A biography of a border collie.
It was sixteen years ago that I decided we’d better get a pup to work alongside Boz who was our working dog at the time. Boz had reached late middle age and even border collies don’t work forever.
It was probably Nancy who told me who had a litter of pups bred from working parents. I phoned to check they still had some and drove across to see them. There were two pups left. A dog pup who somehow reminded me of a pyjama dog; pick him up and he just flopped affectionately all over you. At the same time there was a small bitch pup who came across to see what was going on, was bright, intelligent and interested. So I picked her, named her Jess, paid £45 which is the only time in my life I’ve ever paid for a dog, and fetched her home. I was told later that her brother made a local family a great and much loved family pet.
Got her home, bathed and deloused her and after a couple of weeks she was moved out of the house and into a home of her own, next to Boz. The presence of Boz probably explained why, all her life, she’d try to hide food by burying it, pushing stuff over it with her nose. She once buried a dead lamb in straw whilst I was talking to someone and it took five minutes to find the damn thing again.
Jess started working milk cows. This is good training for a work dog; you’re at it twice a day, every day, pretty much doing the same thing every time. She was good at it, a bit shy of strangers, a bit wary of other dogs but a great player with children. She’d been with us for six months with Boz getting more and more confused until, as if someone had flicked a switch, he suddenly grasped the whole play concept and really threw himself into it. I think she gave him a whole new lease of life.
I also remember my daughter and her two cousins deciding they’ll tire Jess out so she’d sit quietly. The idea was that one of the three children would run about, then when they felt tired, one of the others would run about, then the third would take over and the first two would get a rest. It didn’t work.
In 1999 we gave up milking cows. The price we were being paid for milk dropped to 14 pence per litre and I decided that dairy farming had become an expensive hobby, more expensive and wetter than racing ocean going yachts but with less social cachet.
Anyway we shifted to suckler cows, and then bucket reared calves, with cattle sold as store for others to fatten. Jess took to this with no trouble at all. She had absolute self confidence, she’d happily work cattle in a yard, even fetch them out of a building, which takes a dog with strong nerves.
Then as time moved on, we started farming alongside Matt and his sheep. Sheep came as something of a revelation to Jess. It took her a full half hour to get her head round the fact that they were now her problem. Watching her watching them it was as if she was mentally flicking through the manual, and then the moment of revelation, she realised that ‘sheep’ was the default setting.
Her technique always reminded me of Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Granny Weatherwax always held that “If you haven’t got respect, you haven’t got anything.” Certain all livestock on the farm were expected to respect her.
I remember one time Matt and I were fetching ewes and lambs home down the lane. One lamb would keep darting back down the lane, heading back for the field. Nell, Matt’s dog would shoot off after it, turn it, and bring it scampering back. This happened three or four times. On the final time this happened, the lamb chose to make its break when Jess happened to be in front of it when it turned round to make a run for it. Her jaws snapped shut just in front of the lamb’s nose. It stopped, looked at her, turned back round and trotted docilely along with the rest.
Another time we had a bunch of someone else’s heifers get into one of our fields. We arranged to give them a day or so to calm down, then the neighbour would turn up with plenty of people, I’d get them out of the field onto the road, and he’d have enough people to move them along the road and away. No problem. Jess and I bring them up the field towards the gate. At that point one of them turned in the gateway and started that stiff legged walk that can turn almost instantly into a run. Any minute and the whole lot would be off and we’d have it all to do again. Jess just walked up to the heifer and stood in front of it. The heifer stopped, somewhat surprised, and brought it’s nose down to sniff the dog in front of it. Jess snapped her teeth together so close to the nose the heifer must have felt the draught. The heifer backed off a little, looked again at the dog, decided that suddenly it wasn’t fun any more, turned and led the others quietly out of the gate and onto the main road.
Jess just swaggered casually after them. If you haven’t got respect, you’ve got nothing!
Jess had her weaknesses. She hated fireworks. We ended up fetching her into the house on bonfire night after one occasion when she’d slipped collar and disappeared for three days.
She also disliked the internal combustion engine. A quad bike was OK; it allowed humans to move at a sensible speed. But she loathed riding in cars. One time we had some cattle on some land rented away. I thought it would be nice for her to look stock somewhere new. But when I came to put her back in the car, she disappeared. She was gone for about four days until the person whose land it was phoned to say he’d seen her and shut her in a barn. I was passing with a tractor and cattle trailer and dropped in to collect her. She’d already escaped from the barn but when she saw me she was pleased to see me and came over and allowed me to carry her into the tractor cab with me. On the way home she started off in the left foot-well. She climbed up onto the left window seat, wormed her way behind me to the right window where she sat on top of the hydraulics, down into the right foot-well, up onto the dash, then down into the left foot-well again. She’d nervously made three circuits of the tractor cab, looking totally stressed out, by the time I got her home.
She had a large area that she called hers. She’d wander it when she was ‘off duty’. One time at the farm next door the lady of the house had sat down to watch the TV in the comfort of her own front room. She put her hand down to pick up the TV guide from beside her chair and instead found Jess who’d wandered in and was just sitting companionably next to her.
She wasn’t a big on for playing with balls and suchlike. Colin our vicar at the time was a bit worried that his dog (which had Border Collie in it) might take to chasing sheep. So we fetched his dog down and took the two dogs into the field with some sheep. I had Jess gather the sheep and the other dog looked on with total disinterest. Colin then threw the ball and his dog sprung into action, almost knocking Jess over to get to it. She just watched with incomprehension as this other dog played with a ball. When Matt arrived with his three dogs, they were working dogs but also would play with a ball. I’d kick the ball, Matt’s three dogs with pile in and chase it, and Jess would run with them, avoiding the ball but barking enthusiastically at the others, without actually contributing anything to the chase. She’d probably invented management.
By the time she was thirteen she still didn’t look much older than a dog of six or seven, but it was then she was struck by a hit and run driver on the main road near the church. Some other motorist saw her, phoned the police who phoned a vet who turned up just before I did. We got her to the surgery where he gave her an assortment of injections and they kept her in for a couple of days. When she came home, there had been nerve damage to her left front leg which just didn’t work, and she’d probably suffered some slight damage to her hips.
At this point it was decided that she could no longer sleep in her cattle trailer, but had better move into the house at least until she’d recovered or not. But she recovered. Her left front leg never healed, so had to be amputated, but she took that in her stride. With only three legs she wasn’t really up to working cattle and sheep any more, she’d lost the unthinking self confidence, and she decided she was retired.
Anyway she managed another three years. Her retirement consisted of living in the house, snoozing by the fire in winter (she approved of fire) and walking miles with me looking stock and generally keeping an eye on things. When I went back to doing more writing, she’d often lie behind me, keeping an eye on things and making sure everything was done to a standard a border collie would consider suitable.
Finally last week she started to look unwell. Her appetite went which wasn’t like her. So we took her to the vets on Saturday and they diagnosed a major womb infection. They gave her some injections but on Sunday she was no better. To deal with the infection it would take a major operation, the removal of her womb. Frankly she was no longer up for it. At the same time, the hip damage she’d suffered in the car accident had become arthritis and she was finding walking difficult. So yesterday, at the age of sixteen, she went to her final rest.
I don’t know if anyone has seen this poem. http://www.mans-best-friend.org.uk/dog-poems-poetry-power-dog.htm
The older I get the more I appreciate Kipling.