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A dog isn't always a sheep rancher's best friend. Sometimes he can be a sheep rancher's worst enemy.

It all depends on the circumstances, according to local sheep ranchers.A dog trained to work with a herd on mountain and desert terrains can be almost invaluable, they say. He'll help round up the strays, manage the flock and protect the lambs and the ewes from predators.

But town dogs - family pets that are supposed to be on leashes but often aren't - sometimes stray and attack farm flocks. It's a particular problem at night.

"They hear the call of the wild," one sheepman said.

And heeding that call has got some Sanpete County sheep ranchers up in arms because of the losses to roving packs of dogs.

Charlie McKay said five of his sheep have been killed and another 26 badly chewed up in recent weeks. He keeps his farm flock in the north Sanpete area.

Paul Johansen, another local livestock man, said a recent attack resulted in the death of 17 of his sheep and severe injury to another 30.

Mt. Pleasant animal control officer Randy Lee said that armed with a description provided by a rancher's wife, he tracked one dog to its home and found it still with blood on its chest hairs and muzzle.

"This is strictly a leash thing," Lee said. "These are family dogs doing the killing."

Ephraim and Manti sheep ranchers who winter small farm flocks close to town have reported similar dog problems. One Manti resident who had a small herd close by saw his sheep badly chewed up by roving dogs and went out of business. He couldn't take the losses, he said.

However, Dan Nance, Manti animal control officer, said he has had just two minor incidents this year.

The answer, he thinks, is tougher leash laws and stricter enforcement.

The situation is made more difficult because Sanpete County has no dog ordinance and the attacks on small bands of sheep often occur in unincorporated areas.

And they almost always occur in the cold of winter and often on moonlit nights.

This makes animal psychologists wonder what deep-seated instinct causes Lassie to leave her kennel on a December night and join a killer pack for a few wild hours.