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I've been giving a lot of thought to this lately. Some people base their major decisions on trial results and records; some strictly deal with farm-bred and ranch-bred dogs that have never seen a trial field; and some look at dogs from both aspects. In looking back at my own working dogs, Border Collies, Aussies, and a cross-bred, I truly believe that the true value of a dog lies in what it can do for the farmer or rancher, when the pedal meets the metal, so to speak - although I do value trials for what they add to the equation (exposure to dogs and lines a person is not familiar with, and seeing how dogs work away from home, comparing them to each other under "relatively" consistent conditions). So I want to talk about two dogs who, while rough around the edges, stepped up to the plate multiple times to help on the farm and, perhaps, even to save their handler from harm or worse.

First dog is our Rocket, a bundle of black and white that my husband brought home late one January night in 1986, after a brutal (for our family) 1985 and at the beginning of another brutal year (we almost lost a child that summer). Rocket didn't even live in the house for his first six months - we set him up a very cozy, blanket-lined box on the sheltered porch as I was not emotionally fit to deal with a puppy in the house at the time. A more loyal and devoted dog has never existed. He went through trials of his own, in particular being shot by a hunter so that he lost most of his vision, and yet he lived a full life working cattle for us before and after he was handicapped by that unfortunate incident. 

And, twice, he may have saved my husband's life, this dog that was given to Ed for free that day in January. The first time was when Ed was moving a bull. Now, we never had an aggressive bull, and we didn't keep any cow that showed aggression. But one day, when Ed was moving the bull just a short distance through a lane, the bull decided to "get his bull on" and began by shaking his head, then dipping his head and pawing the ground, and becoming more and more aroused. Ed had nothing but a stock cane with him. Rocket was on a "stay" in the barn in one of the old draft horse stalls as Ed's cattle-working philosophy was always to minimize stress - so, first, entice the cattle to follow on their own will, with or without a bucket of grain; second, use a stock cane and a dog simply to encourage and guide the cattle; and, third, only if needed, call the dog up on the cattle to really push them. So Rocket was on "stay" in the barn, out of sight, while Ed went with option one. And Ed tried using his stock cane (option two) to get the bull's attention and compliance, but that didn't work. And then he called on option three - "Rocket!" 

Rocket came out of the barn, sized up the situation, and went straight for the bull's nose when the bull did not yield to his presence, and latched on. Well, that bull commenced to spinning like a world-class reining horse, with Rocket firmly attached to his nose, sailing in a huge circle, around and around. Eventually the bull began to get a bit dizzy and to slow down, and finally stopped. He was reeling a bit as Rocket "detached" and stepped a few feet away, reeling a bit himself. If a dog could grin, Rocket was grinning. I'm not sure he ever had a more fun time in his life. As soon as the bull regained his equilibrium, he sedately took Ed and Rocket's guidance and went where he was supposed to go, nursing a sore nose and a bruised ego. And he never, ever, challenged either Ed or Rocket again. 

The next incidence involved Rocket again, but this time, a mother cow with a very new calf that had already developed pinkeye (it was a horrible pinkeye year for some reason, even though we vaccinated). We needed to catch the calf and treat it but the mother, normally a very docile cow, was distressed by having a calf with a problem and would not let Ed near her. As Ed worked his way around to try and get the calf (the cattle were on a neighboring farm and we didn’t have access to a working tub), the mother decided she’d had enough, and went for Ed. She put him down on the ground and was working him over when Rocket and our teenage son, Jim, came upon the scene. Both Rocket and Jim launched themselves at the cow, who left off head-mashing Ed into the ground and retreated as Rocket drove her off.

Now, unbeknownst to them, the calf had bolted to where I was on the other side of some brush. I caught it and sat on the ground with it in my lap. I had no idea what had gone on and didn’t realize the danger I was in as the mother cow came boiling out of the brush and ran around me, searching for the calf she could smell but could not see (because it was tucked in my lap with my arms around it). When Rocket came out of the brush, she took off, and shortly Ed and Jim appeared, to tell me how close I had come to possibly being the next object of the cow’s anger.

Fast forward to winter a few years back, when we went out to feed cattle one brutally cold night. It was so cold that we took the Explorer so that the dogs would be sheltered while we fed – there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, it was snowing and blowing, and the temps were in the single digits, without the wind chill factored in. Too brutal for the dogs to do their usual during feeding time, which was to either lie and stay, waiting and watching in case we needed them, or to line up behind the moveable fence line to keep the cows back until we’d set up the next group of bales.

As we began our work, the bull pushed his way to the front of the herd and began shaking his head at Ed, and then went through the routine, dropping his head and pawing at the ground. We did not have the time or the conditions to deal with a bull who was posing a potential hazard. The dogs were all in the back of the SUV with the liftgate open, sheltered from the wind but facing us and the cattle so they could move into action at any time.

Ed said one word, “Dan.” That’s all it took and he was out of the car, under the wire, and right into that bull’s face. He didn’t stop pushing the bull back until the bull was at the rear of the entire herd, and then Dan turned back, came through the cows, under the wire, and jumped back in the car. That bull did not make one move the rest of the chore time. I don’t even think he batted an eyelash.

Neither of these dogs would ever have made a trial dog. Neither of them would necessarily ever been breeding material. They both were hampered by a lack of good training and good handling, but they both had natural talents, a drive to work stock, a desire to be part of a partnership, and the courage to put their own welfare on the line for their handler when things got rough. For farmers and ranchers everywhere, that’s the real measure of a dog, I think. I know it has been for us.

So here's to those good dogs, everywhere, who get the job done - and spend their life by our side and in our hearts which is where they want to be. 

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Happy New Year to you, too! 

I'd never mean to denigrate quality and fine work, but "git 'er done" reasonably is the gold standard for many because that's what they need. Life-saving is a plus!

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  • 1 month later...

Thanks for sharing more of your wonderful stories, Sue.  You paint such a vivid picture with your words!  I couldn't agree more about a dog that knows his/her job.  It's a supreme pleasure to be blessed to work with such skilled partners.  Over the years I've seen many, many successful trial dogs who didn't REALLY understand the job but they were darned obedient and under the control of a top hander they shine.  I don't want to start the 'trial dog vs farm dog' debate here, but it is true, that there's no match, when the work really needs doing, that a dog that understands the job is the one you'll reach for.


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Thank you, Amy! Neither Dan nor I are "trial quality" and sometimes our "farm quality" isn't what it should be, but he is a very useful dog for a number of essential jobs, just like Celt was in his day - although the two of them excelled at completely different jobs! Now that we have no cattle of our own, having sold the cow herd a couple of years ago, Dan doesn't have much to do but, yesterday, he had a stellar day of being a useful dog.

As I penned up the old dogs to prepare the dog dinners, I looked out to see a couple of young animals wandering down past the house and into our north yard just past the garden. That was not where they were supposed to be and it would not be the easy "just put them back through the fence" that it often is as the herd was in the other direction down the road and on the other side of the road. Nevertheless, I took Dan out, looked in the direction of the young cattle (yearling and weanling age), and just said, "Dan." That's his cue...

He took off come bye around the garden, which placed him perfectly to move them back to the road. They were of two different minds - one was, "Oh, h***, it's that dog and I am out of here!" The other was, "Nah, not buying it." So he put the one through the fence without hardly trying but had to work, flanking and using his eye, on the second. Tammy, the postal delivery lady, stopped her Jeep to watch the work (and keep the dog safe) as Dan finished putting the calf through, and on she went.

Now, they were not where they needed to be but they were safe, and I was not kitted out to go into the field and help move them out of that field, into the next, out of that and across the neighbors' driveway, and then into the final field. But Dan seemed very up to the job and like he had his listening ears on so we gave it a try and I sent him on.

He put them first through the fence into the next field, where they split (the one high-tailing it towards the herd in the next field and the other being reluctant to curtail his adventure). So Dan worked (with little input from me, as usual, just an occasional reminder to "let her by" or a little flank command or walk-up) her up to and through the fence, and into the driveway.

Then he came back for Mr. Reluctant and pointed out the error of his ways in defying the dog, and got him to the fence and, with a bit of flanking, into the driveway. At that point, the heifer was easy to push into the field with the other cattle but Mr. R. kept being contrary, making Dan work for it. But, since Dan was persistent and always out-flanking him, Mr. R. finally gave up with what sounded like a sigh of resignation as he went back in with his cohorts.

Dan, who almost never goes on through the fence once the young stock is restored to the rightful pasture, continued on into the pasture and began to eye and move the animals there. I stopped him and called him back but he just lay down and looked at me, "Are you sure, woman?" I realized since the bulk of the older cows were up in the next field, he felt that *everyone* should be up in the next field, that his job was not yet done, and that he needed to put all these wanderers (in his mind) into the next field.

I didn't want that (they have access to several fields, including the one they were now in) and so I turned away, saying, "That'll do, let's go!" And, at that, he came racing after me. Muddy, poopy, tongue hanging down, and happy as a working dog could ever be! He had to eat his dinner in the mud room but it was worth it. He got his hosing down after the dog walk so he could be suitable to be in the house. He was one happy dog all evening! I, of course, regretted not having my phone with me to film or get a picture of any of the action...

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Dan is very useful for the jobs that he enjoys and understands as he is a dog that works best with limited input from his handler. When he has figured out what a job entails, he will get it done well. He's at his best with the younger cattle as he gives them the opportunity to make the right choice (which they don't always do), uses his eye and deliberate presence, and only turns on his afterburners when needed. With the adults, he is more likely to take a "you know what you should be doing so do it right now and I am taking no prisoners" attitude. 

Oppositely, Celt didn't like young stock and the younger they were, the less he liked them. When they were little, they did not play the game right! But he was better at taking direction than Dan, and he was certainly diplomatic with his stock, which made him excellent on pairs and especially the first-time heifer mothers, who needed careful, calm, sensitive dog work so that they could trust the dog and respond to him calmly, while they sorted out just what they were to do with a clueless baby in tow. 

One of my favorite stories about Celt and calves was one of the very last times I sent him to gather. A group of our calves had gotten onto the neighbors' property and, as Dan is not at his best gathering, I kept Dan back and sent Celt, who excelled at the gather. He was thirteen at the time and it would be an easy gather, and then I could use Dan to push the calves where I wanted them to go. Celt was all excited when I sent him come bye and took off happily in a nice cast, until he got around the other side and realized they were just young stock, not cows. He stopped, looked at me, and came back. "Calves? Not doing it. I'm retired!" 

His reluctance for calves stemmed from an experience when quite young when our old Aussie, MacLeod, let Celt know that calves, of all livestock, were his (MacLeod's) responsibility and under his sovereign protection. It was a few years before Celt would even look at a calf after that, and Mac did it all with just a glance. Plus, as I said, calves don't obey the rules of working stock and Celt likes his stock to stick to the guidelines, just like he does. 

Two vastly different dogs - Mr. Diplomacy and Mr. Dental Diplomacy! Both useful, each in their own way, and both an enrichment to my life. 

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