Barnyard Buddies and Agricultural Assets. The integral role working dogs play on Sonoma County farms and ranches

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: November 3, 2020

Did you know that many domestic dog breeds were originally developed as working farm dogs? Many readers may think of dogs primarily as man’s best friend, but in the agricultural industry, they serve essential daily roles in our food system. From herding and guarding to sniffing and controlling pests, dogs are integral to the success of our local agricultural industry. Check out the wide array of functions dogs perform here in Sonoma County from riding shotgun in the pickup to herding 400 head of cattle.

Livestock Guardian Dogs

For centuries on grazing land across the world dogs of all sizes, types, and breeds have been used by ranchers to protect cattle, sheep, and goats. Sonoma County sheep rancher Ron Crane said that the primary purpose of his family’s 13 guardian dogs is to protect their sheep from predators.

“Our biggest threat is from coyotes, but with the increasing mountain lion population, I’m certain that our guardian dogs have prevented lion kills.”

The best guard dogs are those who blend in effectively with their charges, defend them from predators and be attentive day or night as required. Crane said that he originally used straight Great Pyrenees dogs but shifted to Pyrenees/Akbash crosses because the Akbash breed is more athletic and aggressive.

“We currently have 8 guard dogs at our Petaluma ranch, which has approximately 600 head of sheep and the Santa Rosa ranch has 5 guard dogs with about 125 head of sheep,” Crane said. “The ranch was established in 1852 and from then until the 1980’s we had little to no predation.”

However, during the mid-’80s, Crane said things began to change.

“Predation began to increase and ranching nearly became unsustainable in the early ’90s when we were losing $25,000 or more in losses per year due to predator attacks and kills.”

In the early ’90s, Crane said his family decided to make a change.

“We started with a couple of guard dogs and nearly immediately, reduced our loss to near $0,” Crane said. “Since then we have had to increase the number of dogs every couple of years because the coyotes would adapt to the guard dogs.”

He said that the best thing about guardian dogs is that they perform such an essential function on the ranch but don’t require special attention.

“In the mornings, they go out with the sheep and often sleep all day because they are working all night,” Crane said. “They live with the sheep and are fed on the ground wherever they happen to be. Wherever the sheep go they go. Rain or shine, they spend 100% of their time with the sheep.”

Surprisingly, the dogs and their handlers need very little special training to be able to perform their duties effectively.

“These dogs are amazing,” Crane said. “Almost 100% of their skills are instinctual and receive no special training. It is very important that puppies come from working parents and are raised with sheep so that they bond with the sheep.”

Crane said that one of the most unique things about guardian dogs is that they can communicate with each other and work in unison.

“At our Petaluma ranch, the 600 head of sheep will often be spread out over the 1,000 acres and the dogs will be evenly spread out,” Crane said. “The next day, all the dogs will be in different positions and spread out evenly.

He said that when there is a sick or down sheep a guard dog will usually be lying nearby waiting for you to find them.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit

Jeremy Lyle is a Deputy Sheriff Canine (K9) Handler who works daily with a Deputy Canine Belgian Malinois named “Rappa”. Together, they patrol the streets and rural areas of Sonoma County as a K9 unit. The duo is tasked with supplementing the work of the patrol bureau. Canines are used to locate contraband by using scent detection of illicit substances, guns, missing articles, and explosives. They are also used to locate and apprehend serious criminal offenders.

He said that canines provide a valuable “force multiplier” meaning that deputies utilize canines to locate criminals, which can drastically reduce the amount of time looking for a subject and the risk to deputies.

The Sheriff’s Office currently has 9 canines including 7 patrol dogs and 2 detection dogs, one of which is for jail narcotics searches and the other is an explosive detection dog.

Typically, Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd dog breeds are best suited for such work. However, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office explosives detection canine is a golden retriever. Such breeds have a strong track record of strength, agility, drive, and focus while working.

Deputy Lyle explained that the Sheriff’s dogs training occurs daily.

“Essentially, every time you interact with the canine you are working to train them,” Deputy Lyle said. “Initially though, a handler and canine go through a patrol school, which is a minimum of 200 hours.”

Narcotics and explosive detection schools are additional schools each between 160-200 hours. The canine teams also train weekly to continually hone and refine their skills.

Deputy Lyle said that the best part about working with the K9 Unit is the strong bond that is formed between handler and canine.

“Your canine is your partner and your best friend,” Deputy Lyle said. “You go to work together, home together, and are family members.”

He said that the canines know when they are going to “work” and can develop the ability to turn on and off their unique skills and abilities based on their environment and the task at hand.

“In the morning, the dogs light up and get excited to run out to their patrol vehicle, load up, put their harness on, and go for a drive to an adventure,” Lyle said. “At the end of the day, they differentiate their work from their home life where they get to hang out in their comfy dog crate or their favorite bed.”

Deputy Lyle said that the most unique thing about working with such highly trained and capable dogs is that they can read the handlers’ state of mind and solve scenarios that they encounter in the field.

“The canine’s scent detection ability is amazing,” Deputy Lyle explained. “They can clearly differentiate among numerous odors and smell what is completely undetectable to you and me. They possess smelling power on the magnitude of 200 times that of a human.”

He said that the best way to characterize the relationship Sheriff’s Deputies have with their canines is that they are more than just a tool used at work. They are their best friends and partners and therefore, deputies treat them as they would like to be treated.

“In some ways though, they are different than pets because they are driven to work and have a directed intensity toward tasks that they are trained to complete,” Deputy Lyle said. “There is a strong balance of the dichotomy of them being pets and employees.”

Deputy Lyle said that at the end of the day, each of the canines gets their favorite foods, has their favorite toys, beds, and their pack around them, and can rest easy knowing they put in a hard day’s work helping to keep our community safe.

Truffle Sniffing Dogs

Have you ever wondered how truffles are harvested? It turns out, that the delicious addition to a side of French fries or a culinary creation is made possible thanks to truffle sniffing dogs.

Truffles grow underground and it is impossible for humans to know where they are or when they are ripe. That’s where dogs come in. Truffle trained dogs can smell a ripe truffle underground and alert the dog handler to the location of a truffle.

Karen Passafaro has one truffle sniffing dog named Alba. She is a Lagotto Romagnolo, also known as the Italian Truffle Dog, which is the most well-known truffle dog breed.

The Lagotto Romagnolo is the only purebred dog in the world recognized as a specialized truffle searcher. Many other breeds can also be trained to find truffles including labradors, spaniels, retrievers, beagles, and poodles.

Passafaro said that the Lagotto’s keen sense of smell and willingness to please their owners make them the ultimate experts at truffle hunting. She said that they are also high energy and have the ability to stay focused while truffle hunting and not get distracted in the orchard.

How do these dogs further develop and hone such a unique skill? Passafaro said that most truffle dog training starts when they are puppies.

“Many breeders put truffle oil on the mother dog’s teats, which establishes the scent as rewarding from day one,” Passafaro said. “Then when they are puppies, you put truffle oil on toys, balls, and cotton balls inside small, vented containers. Then, you hide the truffle scented item and reward the dog when they find it.”

She said that as the dog grows, owners progressively make it more difficult for the dog to find the targets and move the hide and seek games from the house, out to the yard, and eventually to a buried item in the yard or orchard.

“They actually pick it up pretty quickly and love the ‘game’ of truffle hunting and the rewards that come with it,” Passafaro said.

Together, Passafaro and Alba have hunted truffles in three different orchards in Sonoma County that range between 600 and 3,000 trees.

“Truffle hunting is such fun with these amazing dogs,” Passafaro said. “They love to “work” in the orchard and they love to please their owner or trainer. We have been truffle hunting in several orchards in Sonoma County, Oregon, and Idaho.”

During truffle season, Passafaro and Alba will hunt for about an hour in the morning before it gets too hot or the wind picks up too much. After working hard in the orchard, Passafaro said she enjoys great truffle meals and drinking great Sonoma County wines.

Herding Dogs

Effective herding dogs are capable of leading farm animals in and out of pastures and corrals and across tidy fields or rugged terrain. Highly trained herding dogs respond without hesitation to commands, gestures, and sounds.

Byron Palmer, a grassland manager, has four herding dogs in regular rotation, and one who is semi-retired— although he said he doesn’t know it. The primary purpose of his herding dogs is to be able to calmly gather and move large groups of cattle across an uncompromising landscape.

The more common breeds used for herding are Border Collies, Mcnabs, Australian heelers, and Australian Kelpies.

“These dogs express an ingrained predatory behavior that we see as herding,” Palmer said. “They are all smart, agile, fast, trained to move, and have high endurance.”

Most importantly, Palmer explained, they want to work and have a prey drive to chase cattle. He said that the quantity and level of training each dog needs are related to the level of difficultly of the tasks they are asked to do.

“Most herding dogs have natural instincts that you can use in less complicated settings to get easy jobs done,” Palmer said. “However, as soon as you start layering on complications such as the landscape features including steep terrain, woodlands, ravines, and the wide range of cattle and their dispositions, it can necessitate an increased level of training, skill, and experience to successfully herd cattle.”

Dogs must learn to balance, which means that they stay on the opposite side of the cattle from you, stop, gather clockwise, or counterclockwise. Such skills are best taught when they are young while practicing on sheep. Then, at about a year when they are more coordinated, they are introduced to cattle.

“With daily training, it takes about 2 years to get a good, finished dog that you can count on,” Palmer said.

A part of managing land and cattle is moving animals across miles of canyons and through woodlands and down through ravines. All the while, the cattle may or may not want to go in the direction you want them to at any given moment. Palmer said that through his years of experience in a working landscape, with diverse and often unruly terrain, often, the dogs know much more than we do at how to best round up cattle.

“Some of those training styles range from extremely high control of the dog as you see in trialing, to more autonomy for the dog, which you need if the dog is casting out and working off you so far it can’t hear commands or even whistles.”

Palmer said that it is difficult to explain how special his working relationship with his four dogs is.

“We work together to accomplish a goal and after each repetition with the dogs when we are out all alone in big landscapes, pulling groups together you start to build trust in a variety of scenarios,” Palmer said. “When this happens again and again you really become a team. I am grateful that I get to help steward these beautiful landscapes with my team of herding dogs.”

Agricultural Detector Dogs

Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Andrew Smith said that services provided by the California Dog Teams have helped to keep our local agricultural industry safe. Their purpose is to enhance inspection and surveillance activities related to plant products entering the State of California via parcel delivery facilities and airfreight terminals.

“We need to be vigilant at all of the points of entry where injurious pests, plant parts, or soils could be introduced into our county and into our state,” Smith said. “Agricultural Detector dogs perform an essential function that helps safeguard our agricultural industry.”

These dogs possess a high food drive, sociability, intelligence, physical soundness, and low anxiety levels. Dogs and handlers must complete an intense 10-week training through the USDA National Detector Dog Training Center before beginning inspections in California. There, the dogs are trained to hit on a number of ripening fruit and soil-related scents.

Once fully trained, the dogs alert on marked and unmarked parcels that contain the agricultural product. These plant products must meet the strict plant quarantine requirements in order to enter into California counties. Trained agricultural inspectors then inspect the packages that the dogs have alerted on for any unwanted plants or plant parts, which may contain pests, including insect species, diseases, or other harmful organisms that may pose a threat to the economic well-being of the State. Currently, California Dog Teams conduct inspections at UPS, FedEx, OnTrac, and the United States Postal Service, as well as other private parcel carriers throughout California.

Although Sonoma County is not home to a California Dog Team, Smith said that our county has had regular visits from dog teams from Contra Costa County in the past, as well as Sacramento County.

The California Dog Teams continue to demonstrate that unmarked parcels present a high-risk pathway for significant agricultural pests to enter California. They have alerted handlers to thousands of parcels, which has resulted in their rejection and citations have been issued for violation of state and federal plant quarantine laws and regulations. Smith said that this program is a much needed and very valuable component to protecting California agriculture from invasive and injurious pests in our efforts to promote and protect our state’s vital agricultural industries.

““These dogs that work in agriculture in all of the capacities mentioned in this story are our friends, family members, colleagues, coworkers, and part of our team, and at times it’s hard to tell if they’re working for us or we are working for them,” Smith said. “It’s a pleasure and a blessing either way.”

Geese Abatement Dogs

Phillip Wassem has one Border Collie who is a goose abatement dog.

“The best thing about working with his dog is that she can’t talk back and is always willing to work,” Wassem said. “We travel from property to property and chase geese using the dog and remote-control boats.”

A well-trained Goose Abatement dog can be very persuading to a flock of Canada Geese, convincing them that a certain location is not really where they want to reside.  Repetitive canine patrols instill a predator fear in the often destructive and troublesome geese and convince them to find safer places to forage and nest.

He said that Border Collies are an ideal breed for such work because they are smart, have a strong drive to herd, and no prey drive and that effective geese abatement dogs must possess basic off-leash obedience and a strong desire to chase geese.

Companion Dogs

Whether herding, guarding, sniffing out truffles, or simply riding shotgun in the pickup. One of the most important functions of a farm or ranch dog is that of a companion. Loren and Lisa Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch have a charismatic two-year-old yellow lab named Maisy, who goes wherever Loren does.

“When he is at the office, she is at the office. When he is at the ranch, she is at the ranch. When he is at home, she is at home,” Lisa said. “Maisy is so important because she brings laughter and joy to our home and our family every day.”

Maisy runs in the pastures with the cattle and sheep by day and sleeps in Loren and Lisa’s room by night.

Loren said that Maisy is a solid athlete and can run, swim, jump, and spend an incredible amount of time outside. However, when the ranching duo arrives home at the end of the day, Maisy transforms into a mellow and loving house dog.

“She truly is such a special dog,” Loren said. “It is so great to always have a companion by my side, riding in the truck, in the side-by-side, sitting next to my desk at the office, or playing with our two daughters.”


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