TURLOCK -- Dominic Vieira has been taught to greet visitors with eyes direct and handshake firm. Lambs, however, require a different touch.
He nurtures his four-legged friends for three months, a process family members have passed from generation to generation. Dominic, 13, loves lambs, even gives them names, but understands how the end game is played.
"Give my buyer a good lamb," he said, "which tastes good and looks good."
Dominic, an eighth-grader at Mountain View Middle School, soon will complete another cycle at the Stanislaus County Fair. He has nurtured Tito, a wethers (castrated male), and Mississippi, a ewe, through the spring rain and into the summer heat.
In the very near future, perhaps this weekend at the fair, Mississippi will be sold to breed and Tito will go to a seller who, well, loves rack of lamb.
Dominic, along with 8-year-old brother Davis, then will notice the empty pen behind their Turlock home. They'll remember how Mississippi, the smaller of the two, followed Tito everywhere.
In the corner of that pen stands a shanty -- a handy escape from the harsh sun. It's the same shanty their father, Mark, put up for his lambs 25 years ago.
Dominic knows the changes will come fast.
He says he sometimes gets emotional "if it's the right lamb. You put all that work into it and poof! You look at the pen and there's nothing there."
Dominic's mom, Kim, and his dad have moved the lambs to the county fairgrounds. Today, the animals will be judged in the morning on market, when the lamb is inspected, and in the evening on showmanship, when the scoring depends on the children's presentation.
"It's just a way to teach the kids to be responsible," Kim Vieira said. "There is nothing better than seeing a kid go into the show ring and be successful, knowing the hard work and the rewards they've gotten."
Both Kim and Mark showed lambs at the fair. His sister showed. His aunt showed. Mark's grandparents owned a sheep farm. Today, Mark and his parents own Vieira Land Leveling. But at home, the Vieiras instill life lessons through those gentle creatures covered in wool.
"It's in the blood. It's in the family," Dominic said. "I think I'm getting better at it every year. You put everything you have into it."
He has shown at the fair since he was 10. His parents, the experience seemingly programmed into their DNA, target qualities such as responsibility, discipline, dependability, work ethic and compassion. But for Dominic, it breaks down to fundamental chores at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. each day -- for the feeding and basic tender loving care he directs toward his lambs.
Yes, there is a business side. Dominic writes letters to potential buyers and hand delivers each one. A lamb named Dorian fetched $1,000 at the fair last year, a number the 13-year-old hopes to match.
"It makes you work harder for what you want," he said.
A member of the Hilmar Colony 4-H Club, Dominic understands the ground rules: His summers don't begin until the fair ends. Family trips will happen, but first things first. There is wool to be sheared, hooves to be trimmed and ears to be cleaned.
"Once you make a kid clean parts of the lamb, it changes their attitude," Kim said.
The Vieiras like to see their boys busy, engaged and goal-minded. Their family legacy suggests they've settled on a way to get there.
So Dominic can deal better with the heel he broke last year. Or the fact he received a B in history, the only blemish on his report card, instead of the A he felt he deserved.
Most important, he learns about beginnings, conclusions and the fascinating events in between.
"Some lambs have been harder (to say goodbye to) than others. Some were not the nicest," he said. "Some I got really attached to. I have cried on sale day."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.