It was obvious that Leckie was pregnant. We are her family, the caregivers who love her and support her, so we took turns spending a little more time with her each day, presenting her with tasty treats and rubbing her growing belly.
As Leckie grew larger and larger, we questioned how long she should continue to work, but we didn’t intervene because she loves her job so much. But finally, we, her caregivers, made a decision for her: We decided that the right thing for her was to take her off the job and provide her with protection and comfort.
We drove her about 10 miles to the ranch where she could rest comfortably and wait for nature to take its course.
Leckie beat us back to the sheep flock. She was raised with the sheep, and to separate this loyal guardian dog from her flock was simply unacceptable to her, no matter our motive. What we, her caregivers, had failed to consider is that even livestock guardian dogs will express their self-determination, the ability to control their own lives.
We scrambled to change our operations to provide Leckie with the support that we felt she needed. We hauled a stock trailer to her, providing a nest of grass hay, shade, food, and water inside, where I sat with her to make her comfortable. When she moved with the sheep, we moved the trailer so it was always available with all she needed.
But when it came down to it, Leckie made her own decision. One day she simply disappeared into the sagebrush. We looked for her, for hours, day after day. We hiked, drove miles and miles, calling to her. We kept the stock trailer stocked with food and water, and finally, we found an empty water bowl one morning. A few days later, the food bowl was emptied as well.
On the morning when she was finally ready to present her new offspring, she simply appeared, her bright white body standing out against a tall sagebrush background. She had been hiding in a maternal den she had excavated just 50 yards from the safety, comfort, and security of the stock trailer we had parked at her last known location.
The large dog had given birth to her six pups in a dense stand of sagebrush, adjacent to where the sheep grazed and watered every day. Of course she hadn’t really left her flock, but was tucked away out of sight nearby in case she was needed.
After revealing her location to us that morning, she waited until we stopped the truck and began talking to her before she turned and disappeared once again. We followed her into the brush, where she revealed the presence of her pups before settling in with them.
She had decided that she wanted privacy for the birthing process, not assistance. She had taken a few days of nourishing and tending to her new offspring before she was willing to share their existence with anyone. She had determined for herself how much disturbance she was willing to have, how and when she was ready to share, and proceeded to do things on her own. When the other livestock guardian dogs approached nearby, she set forth a low, rumbling growl of warning to keep their distance.
But when she was ready, Leckie shared her little blessings with us, her caregivers. I sat down nearby, stroking her head, feeding her treats, admiring her pups without touching them. This moment was all about sweet Leckie and respecting her decisions.
We moved the stock trailer a few yards from her den, keeping it stocked with food and water, but Leckie’s preference was for her sagebrush den. The pups were protected there and stayed warm and dry despite several rainstorms passing over during the week.
While Leckie enjoys being coddled and cared for, she had rejected us making decisions that we believed were in her best interests. She had demonstrated her self-determination, and had taught us to respect.
Who am I to believe I would know better than she? As her caregiver my job is to support her decisions, whatever those may be. Leckie will have a few more days of quiet in her den before we will move her family to another location with a few sheep to keep them company. We’ll do that once Leckie lets us know she’s ready.
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.