If one listens carefully to the high desert wind, it brings stories.
They might be about the softening of the land after a long-absent rain or the intensity of a mother Redtail Hawk feeding a nest of newly hatched chicks when there’s not enough prey.
Last summer the wind spoke of Crimson, our old livestock guard dog. She was frightened and her fear was beginning to spiral out of control.
She’d had nothing like a fair life. Her former owner got involved in a property dispute with a neighbor. The neighbor lost, and then retaliated by firing a shotgun into the air whenever he caught the dogs out in the open. This young dog knew the guarding business, but she was terrified by the time she came to us.
Crimson whipped our resident coyotes into submission and, before long, got involved in a three-day running battle with a cougar that strayed into our neighborhood. Limping badly, she returned home. No one knows exactly what happened but the cat was never seen again.
Dog kibbles are cheap pay for a good working dog. The problem was the she was overwhelmed with fear. We tried coaxing, gentle coercion and patience—nothing worked. She wouldn’t allow herself to be touched.
As Crimson was approaching middle age, we picked up a pup for her to train by example. With the sure hand of an expert canine mentor, she taught Sam to guard our livestock. Together, they turned into an effective team, she was the outrider and he minded the flock.
During evening chore time, Sam would come running for his share of the kibbles, ear rubs and regular checkups for injury. No matter how hungry Crimson was, she kept her distance until we put the food on the ground and walked away.
That fall, when we began building our new house, everything changed.
Big trucks were delivering building supplies. Backhoes scooping foundations and framing crews of loud-talking, fast-moving men were the order of the day. People hollered, radios played and saws ran.
Crimson didn’t understand what was happening and we couldn’t explain it to her. Her world became increasingly uncomfortable. We watched and worried as she withdrew and became increasingly frantic.
Then the attacks started.
One busy day, my wife took our three herding dogs out to do chores. Just inside the sheep pen, 90-pound Crimson pounced on our thirty pound stockdog. The fight was nothing like fair, it was an attempted killing. We used stock whips and wrist-thick tree branches to release the big dog’s jaws.
“She’s been shaken like a rat,” the veterinarian said, “if she decides she wants to live, she probably will.”
Sudden trauma is a terrible thing. But its most fatal injury is a sapping of the victim’s will to live. Deep in the dark of night, I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t sure survival was worth the effort.
By morning, as the sun rose over the rimrock, she had made a decision to resume her duties on our ranch. Slowly, my anger drained deep into the earth.
My wife and I better understood that late summer wind’s message of Crimson’s fear, but the timing was terrible. Our livestock were on range gaining nutrition in preparation for late winter lambing. Plus, replacing a livestock guard dog on short notice isn’t easy. For the time being, we needed two guard dogs on duty.
We were in a tough spot, we’d both seen what unrelenting fear could do to an animal. But, we had to buy time until the weather got cold, our flock was off-range and the house was closer to completion.
Until then, we needed to prevent an explosive situation. It made our work more complicated, but we kept the guard and herd dogs separated. Crimson maintained her wary ways.
For better than a month, it worked. My wife and I were relaxing and becoming confident as our new system accomplished what needed to be done.
Then it happened again.
Our small dog became separated from the others at chore time and Crimson jumped her. This time an immediate response with stock whips broke it up before injuries required a veterinarian.
After the dogs were separated and dust settled, I looked up at my wife and asked, “You know what we agreed if this happened again?”
She nodded her head, without saying a word.
The next day, crisis over and livestock calmed, we went out to the sheep pens and took care of the matter. None of us liked it very much. We weren’t angry, simply sad that we never got a chance to take Crimson’s head into our arms and give her a hug.
“Goodbye, Crimson, we’ll miss you pretty girl,” my wife said, “you tried hard to work through your fears, but couldn’t get the job done.”
Finished, we buried her in our special spot that we reserve for good dogs.
The following day the autumn winds brought a different message. The fear in our barnyard was gone. The relief was powerful and heart-felt. Working together, we began the healing process and supported Sam in his new, and lonely, leadership role.
Months went by and the storm winds of winter blew us into the dark season. This time, they brought a message of new life—there was a livestock guard dog puppy out there waiting in the wings.z She was looking for a job and came running. Her name is Keena.