The phone rang a bit before midnight. The caller was a farmer from North Hebron, who said calmly that he had a "bit of a problem. I've got goats, sheep, and cows out of the fence and onto Route 31. One of the goats has been hit by a car. I need to get the animals back in. My fence is broke in two places, at least, and I want to get them off the road. I hear you got a working dog there. I'll pay for your time."
Even though he was calm and conversational, I understood that there was an urgency to the call. His livelihood was wandering around on the road. More of his animals could be killed or injured, as well as the people who hit them. Fences could be torn up and damaged, citations and lawsuits to follow.
But I had Rose, a 34-pound, 2-year-old border collie. Rose was supremely confident and experienced around sheep. They flocked together when she appeared. But she had never herded goats and cattle, especially in the middle of the night in a strange place on a busy road. One kick from a dairy cow would pulverize her, and goats were notoriously smart and aggressive. She didn't know the farmer and she didn't know his dog, a feisty farm mutt, he said.
Still, I started dressing right away. I am not a farmer, but I have a farm. I have seen all of my animals pour through an open gate and into the woods. It is not a feeling I could go back to sleep and forget about. In 15 minutes, we pulled up to the farm, a sprawling old place with the prerequisite giant barns, rotting tractors and trucks, and cannibalized cars. A dead goat and a damaged car were in the middle of the road. Cows, sheep, goats, and trucks were all over the place.
"Good luck, girl," I said. No time to lose. Rose first charged the farmer's dog, who was barking excitedly, chasing him under a truck. Then she took on three goats, who each tried to butt her. She backed them up, nipping and charging, until they went into a pen, and the farmer locked them in.
She circled around behind the cows—who do not flock like sheep, but do get nervous around strange animals—and nipped at one or two from the rear, staying well behind their legs. They started to move. I called her off, and the farmer got behind them—his son out in front with a bucket of grain—and they started moving toward the barn. Rose stayed behind, barking, nipping, and charging, while I yelled, "Barn, barn!" a command we use on my farm when I wanted animals brought to the barn.
There were also about 25 Tunis ewes and rams, and I could see they were not "dog broke"—that is, not used to being herded by dogs. But they did flock together, a few of them coming forward to challenge Rose. This was no problem. She may be cautious around cows, but there is no sheep alive that Rose fears. She did her practiced rope-a-dope, charging and retreating. The sheep became convinced of her determination and turned and ran to the safest place—in this case, an open pasture gate held by the farmer. In a few minutes they were all inside. Two cows bellowed from across the road but Jim hopped into his pickup and honked and rattled them back across the road.
"Good girl," I shouted, and gave the command "Truck, up," which means get back into the car. She had brought order in less than 10 minutes. The farmer gave me a crisp $10 bill—double our usual fee—and we headed home and went to sleep. A remarkable thing to see, at least to me. No big deal for Rose.
I have four dogs—two border collies, two yellow Labs—and sometimes, as a student of the human-animal bond, I ask friends and acquaintances which dog, if any, they might want.
Three of my dogs are what you might call cute—they are pretty, love people, enjoy being held or scratched. Pearl has big brown eyes and swoons onto her back when she meets a dog-lover. Clementine adores anyone who will give her a biscuit. Izzy, my other border collie, will herd sometimes but he would rather cuddle with people, given the choice.
RoseRose is not cute. She is a working dog, a farm dog. She herds sheep, keeps the donkeys apart from the other animals during graining, alerts me when lambs are born, watches my back when the ram is around. She battles the donkeys, the ewes who protect their lambs, and stray dogs who approach the farm. She and I take the sheep out to graze two or three times a day. On Sundays, we sometimes march the flock down to the Presbyterian Church to hear the organ music and present ourselves through the big windows. "Hey, Rose," the kids sometimes shout after the service is over. With Rose, we don't need fences. As my friend Peter Hanks said, Rose is the fence.
Rose is a bit scrawny and ungainly looking, though quite beautiful to me. She is not like any dog I have had. She has few people skills. She does not cuddle or play. She tolerates kids, but is not fond of them. She is rarely in the same room with me, going from window to window of my farmhouse to scan for her flock. Every morning around sunrise, she hops onto my bed, gives me about 50 licks, and then disappears into a secret lair. I do not know where she sleeps. She checks on me constantly but rarely stays in the same room with me.
When I go to the back door, she watches to see which boots I am putting on. If I put on my barn boots, she joins me. If I put on my walking shoes, she stays in the house. When I had spinal troubles, Annie, my farm manager, walked the dogs for me. All of them went eagerly, except Rose. She sat on the foot of my bed day and night, going out only if I hobbled to the back door to let her out. She will take the sheep out for me, sitting in the meadow across the street watching them for hours.
I could not live on my farm without Rose. When the shearer came, Rose escorted the shorn sheep out of the barn one by one. When the vets come, they ask Rose to hold animals in a corner until they can grab them and tie them down. "Rose is the most useful dog I know," the vet told me.
Rose is on 24/7 call for farmers who don't have the money to buy a dog like her or the time to train one. We have rounded up many cows, stray goats, and sheep. Last winter, when a gate broke, a desperate farmer with 400 dairy cows called me in the middle of the night. He heard I had a working dog and we rushed to his farm. Rose stood at the open gate, facing down the herd of 1,200-pound cows for two hours. Some of the cows nosed up to Rose, curious. They got nipped. She was not their friend, she seemed to be saying. Not a one made it through.
A widow in Cossayuna was surprised by a blizzard and couldn't get her sheep into the barn in time. Rose rushed to the scene and did it in five minutes. We usually charge $5 for these emergency calls, for the pride of the farmers and the honor of Rose. She has earned $240, which sits in a basket. Most of the money will go to a border collie rescue group I belong to. The rest will buy a big steak bone for Rose.
Last year, Rose was kicked by Lulu, one of my donkeys. She sent the dog flying, bouncing off the barn wall. I thought Rose was dead. She wasn't. Since that day, Rose has never entered the pasture without nipping Lulu in the butt. Lulu considered another kick, but could never get the right angle.
I worry about Rose. She has been torn up by barbed wire, impaled herself on posts and sharp rocks, slid and rolled down steep hills. I often see her limping (never for long), licking an unseen wound, or nursing torn paw pads, or I find scabs covered by her fur. When she lets me, I stroke and brush her and tell her how much I love and appreciate her. She will softly lick my hand and face. Sometimes, at night, even though she fights it, I see her eyes close as she slips into a deep sleep.
A few weeks ago, a breeding ram was delivered. He was reportedly assertive and belligerent, as rams are expected to be. We brought him through a gate with the other sheep and my donkeys: Lulu, her sister Fanny, and grumpy Jeannette, who had just unexpectedly given birth to Jesus, a baby boy, and was ferociously protective of him.
Rose had to maneuver through the donkeys—two of which were dying to clobber her. She had to deal with the ram, too, who came off the trailer charging at her. She raced around and grabbed his privates, and when he groaned and grunted, ran around and nipped him on the nose. She spun him around and around for five minutes—keeping an eye on the donkeys and the sheep—until he ran into the middle of the flock of ewes and hid. Then she ran over and nipped Lulu on the butt, staying away from Jeannette and the baby. She gathered the sheep and the ram and moved them into the next pasture. In a few minutes, everyone was calmly munching on hay or grass.
Rose comes from Colorado, from a herding line. Her favorite spot—when she is not working, which is her favorite thing—is to sit in the garden, rain, cold, snow or sun, and watch her sheep. She sometimes seems lonely to me. I think there is perhaps a price to pay for letting a working dog work: A working dog can't be a pet, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. She does the things I need, but few of the things that often please us most about dogs—snuggling, playing, tagging along, making friends with dogs and people.
Often, I will look out and see her blanketed in snow and ice. When I drive the ATV, the other dogs like to hop on the back rack and ride with me. Rose always runs ahead. When we walk in the woods, she is always in front, alert for chipmunks, birds, squirrels, or deer. When kids walk up the road from school, they line up to pet the dogs. Rose never comes up to say hello, and they never look for her.
I have asked about 200 people which of my dogs they would like to have. Only two have mentioned Rose.
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Related in SlateJon Katz explained the problem with thinking that dogs think like you. David Plotz considered the curious world of dog psychology. Brendan I. Koerner discussed America's most popular dog, the Labrador retriever.
Jon Katz is the author of The Dogs of Bedlam Farm: An Adventure With Three Dogs, Sixteen Sheep, Two Donkeys and Me. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com
Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Photograph of Rose by Emma Span.