Farm dog redefined

Farm dog redefined

Spring 2024 California Bountiful magazine

Zack Stuller appreciates his guard dogs Willie, left, and Waylon. The canine brothers won the Grand Prize in the California Farm Bureau’s fourth annual Farm Dog of the Year Contest. Photo: © 2024 Tomas Ovalle

Contest winners represent a full range of Rover resumes

Story by Caitlin Fillmore
Photos by Tomas Ovalle

Herding, guarding, comforting, securing. The title of “working dog” on the farm or ranch expands to fit the needs of the operation—much like the reality of being a farmer.

And the winners of California Farm Bureau’s fourth annual Farm Dog of the Year Contest truly embody the spectrum of work these dogs complete every day on their farms and ranches. With support from Nationwide, the contest asked Farm Bureau members to submit photos and a brief story about their beloved canine. The Grand Prize winner earned $1,000, with the first, second and third runners-up receiving $500, $250 and $100, respectively.

Loyal, diligent, affectionate and joyful, the dogs inspired a terrific story for each contestant to tell. The following is the story of the Grand Prize winners: a pair of mischievous brothers whose serendipitous second chance revealed their true family and purpose.

Tricia Stever Blattler gives some love to Waylon. She fostered him and his brother and recommended them to Zack Stuller to help reduce theft at his ranch. Photo: © 2024 Tomas Ovalle
Tulare County, we have a problem

Tricia Stever Blattler remembers Zack Stuller coming into her office, fuming with a persistent problem. Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, listened to Stuller describe the repetitive crime happening at his 1-acre equipment ranch in Exeter.

Stuller experienced 14 burglaries in a few years, including one truck being stolen three times and nine catalytic converters taken off trucks in broad daylight. He had tried everything to deter nighttime thefts, including security systems, fences, alarms and even a night guard. Stuller came to Stever Blattler and discussed some last-resort advice, courtesy of local law enforcement.

“Get some big dogs to run around the equipment yard and scare off burglars,” Stever Blattler recalls saying. “Well, I had the perfect dogs!”

Waylon keeps a watchful eye on traffic in front of Zack Stuller’s farm office in Exeter. Photo: © 2024 Tomas Ovalle
Problem solvers

Stever Blattler volunteers with a Labrador retriever rescue program and has fostered more than 130 dogs. In 2022, two gangly puppies came into her care: Waylon and Willie. The brothers were found in an impoverished area of Tulare County and ended up in the county’s overpopulated shelter. The dogs had few socialization skills and were scared of everyday things like leashes, she remembers.

After some DNA testing, it turned out the brothers were not actually Labs but a mix of 49% Great Pyrenees and 46% Doberman Pinscher. Five months of fostering came and went, and Stever Blattler had received zero interest in adopting these big, boisterous boys.

Stuller also remembers the day he learned about Waylon and Willie. “I asked Tricia, knowing she is a dog expert, if she could keep her eyes out for preferably two dogs that could guard at night but not eat my employees during the day. Her response was, ‘When can I drop them off?’”

After a few meet-and-greets and an extensive building project, in which Stuller constructed a lavish headquarters for his new “ag security personnel” complete with a heated and insulated doghouse, sandbox, artificial turf and permanent shade cover, Waylon and Willie moved in.

Stever Blattler’s hunch was right: The brothers immediately adapted to their role guarding the ranch shop and surrounding land, all night, every night. Today, more than a year later, there have been no thefts.

“They are perfect for the ranch shop. They do not sleep at all once the sun goes down and bark at just about everything: slow-moving cars, people jogging by, bugs, the wind,” Stuller says. “If you met them, you would probably say there is not an aggressive bone in their body. But a bad guy at midnight meeting two, 150-pound dogs standing over 6 feet tall on their back legs with a bark as loud as a freight train might be persuaded otherwise.”    

Waylon, left, and brother Willie relax with owner Zack Stuller after a night patrolling Stuller’s property. Photo: © 2024 Tomas Ovalle
‘Good’ boys

At night, the boys have been caught on camera chasing away potential lurkers and carefully scanning the landscape from atop vehicles parked on the ranch. Stuller reports they have earned their biscuits, but the journey hasn’t necessarily been smooth.

“Yes, they are good dogs. They are gentle giants,” Stuller begins, before explaining, “They are not normal dogs.”

While the dogs enforce law and order on the property at night, they enthusiastically participate in any mischievous behavior they can dream up during their lazy days off-duty. Their antics have earned them the nickname, “the Outlaw Brothers.” Waylon and Willie have teamed up to eat a bag of dry concrete mix, delivery packages, Halloween candy and a Fitbit watch that was supposed to be a Christmas gift. One time they got into rat poison, which almost killed Waylon. The pooch was saved through a blood transfusion from one of Stever Blattler’s dogs.

A normal day involves a half-mile trip through the irrigation canal to beg for snacks at the nearby market until Stuller or another ranch employee rounds up the dozing Waylon and Willie. Abnormal days include that time last summer when the dogs crashed a wedding.

“When I arrived, I saw both of my dogs in the party barn amongst all the guests, and Waylon had a bouquet of flowers in his mouth,” Stuller says. “To my surprise, the bride and groom thought it was hilarious and said for me not to worry.”

By day, Waylon and Willie provide companionship and amusement at Zack Stuller’s agricultural business. By night, they deter crime. Photo: © 2024 Tomas Ovalle
A winning combination

Stuller is still surprised Waylon and Willie won top honors in the 2023 Farm Dog of the Year Contest. But he says it’s undeniable that the brothers have become unexpected teammates in the day-to-day activity of High Sierra Ag.

“(At first) some of my employees were a little reluctant and afraid, but the two brothers won them over pretty quick,” he says. “(Waylon and Willie) are now a large part of our operation. They are basically like employees.”

Stever Blattler says the brothers help redefine expectations for what it means to be a farm dog.

“Waylon and Willie are a perfect symbol of a nontraditional application of a couple of rescue mutts that really do perform a very valuable service on that ranch,” she says. “They are exceptionally good dogs for the job they have been asked to do.” 

(To see Waylon and Willie in action, watch the video on the California Farm Bureau YouTube channel.)

Caitlin Fillmore

And the runners-up are ...

Gus, a cattle dog in Sutter Creek, likes to guard hay in the back of his owner Joel Allen's pickup. Photo by Joel Allen
First runner-up: Gus, McNab dog

Joel Allen, Amador County Farm Bureau

Even at 15 years old, Gus still exemplifies what it means to be a winning farm dog. Gus is a McNab dog, a unique breed from Mendocino County bred to withstand the rugged and distinct terrain of Northern California, including elements such as foxtails and excessive heat.

Gus works as a serious cattle dog, gathering stray cattle and flushing out hidden cows. Joel Allen of Sutter Creek reports Gus’ favorite job is “standing guard in the back of the pickup, making sure that the cows don’t snitch hay.”

This hardworking dog doesn’t just inspire out on the land. Allen reports Gus is a “loving family dog” and still takes puppy-like delight in the everyday, like a treasured toy: a rubber dog food dish. “His sheer joy in playing with that old bowl is a pleasure to watch. Gus is slowing down now, but he’s been a real example to our family of the importance of enjoying the simple things in life.”

Megan, a 12-year-old border collie from Etna, helps her owner Melanie Fowle-Nelson with work around the ranch. Photo by Lamar Nelson
Second runner-up: Megan, border collie

Melanie Fowle-Nelson, Siskiyou County Farm Bureau

Imagine: Every morning you rise from sleep in a house erected in 1860 that once served as a hotel for pioneers traveling on the California portion of the Oregon Trail. You accompany the farmer, your loyal companion, in completing the necessary work on the ranch: pushing sheep into box stalls for vaccinating or overseeing the long, unpredictable nights of lamb season.

If you’re Megan, a 12-year-old border collie from Etna, this daydream is your reality. “This dog has it all,” says owner Melanie Fowle-Nelson. Fowle-Nelson developed a deep bond with Megan during four years when she and her dog moved the cattle and sheep alone.

Megan is affectionate and soaks up pets as much as she gobbles water spewing from water guns in the summer. This farm dog loves to work, gently herding chickens, cattle, ewes and lambs. But Fowle-Nelson says she is loyal, most of all. “Each of us appreciates her company on those cold, snowy, rainy nights.”

Australian shepherd Jackson, flanked by his best friend, Coco the golden retriever, and his owner Brian Kim, brightens the days of FFA students. Photo by Shannon Deskin
Third runner-up: Jackson, Australian shepherd

Brian Kim, Orange County Farm Bureau

Like contest winners Waylon and Willie, Jackson redefines the idea of a “farm dog.” The 10-year-old Australian shepherd works at Sunny Hills High School Farm, a staple of the agriculture and FFA program at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton. In this role, Jackson works tirelessly to brighten the days of the 180 students enrolled in agriculture classes.

Jackson interacts with students both in and out of the classroom, contributing to a therapeutic and supportive community environment. When it’s time for a break from the books, Jackson can be found chasing lambs, goats, steers and pigs or spending time with his best friend, Coco the golden retriever.

As a farmer enriches his community, Jackson enriches the lives of his students, says owner Brian Kim of La Habra. “Jackson provides students every day with a moment of positive energy that highly affects their mood and anxiety. His true farm dog responsibilities are to the students in agriculture education.”