You can tell the insane workload of spring has lifted slightly, because here at Circle M we’re finally getting around to some of those tasks that are important, but not urgent – like shearing Howie!
Though it took me about 6 days and a million clips of the manual hand shears I use for the sheep, Howie’s first haircut didn’t turn out half bad. He looks sort of like a monster poodle. I found it sobering to begin to cut off his long, feathery hair – a Samson and Delila moment. I briefly wondered if losing his coat would change his personality. But he’s the same goofy lunk, perhaps even more frisky without the heavy mats weighing him down. I’m sure he’s more comfortable in the heat. He mostly hangs out on the shaded concrete under the goat milking stanchion now, since he’s grown too big to crawl into his old hole beneath the front porch, and takes daily walks through the creek, coming home with muddy legs and smelling of fish.
Howie is our Great Pyranees guard dog – a clumsy, sloppy, enormous creature who is probably the most popular animal with visitors to the farm. Howie, like all Pyranees, is simply impossible to resist, both in a literal physical way, because his size and weight mean he can bowl anyone right over with a friendly shake of the paw, but also in a Hello Kitty emotional sort of way. Every animal I’ve met in this breed has an incredibly gentle and loving facial expression and endearing attitude. The most common phrase we utter around here when looking at Howie is, “Aawwwwww…”
He is just adorable, whether exposing his giant tummy to you for a rub, leaning heavily against you for a headscratch, or playing around by himself. This winter we spent 15 minutes watching out the back window while he slowly walked to the top of the incline our house is built on, and then rolled onto his back, wiggling, to slowly slide down the icy hill, again and again.
The American Kennel Club has a somewhat more high-brow interpretation of the breed:
The Great Pyrenees dog conveys the distinct impression of elegance and unsurpassed beauty combined with great overall size and majesty… He possesses a keen intelligence and a kindly, while regal, expression. Exhibiting a unique elegance of bearing and movement, his soundness and coordination show unmistakably the purpose for which he has been bred, the strenuous work of guarding the flocks in all kinds of weather on the steep mountain slopes of the Pyrenees.
And the ubiquitous Wikipedia adds this:
The Great Pyrenees is a very old breed, and has been used for millennia by the Basque people, who inhabit parts of the region in and around the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France and northern Spain. More recently, the breed served as the official dog of the royal French court (whose prominence began circa the Middle Ages, and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century). During World War II the dogs were used to haul artillery over the Pyrenean Mountain range to and from Spain and France.
I could absolutely see Pyrs doing this sort of heroic hard work. And on their days off, I’m sure they snuggled up to the closest soldiers for a good ear scratch. Howie, from far away, always looks like some sort of mythical lion-dog – whether he’s draped across his favorite dirt pile or surveying our property from the middle of the cornfield next door. And when he barks! You can imagine him summoning a host of angels, or banishing a horde of demons, with his deep, rumbling voice.
But when he runs, or plays, you definitely see a different side. He lumbers like the awkward giant in A Princess Bride, and when you pet him for more than a few minutes, he tends to just flop right over onto the ground, as though he’s so smitten he can’t control himself. We got Howie as a puppy, and intended to put him in with the sheep to guard them. But instead, we let him bond with us because we couldn’t control ourselves. So instead of being bonded exclusively to the sheep and goat herd, he is bonded to the family and the farm, which he certainly guards with gusto. Since we have so many smaller animals that need watching over, like chickens and ducks and turkeys that live in multiple shelters all over the place, it actually has turned out for the best that Howie feels responsible for the whole property.
However, the hardest working guardian on our place is actually Sunny, our tiny little cow dog, who is a Blue Heeler/Australian Shepherd mix. Howie is actually Sunny’s pet, and keeps her entertained with wrestling when the work here gets too slow.
We got Sunny at a thrift store, actually, on one of our first visits out to remodel the farmhouse before we moved in. We were buying rubber boots for the kids at the store, and Maggie was telling the clerk that we’d just bought a house in the country and she was looking forward to having a dog. Turns out, the clerk had a 3-month-old puppy she couldn’t keep in town and we ended up leaving the store with the dog and a pile of the food, treats, coats and leashes the woman had collected. Sunny, so named because as a puppy she always slept in a little patch of sunlight, was the gift of a lifetime for us, and for the farm.
Sunny couldn’t be more perfect for her role here on the homestead. She’s smart, ridiculously anxious to please, full of energy and 100 percent focused on protecting everything on this property from anything that might cause harm. We spend very little time and money on shelter for our animals because of her. While Howie sits stoically in front of his doghouse and listens for trouble during the evening, Sunny literally runs circles around the farm from twilight til dawn, barking when something comes too close. We don’t even have deer or bunnies nibble in our gardens. Not only have we never lost a chicken or lamb to any predator – though we see foxes and hear coyotes regularly on the perimeter – we’ve never lost a baby kitten or chick to Sunny. We’re forever bringing new babies onto this place and she takes them all in stride. Of course, the best baby we every brought to Sunny was Howie.
Sunny is one of those dogs that can’t get enough of you and enough of a task to do. In fact, web sites about both of her breeds warn that these dogs need work to do or they’ll become behavior problems. She would retrieve a Frisbee or toy for hours on end if you’d only throw it for her, and for a while she was always under our feet with a toy in her mouth. But then we brought her Howie to play with. The two are absolutely inseparable, wrestling and exploring all day, and repelling predators all night. They are happy, and so are we. Except when their barking keeps us up!