We are having a March snow storm and Sadie has gotten herself shut out of the barn. At her age, you would think that she’d know better, but she was off checking out some interesting scent when Stan shut the milkhouse door, and there she is, barking at Mitzi and Tim to let her in the front barn door. If they could, they probably would, but there are some doors that even Border Collies can’t open.
I have never had a dog that was just a pet. I remember visiting an older relative’s home and on meeting her dog, asked her what the dog did. She was slightly amused and said the dog didn’t “do” anything, it was simply a pet. I had no idea that dogs could just exist in that way. My grandfather had beagles who hunted and Dad had gotten us dogs that were herding dogs. Dogs that just ‘were’ was beyond my experience. I felt bad for the dog, having no purpose in life.
Farm dogs, no matter what their breed, are a breed apart. They are watch dogs, herding dogs, hunting dogs, family dogs. They frighten salesmen, hunt woodchucks and rabbits, keep the barn cats in line, herd the cows and play nanny to the farmer’s children.
Our first dog was a registered English Shepherd. Lill was small for her breed and definitely a one man dog. She had belonged to Stan’s dad, but Stan had been the one who fed her and trained her. His dad tried to win her over after Stan left home, but it was no use. She was Stan’s dog. When we started farming, his dad gave her to us. Lill was a wonderful cow dog, for Stan. If he told her to go get the cows, she’d run down and bring them up, tail wagging, while he stood behind the barn and waited. If I told her to go get the cows, she’d stand and wait for me to come along. She’d do it alone for the boss, but she apparently felt that she was my equal, and that meant that we both went to get them.
Our next dog was Mitzi. Mitzi was my dog and we brought her from my family’s farm after their cows were sold. She was Lill’s daughter and had been a gift to me from Stan’s dad before we were married, and while she was most agreeable to everyone, she seemed to have a particular affinity for me. However, she didn’t’ go to get the cows alone for anyone, so I still had to go along. Mitzi was what we called an aunt dog, no puppies. She adopted our two offspring as her own and would sit by the playpen in the barn or the travel bed in the milkhouse and watch patiently. If she felt there was anything amiss, she would come and get Stan or me to check up on which ever girl was in need of us. When the girls became mobile, she would herd them away from anything she felt was dangerous, like the gutter, cows, calves, and most especially, cats. Our two daughters grew up with Mitzi always there to lean on, or go along for a walk. She was 15 when she died, a good old age for a dog, and I miss her still when I walk back to the woods.
After Mitzi died, Rags, who had been her companion for the last half of her life did a zig instead of a zag in front of a tractor tire. We had another English Shepherd for a time who was our youngest daughter’s companion and protector, named Lill, an ok herd dog, but a fierce watch dog.
When Lill was gone, we found an ad for registered Border Collie pups in Binghamton, four hours east of us. Stan called, but all the female pups were already spoken for. We asked that they add our name to their puppy list. A day later, we got a call back. They had reconsidered, feeling that a dairy farmer needed a good dog worse than someone in town. We had been immediately bumped up to second choice. On Sunday, we got Stan’s brother to milk cows and we headed out right after breakfast. We found the pups waiting for us in the kitchen, two big fluffy girls playing hide and seek under the cupboards and yapping, and one smaller pup who had positioned herself where she could watch the whole room. She wasn’t interested in being silly with her two sisters. Stan asked me which one I thought we should take, and I pointed at the smaller pup. The owner smiled and told Stan that his wife knew a good dog when she saw one.
Molly started out in the back of the car in an improvised pet carrier made out of two milk cartons wired together. Before we got very far down the road, she was sitting with me in the front. She spent the rest of her long life getting her way.
Molly was the kind of dog that every farmer dreams of having. She had more natural herding talent than all the other dogs we’d had put together. She took over ownership of the farm as soon as she had the lay of the land. She hadn’t come to work for us, we had signed the whole place over to her, and she never let us forget just who was really boss. She and Stan spent the next 15 years working out the details.
It started out innocently enough. Stan began training her quite early and she seemed a quick study. What he didn’t realize until well in to the first year was that she was training him. She often seemed to anticipate what he was going to ask her to do. Sometimes, if that anticipation was wrong, she’d do what she thought should be done rather than what Stan was asking her to do in ever increasing decibels. It was a battle of will and they were pretty much matched stubborn for stubborn. I spent a lot of time hiding a smile.
When Molly was a year old, we heard of a man in Sandy Lake who had a mostly white male Border Collie pup. We gave him a call and on a pleasant Saturday in June, Stan dropped me off at a friend’s house in Conneaut Lake and went on down to pick up the pup and another for an acquaintance who was also getting one. When he got back to get me, the two brothers were trying to out-do each other in howls and yips, but they both stayed in the back of the car, settling down to naps after a bit. Sidney learned early that he didn’t often get his way.
To say that Molly was happy about having a companion would be stretching it. Sid tried to take over her dish. She would have nothing to do with it, so he got his own. The first night, he took over her pen. That wasn’t so bad, she got to be loose, but she was soon relegated to a dog tied to a post when she decided that freedom at night meant herding fireflies, unruly little critters who required loud and frequent barking. It took a lot of time, but Molly and Sid did eventually come to be fond of each other. Molly was still boss, and helped Stan teach Sid how to be a good herd dog. His instincts were more along the lines of herding all the cows into corners and keeping them there rather than bringing them up to the barn, but Molly soon had him doing the out runs to catch up stragglers and they made a pretty good team.
When Sid was about 16 months old and in a big growth spurt, he had the misfortune of breaking his right hind leg. The calcium that had been going to growth switched direction and went to heal the break leaving him forever with a stick leg. He occasionally used it like a walking stick when he’d get his other paw stepped on. Poor Sid was often the source of much hilarity because of his handicap. He was a right side pee-er, and when it came to marking the many tires that pull in a farm yard on an average day, he had to come up with some unique moves. He basically threw his whole hind end in the air, bracing his front legs. Most thought this amusing, including the guy who was sitting in his VW Rabbit with the driver’s window open while Sid was marking the front tire. Aside from this minor setback, Sid found himself quite able to keep up with Molly even at a dead run. It boggles the mind to think how fast he might have been on four good legs.
We had decided to breed Molly after we received her papers. She came from two strong lines of dogs with members on both sides who had been champion herding dogs. Her first litter was with an older dog named Mirk. We kept one pup named Honey, thinking we would train her and sell her the next year. Honey quickly became one of the family and only left the farm when she went to live with our youngest daughter. Between Molly and Honey, with Sid as sire, we had many lovely litters of talented puppies over the years.
When Molly was about 8, she decided that she was retired. Stan would send the dogs out to get the cows, and she would stop about half way and bark directions at the other two. They would run back, and look to Molly to see what she wanted them to do. The first time it happened, Stan didn’t think he was really seeing what he was seeing. The second time, he decided that it was really happening. The third time he came to the house and said, “You have got to see this.” If they misread her barks, she would get upset, and up the decibels. Don’t teach a dog what you don’t want her to learn.
When Honey left, Stan decided we needed to get a younger female again. He bought a delicate little pup who was Molly's and Mirk’s granddaughter. Sadie was a bundle of energy and annoyed her grandmother no end. Molly didn’t really want to work cows anymore, but she couldn’t stand the thought of Sadie going out there and taking her place. To this day, Sadie has a bit of a complex about working with another dog, and a lot of frustrated talent.
Sid died on Christmas Eve, 2000 in his sleep on his favorite pile of hay. Molly died Christmas morning 2001 in what had been Sid’s favorite pile of hay. They left us with a legacy of pups and memories.
Since Molly and Sid, we have had Ned, a good cow dog who died too young and May, a Border Collie with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (don’t even think about it, you’ll just get a headache), who also left too quickly.
We now have Sadie as the grand dame and her daughter Mitzi, and Tim, a grandson. Mitzi is a dog of great possibility and under used talent. She is having almost the same problem with Sadie that Sadie had with Molly. It is difficult to get her to work when her mother is showing her teeth and growling at her. Tim is a dog that everyone likes. He is charming and reserved and at the same time openly friendly. He is fond of reminding us with looks and sighs that he is the good dog, never jumping on anyone but standing back waiting for attention rather than being brash and pushy. There is however one tiny problem with Tim, he’s afraid of cows. He doesn’t mind them much when they are tied in the barn, and will in fact run under them if they are between him and where he wants to be, but as soon as they are loose, he will hide behind any available human. If Stan forces him to go out with him to put the cows in the barn, he quivers with fear, throwing pathetic looks at me as if to say “Rescue me!” Sad commentary on a farm dog, but he has been known to frighten a salesman or two, so there is hope.
I can’t see a time in our future when we won’t have a dog. They are as much a part of the farm as we are, hunting dogs and herding dogs, farm dogs all, allowing us to work with them.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may nto be able to respond to your questions.)