Ode to a Good Farm Dog


Farm Notes

Before moving to our farm ten years ago, I was a cat person. I have had dozens of cats over a lifetime. Since childhood, I’ve loved cats and still do to this day. I had never owned a dog; never really cared for them. They’re slobbery, smelly, and seem to need their humans far more than cats. Cats are on autopilot…they self-clean, they’re affectionate (at their convenience) and you certainly don’t have to walk them anywhere. But dogs and farms just seem to go together. Something about living in the quiet countryside and the general safety concerns of relative geographic isolation made me want one.

The first farm dog we ever got was Woody. We couldn’t have gotten a better first dog. An Australian Shepherd, he wants nothing more than to please his owners. He’s incredibly intelligent, protective, loving, and loyal to a fault. If I take him camping or anywhere off the farm, I have his leash at the ready. But I don’t need it—he won’t leave my side and we both end up tripping over the silly leash. We wanted an Australian Shepherd because although we had only a few dozen goats at the time, we were excited to find a breed known for their herding instincts. But this is where our inexperience as dog owners shows through…for although Woody has a strong, innate desire to herd animals, he would need instruction and training to perform whatever tasks I want him to do. I, too, would need to learn how to communicate my desires to a willing, but otherwise completely confused dog. Regardless, Woody is a happy and healthy farm dog, helping the best way he knows how.

As our goat and chicken numbers increased, we started to worry about predation—this area is filled with coyotes, foxes, mink, fishers, and even the occasional wolf. Farmers often get a guardian animal to help protect their flocks. Alpacas, llamas, donkeys and special breeds of dogs are all great options. It was then that we adopted Canute. He is a Maremma—an Italian dog breed very similar to the Great Pyrenees and used for centuries as guardians for goats and sheep. We adopted him as a young puppy and put him in with the goats. We limited our time socializing with him, which seems almost cruel, but this helped ensure that he bonded with the animals first and foremost. Now seven years old, Canute is a formidable 140 pounds and a prime example of a good, working farm dog. He is loving and protective of us but will bark at anything or anyone that he doesn’t know. Although he is not constrained or fenced in, he never wanders. Fortunately for us, we did not have to train him to be a good guardian. His instincts are to face threats head on. If he were human, he would be a firefighter. I sleep very well at night knowing Canute in on the job.

When Canute was about a year old, we got Molly—a Maremma/Great Pyrenees mix. Our farm operation was spreading out a bit as we fenced in additional pastures and our numbers continued to grow. Again, we put our new puppy in with the goats and limited our bonding time with her to just a few minutes each day. Molly quickly grew into an even better guardian than Canute. Perhaps it was her maternal instinct that made her better at her job. We always knew if a goat gave birth out on pasture, because Molly wouldn’t leave her side. Molly genuinely preferred to be with the goats and the sheep, allowing babies to climb all over her. Molly and Canute eventually had two litters of puppies that couldn’t have been cuter. All found loving homes, most of which were other goat or sheep farms.

Molly watching over her sheep and goats.

Molly watching over her sheep and goats.

So, we have three working dogs on our farm. Or, at least we had three. Molly died on Thanksgiving, most likely from bloat. It’s a deadly condition that seems to strike mostly large breed dogs. If they eat a large meal or drink a lot of water and then vigorously run around, their stomach can twist on itself. If the dog’s owner doesn’t notice the symptoms and act immediately, the dog will die very quickly. We weren’t here to notice any symptoms—we were gone from the farm for two days for the holiday.

We’ve all been deeply affected by Molly’s absence. I miss her terribly; she was such an affectionate dog. I’ve found our daughter Margaret on several occasions sobbing uncontrollably. Although both our daughters love going on long walks and exploring, Margaret especially enjoys hiking with the dogs. All three dogs would go, but Canute and Woody often tire out, opting to return home to eat, drink and sleep. But not Molly—she would always stay with our girls to the bitter end. Canute probably misses Molly most of all. He’s been spending a lot of time in our garage—and a lot of that time has been spent sleeping. I dare say he’s depressed.

Worse yet, we’re only now just realizing how good Molly was at her job. She was often patrolling the property and her barks would alert Canute (the muscle), if help was needed. There hasn’t been any barking on Jones Family Farm since we lost our Molly. And as a farmer whose business depends on a good, working farm dog to protect her animals…I miss her all the more.

Just this week, we visited a litter of 5-week-old Great Pyrenees puppies and picked one out for ourselves. She’ll be coming home with us soon and will be put in with our goats and sheep to bond. She’ll be our newest “employee” and member of the family. I can’t tell you how much we are looking forward to her joining us!