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Tribute To The Working Dog

December 27, 2012

A little down time this week means pulling some things from the archives! This was something I wrote back in 2004 (that long ago?!) Enjoy!

JakeDustyDorsetHis head raises off the bed of the pickup truck — patiently waiting for his owner’s return. Someone steps out of the sale barn cafe, tucking a check into their pocket, and he sits up, his eyes bright, the tip of his tail wagging ever so slightly, solemnly hiding his racing heart. His eyes sparkle as the rest of the activity is blocked out.

She runs the heifer up to the chute – at the last minute the heifer spins to make an escape. However, your extra hand blocks the opening, staring at the heifer and maybe jumping to nip her on the nose for good measure. No further argument as the heifer turns and trots down the chute.

Or you’re standing in the doorway of the barn, watching the rain fall. “Awee Mick” – and a border collie goes from asleep to a full run, oblivious to the rain. He settles behind the dozen ewes with lambs and with no further direction brings them into the barn. A gust of wind blows rain in your face and startles you out of the daydream. Mick’s gone. Pulling on your raincoat, you notice his daughter Jess watching, prancing in anticipation that *something* exciting is about to happen. Gosh it sure was easier before Mick died wasn’t it?

EineBCInaThey come in all colors and breeds. Black and white border collies, red merle Australian shepherds, blue heelers, kelpies and English Shepherds. Maybe some crossbred “mutts”. Registration papers don’t mean a thing when they’re facing down a 1,500 pound cow who doesn’t want to be penned. Courage and persistence makes a difference. They must be willing to get right back to work even after getting roughed up. They must be determined to stick with the stubborn ewe until she and her lambs are safely penned. They show the tenderness to lick a sick calf or goat kid as if commiserating and willing it to get well.

They’re ordinary dogs doing ordinary jobs. Most have their quirks. Jerry’s was being confined while I went somewhere either on foot or horseback – if there was a four inch opening all 45 pounds of mixed bred border collie would be making a beeline for whatever way his nose told him I’d gone. Robert’s was being boss dog and not being able to concentrate on anything else until everyone knew *this* Australian Shepherd was top dog. Then there was Duke – a registered border collie – with a vindictive streak. Lock him in the house and leave – he’d pull everything he could reach off the shelves, pile it in the center of the room and urinate on it. Jake had an intolerance for anyone putting anything into – or taking anything out of – any vehicle he was left in. Ferbie, a 1/2 border collie mutt had an INTENSE fear of thunderstorms…during an Illinois storm she tore through a screen door, ran into the bathroom and was found laying in the sink trembling.

Jake – alias “Jake-The-Wonder-Dog” – was a product of top Scottish dogs. Did he brag of his heritage? Nope. He would however get right down in the mud with the orneriest ewe, run down an escaped sow (as in pigs) or lick the face of a sick baby – be it lamb, puppy, kitten, bird, calf, kid, whatever. It amazed me that the same dog who can get in the face of a 250 pound sheep who’s decided she’s not moving could so gently lick a baby chick. He took a kick once…in the nose from a 1,400 pound Thoroughbred mare. His paws were torn up in another accident – yet nothing diminished his love for working. It absolutely made his day to hear “let’s go get the sheep” (or goats or whatever else – he knew the names too). Rain, snow, ice, heat – it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the job takes a few minutes or all day. If a critter didn’t behave he didn’t lose his cool unless his human co-workers did and pressured to hurry. Left to his own he’d work a critter methodically and with all the patience in the world

Then was the blue heeler who would assist in breaking colts to lead and to work on a lunge line. He’d follow the youngster from a bit of a distance – unless the colt lagged behind, when “Coyote” rushed in and nipped the ankle. When a colt was started on a lunge line he’d position himself between the handler and the horse – it kept the youngster from drifting in (no reasoning with that dog!) and before long they learned to lunge properly in even circles.

JoeJanJerryAprilJerry didn’t have papers but was a lifesaver. His forte was cattle – all he had to work. In a confinement situation he came to the rescue on several occasions to help his teenage owner. His hero-worship was absolutely unbridled – he’d face down the toughest bull or the rankest cow. On two occasions he stepped in to ward off a charge by a Charolais cow on the move. The second time he injured a shoulder muscle – age was catching up with him. When he died from old age – a heart attack while “helping” feed cattle – the whole family wept. A tree was planted to mark his grave – quite a tribute for a stray puppy who became the standard I still compare dogs to.

A good dog is more than an employee, more than a companion, more than a friend or drinking buddy. It’s some illusive quality – something that is hard to describe to someone who has never had a special dog. How can they comprehend the bond made when the only thing standing between a charging 1,200 pound cow and you was 45 pounds of teeth and courage? How can they appreciate the team made when you say “I want THAT one” and your dog persists until she sorts out the right animal? How can they who believe that dogs are dumb and color blind possibly believe the dog was told to get a particular goat by name and the dog runs off and comes back with the correct goat? How can they believe the determination of a dog who stays on the job until every animal is accounted for?

What about the dog forgotten in the field – his owner hadn’t had his dog with him for a while and when he got home he wondered where Toots was. Then he remembered taking him to the sheep field three and a half miles away. Back to the car to go get him – was Toots frazzled at being abandoned? Of course not! There were sheep to watch over…why worry about humans?

GaelIL2Even the youngsters just learning to herd – making that almost perfect outrun or on their own pausing to take the pressure off the animal. Gael glanced sideways – should she go forward? Stop? She’s so eager to learn and so absorbed in learning the dance of herding.

These stock dogs do miraculous things. Besides all the qualities that make a good stock dog there’s something more. The way they work their way into your life so you wonder how you’d ever get along without them. It happens to handlers the world over. Mrs. Carpenter talks of English champion trial dog Jon and it’s clear she’s not remembering just the trophies or winning the trials but the every day ordinary things. No one who saw Duke saw what I did in him. People watched Jake work and there’s either disbelief or a look that can’t quite be described. It’s those that have the latter that I know have had that special dog…and lost him/her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s then that those who can’t believe or appreciate the bond of a good dog will never understand. They look puzzled and say “but he’s just a dog.” Just a dog. I look at Gael, or Scout, or Luke and I see a lot of things. But “just a dog?” No I don’t see that. I see a partner who would willingly lay down his life for me if it came to it. I see a friend who doesn’t care whether it’s been a lousy day of if I’d won the $20 million lottery. I see that illusive, indescribable quality that tells me he’s a part of my life beyond description.

A good dog need not be a champion trial winner, or an imported dog with a long line of credentials. It’s often the one who’s in there day in and day out that is remembered for life. It’s the one who stayed out in a late spring snowstorm with you to find every last cow-calf pair. The one who backed down the bull or kept the ram from coming at you. The one who despite being “just a dog” or “a better way to get the job done” worms his or her way into your heart. And the reward they ask? “Good boy – that’ll do.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2012 7:27 PM

    Love this…


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