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Sunday, April 30 2017

     "Why can't you wait for one dog to die before you get another one?"

Because when one dog dies it's already two years too late.

     The difference between working dog folks and pet dog folks is that working dog people know that if you aren't already training another dog to take the reins from your primary work dog, then you are two years behind.

     There is a big difference between working dog homes and pet dog homes. A pet dog home can enjoy the luxury of raising up a puppy without worrying about whether or not that pup will be ready for a job, whereas a working dog home knows that one freak accident can sideline or even kill your best employee and you are left in the pasture with a bucket of feed screaming at livestock who know you can't make them do anything.

     While our dogs enjoy the lives of pets, (living in the house, riding in the cab of the truck, getting their own ice cream cone at Dairy Queen) they are still primarily working dogs. I would wager that we spend more quality time with each of our dogs than the average person spends with the one or two dogs they keep as pets, and I think that's the part people don't understand about having working dogs. They take a lot of time. They are a lifestyle.

Meet Wyatt.

     Wyatt is the next generation of cowdog around here. His parents are working trial dogs. His sire is from cowdog lines. His dam is from sheepdog lines. Wyatt is bred to work. MoonPossum already loves him. She thinks he's the neatest toy she's ever seen.  Everyone else takes him in stride. In a multi-dog household like ours they tend to accept new pack members easily.  As long as there is enough love, kibble, and stuffed animals to go around, life is good.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 07:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  7 Comments  |  Email
Friday, April 28 2017

     My last post angered a small handful of Blue Heeler folks who felt I was slamming their breed of choice and implying these dogs were stupid. Au contraire. Do you say your child is stupid because he isn't good at math? Perhaps she isn't an athlete but her talents lie in other directions. The boy who cannot throw a baseball today may be tomorrow's software design tycoon.

     A child, or a dog, may be more talented in one venue than another. Is anything wrong with this child? That dog? Certainly not. To jump to the conclusion that I think Blue Heelers are stupid is to entirely miss the point of the post.

     That said, perhaps I should address another issue. Border Collies. It might be easy to also jump to the conclusion that I feel a Border Collie is the smartest dog in the world and the greatest thing next to white sliced bread. Wrong again. Animal intelligence tests have always intrigued me, but by and large, dog intelligence tests often merely measure trainability and not actual intelligence.

Einstein said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

     The very people incensed when they thought I was bashing Blue Heelers may be quick to proclaim their dog is smarter than a Bassett Hound, or a Bloodhound, yet stack them beside each other on a trail and the Blue Heeler receives a failing grade. Does this make him the Village Idiot? No, certainly not. He was not bred for trailing.

     This brings us full circle to the point of their rage. I dared to stack up a Blue Heeler against a Border Collie and declare the Border Collie the better working dog on cattle. Now you can argue until you're blue in the face, but the truth is that many herding dog trials allow competition from all dogs that can herd, and the Border Collies and Kelpies are whipping everyone else in pretty large numbers. Does that mean there are not certain dogs that can be very competitive against Border Collies and Kelpies? No, of course not.  Your Blue Heeler may just be the Michael Phelps at the swimming pool, but most of them aren't because they aren't bred to do that.

     Yes, I said it.

     The large majority of Australian Cattle Dogs, also known as "Heelers," aren't bred to work cows anymore.

     Most of them are bred to be good farm dogs and pets. That's not the same as working cattle. A few folks may still be breeding Heelers to work cows but you'd be hard pressed to find a line that has any significant number of actual working dogs. I'm talking about parents and siblings, and grandparents, and great grandparents, and great great grandparents who really do the dirty, dusty, muddy, sometimes bloody, work of herding cattle.

     And that's okay. It's really okay. That doesn't mean there is a damned thing wrong with your dog. There's not. But don't try to beat me over the head in indignation when I compare them to dogs who have been, and continue to be, bred for herding.

     We can also get right down to the nitty gritty and offend the Border Collie people too by saying they aren't bred to work cattle either. They're not. Most of them weren't and still aren't. That's why a lot of hardcore cowdog folks prefer the Kelpie or crosses. They feel the Kelpie is a tougher dog. I'm not gonna argue with those folks. They might be right, but it doesn't hurt my feelings any, or make me feel any less of my dog because my self-esteem is not wrapped up in my dog's working ability.

     That said, I'm still running a ranch, not a petting zoo. I need dogs that work. With the exception of two dogs who found a home here as pets only, every other dog on this farm either works, or is retired from working. That said, the bulk of the work is shouldered by just two dogs now, a two year old Border Collie, and a six year old Border Collie. The other Border Collies are retired. The Blue Heeler is older than the youngest retired Border Collie, so he's retired too. When he was actually working cattle, he was used to drive cows because that's what Heelers do best - they heel.

Let's go back to the fact that although we have a large number of dogs in this household, factor out the Livestock Guardian Dogs, and the bulk of the work is being done by just two dogs, Mesa and Trace.

     Mesa has turned two years old and is invaluable as a sheep dog now. She was purchased so that Lily could retire from working cattle but Mesa is so good on sheep and goats that she has now assumed all sheepherding responsibilities while Lily yells coaching advice from the back of the ATV. Mesa is so valuable to me as a sheepdog that I don't want to use her on cattle. She might get hurt, and then I'd be out my working sheepdog.

     Trace works cattle, but he's six years old. His style of working cows allows him a much longer career than Lily or Cowboy, who tend to go in close and get more confrontational. They are older and slower now, and confrontation will get you killed when working cow/calf pairs. Time to pull the plug and take the retirement package while they can still enjoy it. Cheering from inside an air-conditioned truck while Trace works cattle is a perk of retirement.

     Trace will retire from working cows in the next two to four years. It takes two years to train a working herding dog to the point where they are of real use, so realistically we should begin looking for another dog now before we need it.

     On our ranch we need dogs that work sheep, goats, chickens, and cattle. There are certainly individual dogs within many breeds that may be able to do the work here, but in all fairness should we not stack the deck in our favor and select from a particular line of dogs within a particular breed of dogs that has been bred for generations to herd just about anything that moves? I think so. For that reason, Other Half put his money down on another Border Collie pup and will spend the next two years getting him ready to replace Trace.

     Does that mean retired dogs get shuffled off to kennels where they are forgotten? Absolutely not. Retirement is a pretty good gig around here. It is rare that we go anywhere without a dog, or two, or three in tow, so in addition to car rides to town, there are also always rides to check cows, feed cows, and move cows. Old dogs do the easier jobs and pups learn from the old dogs.  All of our working dogs are also house dogs, so retirement just means fluffier beds that are closer to the heater.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 12:22 pm   |  Permalink   |  7 Comments  |  Email
Saturday, April 01 2017

Green cowshit splashes against the gravel as the dozen or so steers stand at the driveway gate, stomping with impatience, waiting to be let inside. Their tails whip back and forth like windshield wipers slinging a green shitty slime against the gate and each other. They are not happy. They want in. They are not my cows.

The neighbor has turned these steers out on the rich pasture next door and they are just a tad bit confused as to where they belong. No worries. Life in the country. But I have to manually open and close that gate every time I leave the house, so I don't want it looking like the loading chute at a cattle auction, therefore I dispatch a dog to take care of the problem.

I have multiple dogs who could handle the task, but using one of the Border Collies for this was like using a fine wood chisel to open a paint can. The Blue Heeler, who isn't much good for any kind of cow work that requires finesse, is perfect for this job. The chore demands little more than rushing the fence and barking like a madman. Right up his alley.

The short fat blue dog puffs with pride as cattle back off in surprise. He feels so good about himself. He'll never be as talented as the Border Collies. But today. Right here. In the moment. He can do this. And he feels good about himself.

I watch him and make mental note to select him more often for these tasks that he can do which make him feel good. When surrounded by Border Collies, it's easy to feel like a failure. As the cattle stare from a respectful distance he parades back and forth in front of the gate with a jaunty Barney Fife swagger and I am reminded of myself in an 8th Grade Algebra class.

I hated Math. Sucked at it, in fact. Sitting in a Middle School Algebra class, I was a little fat Blue Heeler dog surrounded by Border Collies. A country kid, I had just moved to a new town and was still overwhelmed by it all when I was plopped down in Mrs Pauline Thorogood's 7th grade Algebra class. The woman scared the shit out of me.

She was a tiny, wiry thing who chainsmoked and with the confident air of a Border Collie used to understanding everything, she tried in vain to teach Algebra to a country kid who didn't understand that numbers could be combined with letters.  It was a dismal failure. The one positive thing to come from that first year was my new best friend, Neecy Buchanan. We had three things in common: we lived in the same neighborhood, we both sucked at Algebra, and we both scared witless of Pauline Thorogood.

Like survivors of a shipwreck, clinging to each other in a lifeboat that was tossed around by the high seas of Algebra, we barely passed 7th Grade.

But guess what?

Eight Grade Algebra was also taught by Pauline Thorogood.

And we sucked at it too.

We were two little fat Blue Heeler Dogs in another class of Border Collies. Our expectations were lower that year so it wasn't as bad. Keep your head down. Hold onto your life raft. Weather the storm.  It wasn't pretty but on the last day of the 8th Grade, we were two little fat Blue Heelers confident that we had Ds in Algebra. It was enough to get us into 9th grade and out from underneath the withering disappointment of Mrs Pauline Thorogood.

And so there we sat, on the last day of school just trying to blend in and not be noticed as Mrs Pauline Thorogood handpicked students to leave the classroom for minor end of the year clean-up tasks. Run these papers here. Collect these Math books and take them to this work room. Have the Guidance Counselor sign this. Hands shot up in the air as volunteers eagerly leapt at the opportunity to help.

Pauline Thorogood's gaze swept across the classroom like a security search light at a prison before it landed on me. I think she saw me breathe.

"You! You and you! I haven't given you anything but trouble all year. You two can go do this for me."

And as Neecy Buchanan and I stood in front of Mrs Pauline Thorogood to pick up our assigned task, I did something I probably hadn't done in two years. I look Mrs Pauline Thorogood in the eye.

She smiled back at me warmly.

And in that moment, I realized that Mrs Thorogood didn't hate me because I sucked at Math. She didn't hate me at all.  And I didn't really hate Mrs Thorogood because I sucked at Math. For the first time in two years it occurred to me that Mrs Thorogood might actually like her two little fat Blue Heelers in a room full of Border Collies. Away from Algebra, and the fear of having to slink up to the front of a classroom and be handed a piece of chalk to finish a math problem that may as well have been written in ancient Hebrew, Mrs Thorogood might be a pretty okay person.

So we finished the day, and 8th Grade, basking in the glow of Mrs Thorogood's smile. And instead of remembering how terrified I was of her, I would carry the memory that I had misjudged Mrs Throrogood. But that lesson, like so many others, would probably have been lost had it not been for one thing.

The explosion rocked our neighborhood on that summer day.

Neecy Buchanan and I stopped pedaling our bikes and just stood with bare feet on hot pavement gaping as black smoke billowed into the distant sky.

The next day the newspaper would report that our Algebra teacher and three friends had been killed in a freak accident. We were all in shock. Even the Angel of Death should have been afraid of Mrs Thorogood. As only an 8th Grade girl can do, I put a lot of thought into it, and though the details of the tragedy still horrified me, I found a bit of comfort in one thing.

My memory of Mrs Pauline Thorogood would not be one of fear, or a hatred of Algebra, but of that one act of kindness when she said, "I haven't given you anything but trouble all year."

For in that act, she acknowledged a relationship I was too shy to change. And in that one act, she became, not a chainsmoking dragon, but a person who perhaps didn't understand the deep-rooted fears of a shy child. She was just a Border Collie trying to understand a Blue Heeler.

It wasn't until college that Algebra made sense. The instructor was not a mathmatician but a grad student from another field who just happened to be teaching the class that semester. He presented Algebra in a completely different way than I'd seen it before and it finally clicked. Perhaps it was the new twist on instruction or perhaps my brain had just grown up to the point where it could handle the abstract concepts better, but either way, I was proud to earn a B in the course, and as I walked back to my car with a spring in my step, I wanted to share the good news with Mrs Thorogood.

Posted by: forensicfarmgirl AT 08:43 am   |  Permalink   |  4 Comments  |  Email

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