Panic Is Not Pretty

Bilbo is the name of our gentle giant livestock guardian dog. His job is to defend the flock from the constant threat of coyotes and wandering dogs who go feral when they happen to get in with sheep.

Bilbo’s bark and the smell of his urine, has, so far, been quite enough to deter the coyotes at night and the dogs by day. But, while he can be a ferocious presence with his huge Pyrenees frame, and powerful, surprisingly fast stride, when it comes to people he is a pussycat. He will charge to the fence when an odd walker happens by, or when a biker dismounts and comes up to the fence along the road. But when he gets to the passer-by, he puts his feet up on the fence, wags his tail, and begs for a lick and to be petted.

And, though in his first year Bilbo used to periodically get excited and try to play with the sheep–something they definitely want no part of–he now simply walks gently alongside them, and is welcomed as a part of their family.

But twice now Bilbo has shown a different side of his personality. It happened first when a couple of the hands who were planting soybeans in part of our hay field reported that he had broken the chain of the pasture gate and gotten out. It may have been their actions that excited him, or it may have been the peels of thunder from a passing storm, but he indeed had pushed so hard on the gate that the chain snapped. He was now in the unfenced part of our farm.

When I got on my ATV and went out looking for him I quickly spotted him walking along the tree line that helps form the north border of our property. I called to him in a sweet tone as I approached him on the machine, but before I could get very near he picked up his pace. Suddenly he was running faster and faster. He went north, and I managed, in top gear on the ATV, to head him off. Then he turned south full tilt. I raced him, only to see him turn sharply west when I caught up. Now he was on a neighboring farm’s property and I raced again, bouncing violently on the rough field. Bilbo, by this time, was running right alongside several strands of a barbed-wire fence. After two aborted tries he fatigued just enough so that I was able to pinch him into the wire, jump off the quad bike, and grab his collar.

Whew! It was amazing just how wild he had become, and just how fast he could run. I was up to top gear on the ATV and just barely able to catch up with him, even after a good mile and a half run.

Thank the Lord I had my handy flip-phone with me. I got hold of my wife and she came around with our Toyota Highlander, and we got Bilbo up for the ride home.

We decided then that it was the thunder that set the whole thing off. But we were wrong.

A few weeks later and a change of routine in the sheep barn made me slip up this time. No thunder, but I brought some dog food and sheep mineral into the barn to put in barrels before moving Bilbo to the pasture. But in all that back and forth I had left the service door of the barn open and forgot about it. Then I let Bilbo out of his spot in the feedlot, forgetting about the open service door. Again he was out and strolling along the tree line. Again I got my ATV and tried to get near to call him to me. Again he set off, and again he went faster and faster. This time I had him again along a barbed wire fence and tried to pinch him in, but he had learned. And he just bobbed and weaved, and kept going. I tried the same maneuver several times and he got round me and kept barreling along.

And this time his journey went on and on until he reached a paddock with several horses, owned by good neighbor-friends of ours.

Bilbo, who was already running mindlessly, now became even more excited. I tried to speak firmly, but less urgently to him, because that tactic seemed to have worked to settle him when, as a youngster, he chased after sheep. But these horses were big. And they pranced, and they bucked, and they whinnied. And it was all a pile of over-stimulation to this giant who wasn’t about to settle back into gentleness.

And as Bilbo’s panic morphed, my panic became almost unbearable. “Are the neighbor’s home? Will they hate Bilbo and his owner? Will they call the police? If they come out with a gun, what should I do? I’ll tell them to shoot Bilbo, that’s what. And will my aging heart be able to take all of this?”

I ducked under the fencing–actually more like crawled under the fencing on my two arthritic legs that complain loudly when I try to bend them. I tried to head Bilbo off, but he is younger and much more fit.

And what about the horses? How will they accept me? One of them slipped on ice and fell on its side. Yes I would gladly shoot Bilbo now. Then one came straight at me. Would it rear up and kick me senseless? Would Bilbo run it right over me?

Thank God the horse brushed by me and let me live.

But the whole mess didn’t settle down. Not for a long, long, long time. After Bilbo got close enough to one horse to bite at its tail, it turned on him and fought back. That was a good thing as Bilbo, while he kept chasing, did so at a much more respectful distance. I even managed to make him think just a bit and the distances grew and the demolition derby slowed down. When Bilbo left the paddock I dove under the fence and tried lying on my back and rolling in the grass laughing and calling to him. Sometimes, you see, dogs get curious, and you can trigger their play instinct. I think Native Americans even used this tactic to attract wild animals on the Great Plains.

Well, it didn’t work on Bilbo. He just disappeared around a barn. Did he go into the barn? I heard a bit of a crash and a rumble, and there was an overhead door that was raised just enough for a big dog to get in; so I went inside and hoped to trap Bilbo there. But no. I heard another clatter and went back out and around another corner, to find more horses in more paddocks! And yes, Bilbo was flying about, much more limber in ducking under fences, and getting a great ruckus going. There were several metal barns there and when I called to Bilbo the echoes just made the whole scene more absurd.

I dodged more horses. I said more prayers that the horses wouldn’t kill me and Bilbo wouldn’t hurt them. And it was just me and horses and Bilbo–no neighbors, and no time to call in reinforcements–and I was running out of ideas. I hadn’t a clue as to how to put a stop to this whole spiral of chaos. My knees ached more and more, and I slowed my pace of walking on turned up, frozen ground and doing belly-flops under horse fencing, until, finally, it happened. Bilbo turned in my direction and tried to slip through a narrow opening between a feeder and the corner of the barn, and me. So I was able to reach out and grab him. Just.

My heart was pounding. I was hot and sweaty. I stood there with a death grip on Bilbo’s collar, and tried to breathe and collect myself. I then waddled with him over to my ATV and got the chain lead to put on his collar. He still wasn’t back to his gentle giant mind, so I was super cautious as I phoned Connie to once again “come rescue me.”

I’m a slow learner, so it took hours for my mind to settle and to deduce that, if it wasn’t thunder or field hands who had set Bilbo off, it must be something else. So, when he escapes he strolls along the tree line. So, when I come after him with the ATV he bolts and doesn’t look back. It must be the ATV itself! He does not like being near it or the tractor when I work to fertilize or to top off the fast growing grass. No matter how sweet or how firm I might plead with him, if I have that ATV and try to get near, he will go into full flight mode.

So, wouldn’t you know it, just a few days after the awful mess with the horses, we came back from doing a sheepdog demonstration and were going in different directions to exercise the Border Collies, feed rams, etcetera. I looked for Bilbo in the field and assumed Connie had taken him to the sheep barn to feed him, and I backed the stock trailer to the pasture gate to return the sheep we had used in the demonstration. Then I casually opened the pasture gate; and as I turned, I could see out of the corner of my eye Bilbo flash by me.

Oh, dear Lord no! He will be off to the horses for sure.

But I said not a word. I did not dash off to the ATV. Instead, I went into the house and got a big hunk of smelly salmon roll from the little fridge we keep for animal meds and treats. I tore the wrapping back so that about half the huge roll was exposed, went out into the yard, saw Bilbo there, and tossed it right at him. He grabbed it in his mouth and took off. But fortunately he made a bee line to the barn door to enjoy his catch. By the grace of God, Connie was there and let Bilbo in. So we had him.

Panic is not a pretty thing. Not in a dog. Not in a slow learning dog owner. But thank God for the opportunity God give us to learn from our mistakes.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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