orphan lambs for her to keep company.
One afternoon last week, I looked out to see a livestock guardian dog leaving the headquarters, headed into our lambing pasture. The dogs guarding the lambing flock burst into action, barking and racing to face the intruder, but then breaking into excited body wiggles when they saw the grand old girl was once again joining the flock. Everyone in our family cheered for the old dog and her determination.
Old Mama’s body may be weakening, but she still has a booming bark that broadcasts warnings to tell predators to stay away. She parked herself in the middle of the flock, staying close to a ewe that gave birth later that night. The other guardian dogs kept a respectful distance, knowing that this elderly guardian belongs wherever she wants. She’s earned this range.
Once the ewe moved off with her newborn lambs the next morning, Old Mama began her slow journey back to headquarters, where her new crop of orphan lambs was waiting. She spent the night with these wee ones, then set out again in her slow lumber for the lambing flock.
This noble old dog has earned the right to make her own decisions. We’ll try to minimize her risk of injury, but in the end, she’ll decide how she wants to leave this life. At the very least, we owe her that.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.