4 rescued puppies, whether lost or abandoned, shine light on Colorado ranching issue
For Steamboat Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In a county home to a past Dog Town USA designee, it might be surprising for urban dog lovers to learn a litter of puppies born from local livestock working dogs were either lost or abandoned earlier this month miles from people or homes.
Canine advocates and law enforcement officials said the situation of lost or abandoned working dogs is not unusual in Northwest Colorado, where sheep ranching operations use the large, territorial canines to protect livestock herds from coyotes.
On Aug. 14, two state of Colorado Division of Water Resources employees were driving ATVs to check irrigation ditches about 15 miles south of Hayden in rural Routt County when they found four fluffy white puppies on the side of a dirt road.
“All of a sudden, there were four little puppies standing by a culvert,” said state water commissioner and Hayden native Lauren Berrien. “I thought, ‘Why were there puppies out here in the middle of nowhere?’ We said we gotta do something about this; we can’t just leave them out here.”
When approached, the frightened, thin puppies — about six weeks old — hid inside the tight, 40-foot metal culvert. Not even an offered peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cheese from an employee’s lunch bag could entice the puppies out. A check with the property’s ranch manager, as well as a walking and driving search of the nearby area, failed to locate the dogs’ owners or sheep herding operations where the guard dog parents might be on duty.
The water resources workers called Routt County dispatch and were advised they could either bring the puppies in or wait for assistance from an animal control officer some distance away. The employees tried to give the dogs water and urge them out of the culvert using a long PVC pipe.
Berrien, an avid animal lover, decided to rescue the dogs by army-crawling through the tight metal culvert. Inside, the dirty puppies were huddled together amid dog feces and stinking parts of a dead animal. Bruising her arms on the ribbed metal, Berrien finally urged the puppies out to her co-worker, who pulled the young dogs out one at a time and was nipped on the hand. At the opposite end of the narrow culvert from which the puppies were extricated, hard-packed dirt covered much of the opening and had to be shoveled away before Berrien could be slowly dragged out by her co-worker.
Several of the puppies vomited while being transported to a nearby ranch, where they were transferred to animal control officer Dawn Smith. The unvaccinated puppies were taken to the Routt County Humane Society for a procedural 10-day observation period.
“Puppies getting left behind is common,” said Smith, who has been in her position more than nine years.
Longtime Routt County resident Pete Wille, incoming president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, has used working dogs such as Akbash and Anatolian shepherds for 20 years to protect his registered Rambouillet sheep, which he raises for both wool and meat. His 13-year-old Anatolian, Mary, has come home with cuts on her nose and ears after fighting with coyotes.
Wille said the rescued puppies could have been lost for various reasons, including the theory that the mother dog gave birth to the puppies in the culvert, and the sheepherders did not locate them before moving on with the herd. Wille said the dogs can be valuable for producers’ operations or for sale.
His dog, Mary, had two litters of puppies in the past before she was spayed. Those 15 puppies were sold for $300 each to families from Arizona to California to Kansas.
“The sheep industry is spending lots of money to protect our rights to use dogs and to educate the public,” Wille said. “The dogs are a tool of our industry that keeps us in business, because we have so many challenges — economic, environmental and overseas lamb competition.”
Smith said it is illegal to leave a domestic animal without food, water or shelter.
She said guard dog puppies are rescued by the sheriff’s animal control officers at least once per year in places such as culverts, and additional dogs are found by members of the public and taken directly to the shelter.
Working dog puppies are “often not claimed,” Smith said, after being advertised as strays at the shelter. She said puppies may be left behind as the sheep herds move faster than the puppies or when a mother dog has hidden the pups. Smith related one past instance in which a sheepherder handed off puppies to an admiring couple, then ran away.
A litter of eight, unclaimed, 8-week-old Akbash puppies was adopted out by the shelter last fall, said manager Karen Donoghue. She said local residents can assist the shelter by signing up to be puppy foster families.
“We hope abandonment is never an issue, because we will take surrenders for any animals in need,” Donoghue.
The veterinarian examining the four Akbash puppies noted they were underweight at a little more than six pounds each, as well as infected with intestinal worms. The three females and one male were named Jellybean, Skeeter, Zoey and Winston.
The hungry and unsocialized puppies were fed five small meals per day to start, Donoghue said, and after one week, the puppies were happy to see human visitors. By 10 days, they were playful, shredding newspapers and adorably seeking attention.
The shelter will find suitable homes for the puppies with ranching or other families who have done their research to determine if the breed, which reaches more than 80 pounds, would be a good fit.
Donoghue said Akbash are not appropriate for apartment or condo living.
The local humane society offers spay and neuter financial assistance to low-income Routt County residents via application. Some funding toward spaying and neutering is available through the nonprofit Animal Assistance League of Northwestern Colorado, which offers humane education and support to citizens, animal shelters and rescues in Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties.