Thursday, December 01, 2011


It’s been a rough few weeks, with major ups and downs. Son Cass took a job at a ski hill near Laramie, so we fixed a Thanksgiving feast a week early since he was about to head off to the new job. Two miles from our house, on a slick wintery road, he drove his BMW off an embankment above the New Fork River. We’re so thankful he walked away from the wreck. We loaded his gear into a ranch truck and he left, making it to the job on time.

That left us short a vehicle, and although we’d been looking for another truck for about a month, we hadn’t found the right match. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, I found just the right truck, located in Provo, Utah. We made all the arrangements, and on Thanksgiving Day, Jim and I locked up the dogs that weren’t on duty with the ewe herd, and had a pleasant drive down to retrieve my new ride. It’s a primo 2000 Chevy shortbed 4x4, manual transmission.

The next afternoon, all the dogs at our place were free and lounging around outside while we did various chores. Jim and I loaded a ram and two lambs into a trailer at the house, driving the three miles (just ½ mile on a highway, and the rest on a nearby county road) to drop the ram into one pasture, and then backtracking to check the ewe herd, located in another pasture closer to home. Because there was a short snow squall while we were trying to find the ram herd, it took longer than we had expected, but we were gone an hour. When we pulled back up to the house, our Akbash Rena wasn’t there to greet us. Vega, another adult female guardian, and our herding dogs, were all accounted for, so we knew there hadn’t been a predator event while we were gone, or Vega would have been involved. We searched the nearby Mesa, but called the sheriff’s office because we knew someone had to have picked Rena up.

Rena is not a typical livestock protection dog. We picked her out of a litter to photograph her life, as she grew up with a young burro and a set of orphan lambs. The children’s book describing her life had just been released two months ago (The Guardian Team: On the job with Rena and Roo). We’d intentionally socialized Rena from a young age to make her an “ambassador dog.” She attended book signings, schools, libraries, fairs, and agency meetings so that people could personally meet and touch a livestock guardian. She travels well, and loves to work a crowd, demanding attention and pets. She’d met more than 2,000 Wyoming school children in her four years of life, and dozens of state and national policy makers – including most recently USDA Undersecretary Ed Avalos. Because Rena was human socialized, she was easy to steal. She’d been “rescued” once before, when an oilfield shuttlebus driver thought she was too close to the road, so the woman called Rena to the shuttle bus and loaded her up. I chased the shuttle to town, retrieving my dog and NOT punching anyone in the nose.

But this time, I had no idea who had taken Rena. Was it another well-intended but mistaken rescue? I did a short post on Facebook noting that I had a sheep dog missing, but not providing any details. Jim and I put in calls to all the vet clinics, law enforcement, and animal control and rescue organizations in western Wyoming, and it quickly became apparent that whoever had Rena hadn’t made a move toward reuniting her with her home.

We decided to announce that the missing dog was actually Rena, Wyoming’s most famous livestock guardian dog, friend to children, and star of the new book. The story took off like wildfire, with several media organizations picking it up and providing some excellent coverage. It was going to be very hard for someone to hide this 130-pound, beautiful dog, with thousands of eyes looking for her.

Jim and I were just sick with worry. We had six miserable days of calling vet clinics and rescue groups, talking to law enforcement, and dealing with the wonderful but somewhat overwhelming response of people who were trying to help find Rena. I alternated between crying and wanting to use explosives.

Then early Thursday morning, six days after Rena disappeared, our telephone started ringing. Four calls within a short period of time – Rena had been spotted just a few miles away, traveling down the side of the highway, headed for home. Jim raced down the road and found her. Rena was no worse for the wear – when she came into the house, she was not hungry, had been freshly groomed, and had a sweet shampoo smell. The only problem we could see was that her butt was dirty – she had apparently been fed something that her system didn’t like. She had been cared for, but the person who took care of her didn’t drop her off at home, where our big living room windows provide a view for miles. Fortunately, one neighbor and several oilfield workers were on the lookout for Rena and got word to us quickly when she was spotted. We’re betting Jim was able to retrieve Rena within minutes of her being deposited along the highway, from the flurry of calls we received.

We’ve had problems with people “rescuing” livestock protection dogs before – and even “rescuing” lambs – an act that is also called livestock rustling. The fact is that some people do not approve of the lives lived by working dogs. That our livestock protection dogs have been bred and selected for thousands of years to do what they do – stay with the sheep round the clock, guarding them from harm – is frowned upon by those who believe these are pets that should be indoors when it’s cold outside.

Last winter I had the problem of some “Good Samaritan” stopping in to the entrance of one of our pastures where I fed the guardian dogs at a livestock trailer every day. This person began feeding my dogs – actually dumping out onto the ground a whole bag of junk dog food that my dogs refused to eat. Besides scaring me terribly with the threat that someone could try to poison or harm my dogs, and the threat of having my dogs associate with strangers, the junk food then served to attract ravens and other predators. We shoveled the junk into buckets and fed it to the coyotes a few miles away. We ended up stringing a rope barricade across the cattle guard entryway, with a note attached, telling the person to quit feeding and endangering my dogs, noting my name and phone number should the person want to talk about how my dogs were being cared for. It stopped the problem, but I do wonder if the same person was at it again, with Rena’s disappearance.

We were very lucky to get Rena back, and for that, we are very thankful. Rena was not micro-chipped, but that wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, since the person who took her did not take her to a vet or agency. Rena’s human socialization, which makes her so popular with children, is what made her so vulnerable. Thank heavens so many people cared about this dog, made a ruckus about her being gone, and helped to keep the pressure on until Rena was returned to us.

We are going to seek a change in state law to protect our dogs: If you rescue a dog, you need to notify someone of your action. Otherwise, it’s theft. If it’s not yours, and you take it, you’re a thief.

Here's a few images of today's reunion. Rena and her mother - Rena has her tongue sticking out.

And Rena and her Roo:


tbohnet said...

Cat & Jim, first of all so glad that Cass was not harmed in his vehicle.
Also, so thankful that Rena is now back home safe and sound. A touching story and photos.

Chas Clifton said...

First, I am so relieved that she is back.

Second, one of our dogs disappeared for two months once. She was wearing a tag with her contact info on it, and the tag was still there when she came walking up our driveway.

I know who might have taken her, but I could never prove it.

She was thin, had a tapeworm, and her claws were completely worn down on her return, so I wonder if she walked back . . . from somewhere.

The trouble is, THEY WON'T TALK!

Jenny Glen said...

Cat, do you put collars on your dogs with ID? I can't see them in the pictures. If not, why not? Just curious about your reasons. I have collars with flat tags on my guardians because I have one that sometimes has his own boundaries beyond our fences. I'm always worried about what happened to Rena because my guardians are socialized to people.

Steve Bodio said...

SO glad she is back!

If someone kidnapped ("rescued") one of MY dogs and I found out, I would not like to say what I might do.

And mine do not have the additional cascade of responsibilities Rena has!

I keep thinking you are safer than I am from the follies of our time, even as Bostonians or Californians may think we are. No place to run...

Cat Urbigkit said...

Toni, thanks for your caring, for all of us.

Chas, thanks for your good thoughts as well. You know the emotional drain caused by the loss of a good dog. Thankful for you also, you got yours back.

Wouldn't we love to know the stories! I kept hoping Rena was laying around on someone's couch, farting and burping.

Cat Urbigkit said...

My guardians rarely wear collars - if we're on the federal range where they might encounter other people, yes they wear webbing or leather collars with our phone number.

I don't like collars on my guardians. I've had two dogs get tangled in one collar in a wrestling match, and never been a fan of the collars since then. My brother-in-law had a dog killed when the dog got hung up in a fence by his collar.

If we're on home range, our guardians generally don't wear collars, unless it's spiked collars because of wolf activity. We have signs on our range noting that the sheep are grazing in the area, that the dogs are with them, with my cell phone number posted.

None of my other dogs is so human-socialized that they could be stolen. Rena is the exception.

Other people always keep collars on their dogs, but I'm just not one of them. Personal preference. Everything has its own risks.

I am going to have Rena chipped, but again, this wouldn't have made a difference in this case anyway ...

Andrew Campbell said...

Cat: I am so happy to see that Rena has come home. I saw my own share of 'folks who cared for animals' this summer and thankfully the police sent to investigate were infinitely more intelligent than the 'care-giver.' I, too, occasionally worry about someone taking a shine to one or other of our dogs or the idiots who dump human food waste. Happily for you and us, our dogs are able to find their own way home.

all best

Peculiar said...

Just glad that things worked out, Cat!

But it sounds to me like book fodder: the clueless city folks "rescue" the rural guard dog, whose rural habits then make such a shambles of their lives that they let her go to find her way back to her proper place. That's a kids book we'd love to have!

Speaking of which, thank you, thank you for all the books! Can't wait till Eli can properly absorb them!

Luisa said...

Whew...! Thank heaven 1) Cass is OK, and 2) Rena is back home. Like the others, I was awfully worried about her.

My dogs are chipped. The sheepdogs never wore collars when working stock, and none of my dogs wear collars at home, because I'm skeered of accidents. A veterinarian friend lost a dog whose collar got caught on their fence -- stuff of nightmares. I've known other dogs who got jaws caught in collars while at play. My dogs only wear collars when we travel, and up at the cabin, where they're close by most of the time.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Thanks Andrew. Those of us who live with our animals in very active lives hate the notion of taking that pleasure, and adventure, from them.

Heather Houlahan said...

Microchip plus ear tattoo might be prudent. The ear tat is visible.

FWIW, I recommend AVID chips, based on the excellent response from AVID when I had a foster dog go AWOL. Because the dog was in transition, his chip was not yet registered. No matter -- they put him on their "hot list" and phoned to check up on him.

I don't know about the Home Again chips, but the shelters and some vets around here are now pushing some no-name chip that requires annual fees for registration. I'd stay strictly away from such things.

leland said...

I'm so glad Rena's home! My dog Angelo was gone for 40 days and was finally found by one of his best friends, our UPS driver...

Anonymous said...

So happy to hear that Rena is home safe and sound ... and wouldn't we all just be tickled to death if the AR wing-nuts would not take it upon themselves to decide how our dogs should live ... scarey stuff ... I'm sure you've heard the nightmare stories of show dogs being released from their crates (torture chambers)in order to be liberated and free only to be killed in the traffic of surrounding parking lots and highway ... I've got no sense of the need to be PC where these people are concerned.

Oh yeah - so glad that Cass was not injured in the slide off ...

Lady with the Black Dogs

Steve Bodio said...

Poor Cass! This is such a group of dog fanatics-- me included of course.

And that was a pretty fine car-- said by someone who once briefly had a classic Beemer.

Hope he finds a good ride too...

Eugene (AZAM) said...

Good it comes to the end with almost no losses... except you nerves...And were was her friend, Rant? Is he at least distrustful to strangers?

I use to put the tags not on the regular collars, but on separate chains, cheap and tiny, which dog can just tore if get caught by it. It works perfect.


Reid Farmer said...

Glad everything worked out. So stressfull!

Moro Rogers said...

Animals living outside? That's crazy!=p

Jenny Glen said...

I thought it might be something like that. When I was a vet tech we always heard of the stories of dogs playing and getting caught in a collar. The collars I use have an O-ring in the middle. They are "supposed" to make it so that if the dog gets caught on a fence they won't strangle (don't ask me how that works). I like them because we tie the border collies and they are good tie out collars. I'd be surprised if my wandering guardian would be so "unwiley" as to get his collar caught on a fence. We once thought having him drag a tire would keep him in. He took the tire under our fence and several neighbor fences and went for an all day romp.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I use the "O-ring" collars too--most hunters(especially houndsmen) I know do as well. I can't swear they will always prevent hang-ups, but I personally don't know of anyone that uses them that has had that happen(?)...and it is really sad(and SCARY!) how increasingly unrealistic people are getting about animals--I am regularly lamblasted by the humaniac-types for letting my SIBERIAN HUSKIES sleep outside in the Winter! And I live in the SOUTHERN U. S.! They are rarely mollified even when I tell them I have plenty of cozy houses stuffed with straw, and the huskies PREFER to sleep out on the snow! These types probably think global warming is GOOD for the polar bears! But perhaps the WORST case of humanitis I ever heard was an obviously overly civilized lady visiting a zoo I once worked at, who SERIOUSLY suggested we get CLOTHING for our naked animals! It seems the male donkeys had her most concerned, exposing themselves to the world like they did!....L.B.

Anonymous said...

....And I'm sure most all of us dog-o-philes have a "lost" story or two to tell--this reminds me of my most traumatic--I had only had my first sighthound--an Azawakh of all things--a few months--got him as an adult, so it was taking time for the bonding to occur--Azawakhs don't take to strangers, to make an understatement! But he was doing fairly well, and I was trusting him loose around my place as long as I could keep my eye on him--he was quite obediant. But one day I let him out to pee, and he was JUST GONE, in mere SECONDS!!! I panicked and ran all over looking and calling--NOTHING. I knew no one had stolen HIM, though! (He bit A LOT of strangers in his day!). I spent the next 3 days running and driving all over looking for that crazy dog--I had notices up everywhere, and was getting constant calls--he was regularly being sighted by the locals--and no mistaking an Azawakh in Southern Appalachia! Every time he was seen, he was with a little female BEAGLE--no doubt in heat! But by the time I'd get to wherever they were spotted, they'd be gone. They were seen 10 miles and more away at times. Never did catch up to them--but the Azawakh FINALLY came home on his own--he never did do anything like that again, all the years I had him! And I always wondered about that little beagle, it's owner probably pondering as well--"Ah shore doan know whut tha hell gotta holt of liddle Gypsy this-here last time, but them pups shore as heck made sum GOOD rabbit dawgs!!!"....L.B.

mscriver said...

Seems like Rena did an excellent publicity tour -- though they're always risky!

If you need a book reviewer again, I'm your old lady.

Prairie Mary

Steve Bodio said...

Always good to hear from you, Mary!