Calling all farm dog owners! Does your dog have what it takes to win this year’s Farm Dog of the Year contest?
Farm Dog of the Year celebrates farm dogs and the many ways they support farmers and ranchers in producing nutritious food for families and their pets across California. Farm Bureau members are encouraged to nominate their dogs for the 2023 Farm Dog of the Year contest, sponsored by Nationwide.
Grand Prize - $1,000
1st Runner-Up - $500
2nd Runner-Up - $250
3rd Runner-Up - $100
Story by Linda DuBois Photos by Henry Barrios
Such are the attributes of farm dogs—and the winners of the California Farm Bureau’s third annual Farm Dog Contest are among the best of them.
The following is the story of the Grand Prize winner: Rip, a goat herder from Kern County.
Life is pretty busy for Romi and Michael Poncetta. With help from their son Branson and a few employees, they run two separate businesses at Poncetta Farms, their 75-acre family ranch in Bakersfield. They also hold down three other jobs.
Michael Poncetta works full time for Orchard Machinery Corp. and manages the longtime family farm, now mostly doing custom hay work and raising cattle.
Romi Poncetta works part time as a FARMS Leadership coordinator for the Center for Land Based Learning and full time teaching livestock management to high school juniors and seniors for Bakersfield’s Regional Occupational Center—on top of running Maggenti Show Goats at the ranch. This business breeds Boer goats and sells them to 4-H and FFA youths across the country who raise them for livestock shows.
So, it stands to reason, they need all the help around the ranch they can get.
Romi Poncetta’s right-hand man is Rip, a young border collie whose job is to herd the 200 to 300 goats.
She got him in the fall of 2020 from a sheep-herding family when their dog had a litter. She picked him out because she “liked his coloring, his markings and his cute little face,” she says.
When the puppies were weaned and she went to pick him up, they “bonded instantly,” she says. “Right away, he was my forever dog, my little baby.”
She and Rip start their workday about 6 a.m.
While the family also has two great Pyrenees, who stay outside to protect the livestock from predators, Rip gets to come in at night.
“He sleeps in our bed. He’s very spoiled,” Poncetta says with a laugh. She gets up, puts Rip’s collar on him and they head outside, where she feeds the chickens and goats and makes sure they have enough water.
Then she and Rip begin their work with the goats.
“He helps me day-to-day herding the goats from the pasture into pens and into our working chute,” Poncetta says. There, the goats get hands-on care such as monthly deworming, embryo transfers or pregnancy checks. The goats also need to be herded into pens for photos that will be shown to potential buyers.
Through it all, “he’s right there with me and he keeps bringing the next goat in,” Poncetta says.
His talent is a combination of training and instinct, she says. Even as a small puppy, Rip showed herding was “in his blood” and she has nurtured that by steadily teaching him commands.
“Right off the bat, he wanted to herd the goats,” she says. “He even tries to herd the chickens around if they get out. He’ll help me sort them and get them back into their coop. He would go after the cattle, too, but I don’t want him to,” she adds, explaining that the goats are smaller, safer and less stubborn.
After a few hours of work, they take a break and, if the weather is nice, go down to a pond where Rip likes to swim and play. “He loves to play fetch,” Poncetta says.
Then, it’s back to work.
Even when Poncetta is busy doing other tasks around the ranch, such as moving hay on a tractor or helping out with the cattle, Rip never leaves her side.
Since adding her full-time teaching job to the mix, “it’s been a little bit of a juggle … but we go out early in the mornings and then when I get off at 3 o’clock, I go home and we get right back to work again.” Interns and employees help fill in when she’s gone.
Harder on her than keeping up with the workload is leaving her beloved pooch behind when she heads for school.
“As soon as we walk out the door, Rip wants to go to work and I feel bad that some days I have to leave him at home,” Poncetta says, adding that the dog would rather help her around the ranch than do about anything else.
Of some consolation to them both is she’s now able to bring him to school with her fairly often—which is a big hit with the students.
“Usually after our workday’s done, if he’s really dirty or muddy, I’ll give him a bath on our little goat stand. … I blow him off and then I carry him inside because I don’t want his feet to get dirty on the sand and track dirt. Then, he’ll be in for the night. He has his little dog bed in the living room and he has his little toys. Sometimes, he’ll get all spunky and throw his little toy parrot around,” she says.
“A big cuddle bug,” Rip loves being inside and hanging out with the family but at times he’s less of a night owl than the others. “Some days if we’re up too late, he’ll sneak off and he’ll go jump up on our bed—he’s like, ‘I’m going to bed. I’m tired.’
“Rip is truly a blessing and a one-of-a-kind dog I wish everyone could have,” Poncetta says. “He is one of the best things that has happened to myself and my family. He forever changed my life. He’s the best dog ever.”
In June, Sky Saddle Orchards, a truffle farm in Santa Rosa, harvested its very first truffle—a whopper at 13 ounces—thanks in large part to Alba, a 5-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo, also known as an Italian truffle dog.
Essential to the business, truffle dogs sniff out the underground tubers that humans can’t smell or see. Alba also gives truffle hunting demonstrations aimed at bringing more awareness to the developing truffle sector, says orchard owner Karen Passafaro.
“She’s a valuable trained truffle hunter, but she is also a central part of our family,” Passafaro says. “She is well behaved and gets very excited whenever friends and family visit. She brings joy to everyone she connects with.” Alba enjoys home time as well as outings with the family to wineries, parks and restaurants.
“Alba also relishes her part-time job as a therapy dog,” Passafaro adds, “bringing smiles to assisted living residents who love to connect with dogs.”
After Robert Stephens’ wife was killed in a tragic accident two years ago, he was haunted by PTSD and was “very lonely.” To keep him company, he adopted Ray, an Australian shepherd puppy.
“He is the best companion and goes everywhere with me,” Stephens says.
Ray also works on Stephens’ cow-calf operation, Elkhorn Ranch in north Monterey County, which has 44 cows and seven horses.
“Ray does it all,” Stephens says, adding he’s a great watch dog and loves herding cattle. “He even helps me catch the one horse I have who can be difficult to catch,” Stephens says. “He loves to run with my four-wheeler doing chores.”
When not working, Ray likes going for hikes and playing catch, “which keeps me healthy,” Stephens says.
“He always has a smile and is ready for any activity,” he says. Friendly with other dogs and people, Ray helps Stephens meet others. “He helps me stay engaged in life.”
Geri Byrne lives on her late husband, Dan’s, family cattle ranch in Modoc County, where she also runs the Border Collie Training Center and has been raising and training border collies since 1978.
One of her shining stars is 3-year-old Dot, who helps herd up to 250 sheep that graze on her land near Tulelake. “She can gather large groups, small groups or even an errant single. … She takes both voice and whistle commands but can also work on her own when needed,” Byrne says.
In Dot’s spare time, she competes in sheepdog competitions, where she had great success in the nursery competition for dogs under 3.
“Dot works hard and plays hard. From the farm to the home, she puts a smile on my face each and every day,” Byrne says. “I have owned border collies for over 45 years, each special in its own way, but Dot is the best I have had to date.”