Dogs and Cats


Anyone who has a true, working farm knows how critical it is that every animal on the farm earn its keep.  A farm just cannot sustain itself if the animals on it are all pets or companions.  Sure, you can get an outside job, but that’s why I say the farm can’t sustain itself.  That being said, it can get tough sometimes to not get attached to the animals.  We have learned over the years that certain animals are designated as food–be it meat, milk, or eggs, some as service–such as breeding animals or work animals like the draft horses,  some teach lessons to our children–such as a riding horses that has attached responsibilities, and a very, very few are allowed to have the role of “pet.”  Around here, we call it “therapy at the end of a long day!”  For those of you who have followed this blog over the years, you are familiar with our old dog, Will, and the older cat, Callie.

Will joined our family the year after S and I were married.  He was assigned to us by Guide Dogs for the Blind, and we were to be his puppy raisers.  Technically, he wasn’t ours.  We were just responsible for raising him for 12 or so months, and then returning him to the school.  Sadly, he didn’t quite make the cut for Guide Dog work, so he was offered back to us.  Long story short, Will went on to be trained as my second Diabetes Alert Dog for about 4 years.  He was also my companion at the barn and when I went trail riding.  He traveled the country with us, and was like our first child.  As a service dog, he was much more than a pet, and we had a close bond.  After we had children, Will began to show signs of age, was eventually retired from service dog duty, and allowed to just be a pet.  He got to finally eat crumbs off the floor, lay on the couch, and playfully chew on his best friend, Callie.

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Callie was mine before marriage.  She was actually brain damaged at birth, but the sweetest, most gentle, and dumbest cat you could ever meet!  She never had any official job, other than just to love and be loved.  She warmed many hearts–and laps.

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In 2015, we knew both our beloved pets were getting up there in years.  Will was almost 13, and Callie was 14 or 15.  Will was experiencing some health issues, and Callie was still going strong and looked great, but spent most of her time just sleeping–as any old cat deserves to do.  God was merciful to us, though, and we never had to make the call to euthanize.  In the winter of late 2015, in an unfortunate, and somewhat mysterious accident, Will died.  Just a month or so later, Callie passed away.  We were all heartbroken, and really missed having a pet in the house.  Those two were older than any of our children, and our kids had grown up with them.  Despite all the farm animals that come and go around here, this was the first time our children had experienced the loss of a long-term family member.

Certainly a beloved pet can never be replaced, but an empty space can be filled again.  I only lasted about a month or two before I started to crave something to cuddle up with at night, or during my daytime rest breaks.  I wanted something to greet us at the door, with tail wagging.  We had a barn cat, but she belonged in the barn.  We also wanted to cut down on the hair in the house since N is mildly allergic to pets.

I began contacting our local pet agencies.  Interestingly enough, as it turned out, I was shocked to find we did not qualify to adopt from most animal rescues.  Between military positions and child adoption, we have probably had more background checks than anyone on the planet, yet we were refused time and again.  Either we had too many children, too young of children, lacked a fence attached directly to the house, or whatever.  It didn’t matter that I was an experienced dog trainer, prior vet tech, our vets would totally vouch for us as responsible pet owners, or that our children were good with animals.  They wouldn’t give us a second thought!  Finally, our local animal rescue, who is familiar with us, took in an owner-surrender pup that perfectly fit what we were looking for.  She was a short-haired mutt with no undercoat to shed out.  She was friendly and could keep up on the farm, despite her short legs.  She was cuddly, totally trainable, eager to please, and an absolute doll!  Her ears were too big for her head, her tail wagged non-stop, and she stole our hearts.  We adopted her on the spot!

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Rosa, who we believe to be around 2 now, has settled in well.  We think she is possibly linked to dachshund and blue heeler, Based on her markings and behaviors.  Whatever her genetics, though, she has filled that empty spot in our hearts and home perfectly.  We hope we are blessed with many more years with her!

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Since we couldn’t run our farm as naturally and forage-based as we do without some form of protection, I’ll update you on our guardian dog program.

As you may recall, back in 2014, we bred our registered Colorado Mountain Dog LGD, Iris, to a full Pyrenees stud, who was a proven LGD, had the temperament we wanted, and whose age (9 years) still found him in excellent health.  They had a beautiful litter of pups.  After waiting a bit to see how the pups turned out, we were extremely pleased (as were the buyers), so we wanted to repeat that breeding.  First, however, we had Iris’ hips x-rayed, and consulted with our vet at length about her health and candidacy for breeding.  In 2015, another mating resulted in a second litter of adorable little snowball pups, which sold equally as fast.  At that point, we realized there was a tremendous need for responsibly bred, affordable, well-started, and healthy livestock guardian dogs.

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Purchasing an LGD can really be like playing Russian Roulette in some ways, as the genetics are all over the place with almost all breeds today.  As with most animals, especially in America, irresponsible breeders have messed up genetics so much, and results can be very hit-or-miss based on the mixed up genetics of modern LGDs.

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Knowing we wanted to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, we took some steps to ensure we fit the “responsible” category.  First, we developed an official breeding plan of sorts, with health standards we would require in our breeding dogs, health exams, written guidelines, policies, return exceptions, and so forth for buyers.  We came up with a plan for really ensuring the pups all had a great start in their lives as LGDs, and evaluated our own needs, and what market we wanted to focus on serving with our dogs.  This helped us plan the type of stud dog we wanted to find.

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Since the original male was getting older, we found our own stud dog (Tundra), who came from a line of proven CMD dogs and excellent health.  We also had retained a second female from Iris’ first litter (Charity).  When the two turned a year old, we had both of them evaluated and x-rayed by our vet team to ensure they were as close to “perfect” as we could get.  Tundra was, Charity was considered closer to “good” rather than “excellent” on the hip rating.  As a result, we had Charity spayed, then used Tundra with Iris for her third litter, born in 2016.  Unfortunately, as Tundra matured, he did not have quite the temperament we were looking for. We were aiming for quieter and calmer, and he…..well…..wasn’t.  He was a talker, and crazy immature and hyperactive.  I also noticed a huge difference in his pups by the time they were only 3 weeks old.  They too were extra talkative, more active, and more domineering towards each other than either of our previous litters.  Not bad pups, by any means.  He was in fact, a great dog and a great LGD, just not what we needed or wanted to breed for.

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The tough decision was made to rehome him to a farm better suited to his disposition and start our search for the perfect stud again.  As it turned out, we found a great home, but they really needed two dogs.  So, we agreed to sell the both Charity and Tundra.  We were sad to see them go, but glad we could help a new farm get off the ground.  So, we were back to square one–but not for long.  I located a breeder down south with a litter of full Pyrenees pups.  They had the sire and dam on property, as well as some adult siblings, all of whom I could evaluate for health and temperament.  I wound up purchasing 4 of their male pups, hoping I could keep the “best” (for our needs) and give the others a good start to help other farms.

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Over the next 4 months, that’s exactly what I did.  I put Iris partly in charge of helping to train the pups, and we watched closely as they grew over the next few months.  When one showed consistent barking issues, he lost some points.  When another showed more dominance issues, he lost a few points.  When one ignored poultry, as the others showed too much interest in a chicken, that one gained some points.  And so on and so forth, until we narrowed the selection to two.  Then, it was a matter of deciding which of those two would be the best compliment for Iris’ strengths and weaknesses.  Finally, by late September, I had selected my pup.

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Our new pup, Cedar, is an absolute gem!  He is the most laid-back, easy going, happy dog, and only barks if there is a true threat.  Otherwise, he is content to just sit and watch the goings on around the farm.  He loves people, adores his goats, and is gentle with pretty much everything we’ve ever introduced him to.  He hasn’t shown a tendency to wander off, or a desire to challenge anyone at feeding time.  These are all characteristics I love, and hope to pass on to any pups.  On top of that, he is a beautiful, very regal looking dog.  He doesn’t have the big, boxy, drooly look of many modern Great Pyrenees, and I’m hoping he stays that way.  Of course, nothing is certain yet.  He still has to pass the x-rays and breeding evaluation by the vet in a few months, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

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In the midst of all that, we also took in 3 LGDs that were in urgent re-home situations for different reasons.  We were able to help all 3 find new homes that were better suited to their individual needs and instincts.  It always feels great helping other farms match to such great dogs!

Currently, it seems a bit quiet around here with just Iris and Cedar, now that all the other pups and rescue dogs have their permanent homes.  As busy as we’ve been though, it’s also nice to have a bit of a break for a few months from raising and training pups.  Nonetheless, assuming his evaluation goes well, we are looking forward to another litter of pups around here–hopefully by summer of 2017.

If you recall a couple years ago, I did a post (here) about Hunter, the dog we were training to be a Diabetes Alert Dog for JR.  I never told you the result of that.

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Hunter was truly a fun dog!  He ran around the farm all day, helping JR with chores, and generally finding entertainment in anything a good, farm-breed working dog would.  He also LOVED having a job to do.  He bonded very closely to JR, which was great, and by the time he was just around 7 months old, he began showing signs of alerting and scent recognition.  He was well on his way to being an alert dog.

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Sadly, though, as with many service-dogs-in-training, there is so much more to creating an all-around service dog than just achieving a specific task.  In Hunter’s case, he was so full of energy, he was usually like a spring just waiting to explode at any second.  On the farm, this wasn’t a problem.  In public, however, it could’ve turned into a problem.  No one in the general public had a clue, as by all accounts, he seemed to be a very well-trained pup, on his way to being a service dog.  He would calmly walk alongside JR, or lay up under a table in a restaurant, or whatever we asked of him.  The waiting however, was just more than he could comfortably bear.  As a habit, I always have a foot or leg touching a pup I am training in public, so I always know what they are up to.  In Hunter’s case, I could feel him just trembling with pent-up energy, and ready to leap out at the first temptation to play.  It broke my heart.

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Some issues can be outgrown.  It is possible that Hunter would have outgrown this one.  However, there comes a time when selfless and practical decisions must be made.  First, and most importantly, I want to know that a dog is truly happy and enjoying his life–while at work or play.  In Hunter’s case, he was a naturally happy dog, but I think having to remain calm in public was not something he enjoyed at all.  Secondly, even though he could possibly have outgrown the energy, from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t risk it taking several years to have him able to qualify as a service dog.  I learned in my past training that a good alert dog should be ready and able to pass a full exam such as the Canine Good Citizen Award by the time they are about 18 months old–preferably earlier.  Hunter wasn’t even close.  So, instead, we found Hunter a farm home with other mini-Aussies, where he was able to herd livestock and play and generally exert energy to his heart’s content.  Last I heard, he was adapting beautifully, and the photos they sent showed a very happy dog indeed!

Giving up Hunter was a little harder for JR, as he was very attached.  In fact, he slept with Hunter’s dog tag and a photo for several months after he left, and there were a few nights where he cried himself to sleep.  That being said, he seemed to fully understand that it was truly the best decision for Hunter.  JR knew he wanted an alert dog, not a pet, and we couldn’t have both at that point in time.  Furthermore, we all agreed that Hunter’s presence was certainly not in vain.  He had helped JR overcome some major fears he had developed with his new diagnosis.  Since learning he was diabetic, he was always scared to leave S or I, fearing he would have a low blood sugar and not know what to do.  For many weeks, he even slept on our couch, rather than going upstairs to his bedroom.  Hunter gave him the confidence he so desperately needed to go back to living life as normal.  For that, we will always be thankful to Hunter!

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JR’s alert-dog-in-training, Hunter, is doing well.  He is almost 8 months old now, and a total sweetheart of a pup.  He has made himself quite comfortable around the house and farm, and is, as hoped, very attached to JR.  He is very intelligent and picks up commands very quickly.  He absolutely loves having a job to do, and doesn’t discriminate.  If he sees us digging something, he joins in and digs right beside us.  If he sees us herding the steers, he runs over and attempts to bring them back to us.  He thrives on the free time he gets running around the farm.  Considering JR has never trained a dog before, I think he has done quite well teaching Hunter the basics.  I’ve actually decided to take it a step further and make him multi-purpose.  I want to give him a bit of guidance in the herding skill, so he can actually be helpful around the farm as well.  He tries anyway, so why not?

Hunter playing with one of the LGD pups.  He isn't much bigger than they are, so it's a great way to let them both run off some energy!

Hunter playing with one of the LGD pups. He isn’t much bigger than they are, so it’s a great way to let them both run off some energy!

He has posed a few challenges I had not expected, though.  First, I’ve never a raised a puppy with young children in the house.  It is so difficult for the young ones to follow the stricter rules required of a service animal, so we have to really stay on top of that.  Also, his instincts command him to herd anything that moves.  For the most part, he has learned to control his desire and not to chase the animals, or even attempt to herd without permission.  Bicycles and toys, on the other hand, are a whole ‘other issue!  He just can’t resist trying to snap those tires as they roll by, so we are now working on teaching him to stop when told.  A third issue we are dealing with is his obsession with food.  Any kind of food.  Or crayon.  Crayons taste like candy according to him.  And with 5 homeschooled kiddos in the house, there are crayons left on the floor almost daily.  He is like a spring ready to explode at the site of a food bowl or a morsel on the ground.  While this wouldn’t be an issue for a typical farm dog, it is a big issue for a dog that is expected to be on his best behavior in a restaurant.  Thus, we are working diligently on teaching him to ignore food and temptations of all sorts, unless we feed them in his bowl or he is running free in the pasture (no sense in fighting that battle!).  He is doing well, and he has a lot of try in him, which I like.  He is also learning to discern when his “uniform” is on, meaning he has to be on his best behavior.  He makes little mistakes occasionally, but most of the time, does very well.

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Finally, the biggest difficulty was that he REALLY bonded to JR.  Now, mind you, Australian Shepherds are known for the loyalty and tendency to attach to one person more than the others.  That’s one reason I chose the breed.  He took that to the extreme though!  JR could not leave Hunter’s sight, and if Hunter had his way, JR couldn’t go more than 3 feet from him.  This began to pose a problem on outings that resulted in the kids playing around.  For example, if we went to a playground or JR started playing some game with a group of church kids, he would give me Hunter’s leash to hold while he played.  Hunter would go nuts, and I just could not get his focus.  He wouldn’t take his eyes off JR, he would whine and squirm, and so forth.  So, I took over his training.  I’ve been working on weakening the bond a little bit, just so he can learn to focus on me and relax in JR’s absence when needed.

Hunter, all cozy in the background, looking on as JR does his school work.

Hunter, all cozy in the background, looking on as JR does his school work.

The good news is that the alert training is going well.  Hunter has learned the “low blood sugar” cue we taught him, so now we are working on teaching him to discern the scent and link that cue to the correct scent.  That often takes a while, but we believe he may have alerted twice now.  He didn’t use the correct cue, but that is a common mistake for newly alerting dogs.  They can get so wrapped up in their concern for the diabetic and their desire for the treat (they only get a treat for an alert–no other reason), that they forget their cue.  This is very exciting for us.  One of the biggest risks in training a dog like this is the fact that we could spend a year training him to be a “perfect” service dog, but if he doesn’t have the desire to alert, then it is all time wasted.  Almost any dog is capable of alerting, but only some will ever have a strong enough desire to actually follow through on the training.  This is one reason I do so much personality testing in the beginning, in the hopes I can weed out the candidates most likely to NOT alert in the future.  Still, though, it’s never a guarantee.  Every step the dog-in-training passes simply increases our chances of developing a successful alert.

For now, we will keep plugging along.  Hunter went through a pretty intense and lengthy puppy phase, chewing on things, having accidents in the house, testing boundaries, and so forth.  He seems to be coming out of it now, though, is becoming more trust-worthy every day, and I’m looking forward to evaluating him in a few more months.  I have high hopes for him.

By snowballs, I don’t mean the ice-cold, make you want to go in and sit by the fire kind.  I’m talking about the white, fluffy, warm, and adorably cuddly kind.  I mean, really, who in their right mind could resist these?

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Remember several months and a few short posts ago, I told you about our livestock guardian dog, Iris’s, litter of 8 puppies?  Well, just 9 weeks later, this post is about those same pups.  They grew faster than IL weeds on fertile compost!  I think any profits were completely eaten by way of the puppy chow we could not keep in stock!  HOLY SMOKES those pups could eat!!

They have been a fun litter, though.  From the time they were born, they have grown consistently with no runts or roly-polies.  Their temperaments were very consistent, and exactly what we had hoped to get out of this breeding.  Only a few stood out for different reasons–like the slightly lazier little male, or the bolder female who always seemed to be the one to find a breech in the fence or find a way into places she didn’t belong (like the horse water trough!).  Iris turned out to be a wonderful mother, and did everything she was supposed to, even gradually returning to her own guardian duties by the time the pups were 6 weeks old.  During the pups’ time here, they have been socialized, handled, played with by our children, introduced to basic manners, walking on a leash, respecting fence boundaries, and more.

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Their last three weeks were spent being introduced to the fine art of guarding livestock.  They were put in our turkey pasture, where they not only got direct exposure to poultry, but learned to ignore them, guard them, share with them, and so forth.  Athena and Iris provided the teaching instruction and would quickly put the pups back in their place when necessary.

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Six of the eight pups were reserved prior to weaning.  We held back two for several reasons–a male and a female.  Most of the others have gone on to their new homes now.  They are spread from close to Iowa, to Illinois and Missouri, and all the way south to Alabama!  One pup is staying on for a bit of extra training before it goes home.  Now that the others are almost all gone, we have just put the little male up for sale.  We are retaining the little female “Charity” for a while and may offer her for sale as a well-started LGD later on down the road.

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Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that I tried to avoid getting into guardian dogs for so long.  These animals have proven their value time and again.  Here in IL, NO ONE in their right mind free-ranges poultry, and coyotes steal newborn calves on a regular basis.  Predators are rampant.  Donkeys are more popular to guard the cattle herds, but slowly, people are hearing more about the priceless partnership that can be formed with a good LGD.  They are amazing animals, and I look forward to many future years with them!

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Our long-awaited, first litter of livestock guardian pups arrived this week!  Iris did a great job, and is an awesome mother.  She was a little confused with the first pup, and while cleaning, actually picked it up in her mouth and held it there, looking at me like “What is this, and what am I supposed to do with it?!”  I helped her out a little on that one, and once I got it nursing, I guess the hormones and maternal instincts kicked in, and she pretty much figured it out after that.

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Now we have 8 little bundles of cuteness in the barn.  For the record, they are Colorado Mountain Dogs, which are a carefully and selectively bred cross that is majority Great Pyrenees and a little Anatolian Shepherd.  They make excellent dogs on a small homestead, are very social and friendly by nature, but have a ferocious bark to warn away predators.  These pups were born in the barn, right next to our chick brooder, so they are literally raised with livestock from the moment they are born.  As they grow, they will be introduced to the other stock, including goats, horses, cattle, rabbits, and a variety of poultry, and will be introduced to basic manners.  We are taking deposits now, and they are ready to go to their new homes at 8 weeks, but we offer several options to allow them additional training here on the farm.  See our website for all details:   http://redgatefarmllc.com/livestock_guardian_dogs

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After much prayer and searching, God blessed us with an adorable 13 week old Australian Shepherd puppy for JR.  If you recall, we were preparing to train a pup to be a Diabetes Alert Service Dog for JR, to help him with low blood sugars.  Although JR isn’t fully insulin dependent at this point, he is having a lot of issues with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels).  We have no idea why, other than perhaps some genetics at play, since I have the same issues when I’m active, even if my insulin pump is turned off for hours.  In any case, we were searching for a medium-sized dog with a very specific temperament for JR, and one that would be a good candidate for service dog training.

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Meet “Hunter.”  We have now had Hunter for 3 weeks, and he is AMAZING!!  I have trained a lot of dogs over the years, and quite a few service dogs.  This puppy is incredible.  I have never had a pup catch on to new concepts so quickly.  He is VERY tightly bonded to JR already, which is good, is learning his scent through games we play, can already hunt him down from hiding places through scent, and he is learning commands very quickly.  We have been introducing him to public places and crowds over the last few weeks, but only in areas where dogs were allowed.  He is very patient for such a young pup, though, and has slept through our 2 and 3 hour long activities several times.  If his service dog equipment is delivered on time this week though, we are planning to make his big debut in indoor public places this coming Sunday.   We have notified our pastor and the restaurant we frequent, and they are both OK and ready.

I have no doubt at this point that Hunter has the foundation of a great service dog.  His training is coming nicely.  We are beginning to introduce him to low blood sugars, but it will likely be 6-8 months before we know if he will actually alert of his own accord.  In the mean time, we will keep training and working with him, to make him the best service dog he can be!

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