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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Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

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