Who is in the photo at right?
My name is Cat Urbigkit. I’m an author and photographer based on a western Wyoming sheep ranch, but I’m the lesser character in the photo. My canine companion is Rena, star of my most recent nonfiction children’s book, The Guardian Team: On the Job with Rena and Roo. Rena is about to have her fifth birthday. She is female Turkish Akbash, a livestock protection dog.
What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?
I have coffee with Rena most days, but it varies according to the time of year. Sometimes it’s a mug to go, while we’re checking the sheep herd during lambing season. At this time of year, Rena comes to the front door at dawn for her breakfast, while I drink coffee. Then she’s ready for a nap on the couch.
Rich, dark Colombian coffee, perked in a stainless steel coffee pot.
Any treats for you or Rena on this occasion?
Husband Jim has just baked bread, so we all enjoy warm, freshly baked bread from the oven, without even a drop of butter on it.
How were you and Rena united?
Luv’s Girl is Rena’s mother, a full-time sheep herd guardian who also lives here on the ranch with us. She had a litter of seven puppies, and I wanted one pup that I would specially train and socialize to people – to make her an ambassador dog, representing all livestock guardian dogs, so people could actually meet a guardian dog. Rena was the runt of the litter, and one with a tendency to constantly get in fights with her siblings. I begin taking her to schools, libraries, and book festivals as a pup, and she seems to think that when there is a group of people gathered, they have congregated for her benefit. She’s done programs for more than 2,000 students, and even a few state and national policy-makers.
How did Rena get her name? Any aliases?
I try to go with short names for our dogs, and the name Rena just came to me on the day I picked her from the litter and brought her to the house. I also call her “Stinker Butt,” and often receive nips on my butt for doing so. When Rena isn’t happy about something, she communicates her feelings very clearly.
At your blog I read about the problem you're having with wolves preying on your sheep. Is that problem getting better or worse?
One of the problems associated with wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is expansion of the wolf population into areas where there is livestock production (we’re 200 miles south of Yellowstone National Park). Guardian dogs like Rena do a great job at protecting our sheep herds from most predators, but the number of livestock guardian dogs killed by wolves has been increasing as the wolf population expands. We’ve started using spiked collars on our dogs to help them have a better chance of surviving wolf attacks, and have even tried a few breeds that are more suited to challenging wolves, such as Central Asian Ovcharkas. We constantly seek a balance here on this working landscape, between wild and domestic animals, and our human influence.
Do your dogs have a favorite place to go for an outing?
We live on a ranch, so Rena and the other dogs spend most of their time out and about, with freedom of movement. Rena does like going to Wyoming’s capital city, Cheyenne, and staying at the historic Plains Hotel, where she is very popular.
Squirrel, postman, cat...?
Prairie dogs! We have a large prairie dog colony on the ranch, and all the chattering from atop their mounds drives Rena crazy. Some of the prairie dogs do not survive their encounters with Rena.
Squeaky-toy, ball, Frisbee...?
Rena looks at dog toys with contempt. They are so unworthy of her attention. However, she does love rolling around on top of fresh burro manure, so what does that say about her judgment?
What is Rena's best quality?
She is kind to baby lambs and other young animals.
If your dogs could change one thing about Wyomingites, what would it be?
They would own more sheep.
What is Rena's proudest moment?
She has those every spring during lambing, as she lays next to a ewe that has just given birth to tiny white lambs. Rena is as proud as the new mother each time she witnesses the births, and stays with the sheep family until those wobbly-legged lambs can move around with their mothers.
If your dogs could speak in the movie about your life, who should do their voices?
Lady Gaga. Rena is such a performer, and thrives from the crowds that gather to see her. She is both extremely brave and loving.
What role have your dogs played in your writing?
I was a journalist before becoming a book author. My husband suggested that since so few people knew about the special relationship that forms between a guardian animal and its charges, I should write a book about it. I did – in 2005, my publisher released my first book Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs: How They Guard Sheep. The book has done very well, but everywhere I went, kids wanted to know more. That’s why I wrote The Guardian Team: On the Job with Rena and Roo. Our livestock guardian dogs are also featured in my new adult title scheduled for release this fall: Shepherds of Coyote Rocks.
Since the dogs play such a huge role in everyday life on the ranch, it’s no surprise they’ve had such an important role in my books. Our dogs have been included in most of my other books, including The Shepherd’s Trail; Puppies, Puppies Everywhere!; and A Young Shepherd.
Visit Cat Urbigkit’s Paradise Sheep website and look for her posts on Stephen Bodio's Querencia blog.