Can a dog be a workaholic?

Pets and people.
July 27 2006 6:49 AM

The Loneliness of Rose

What happens when a dog works too much.

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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.

Rose. Click image to expand.
Rose

Rose 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.

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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.

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