Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Greatest Gift

Our dogs give us the greatest gift and yet we fail to acknowledge it. It is the gift of  their heart, their passion, their loyalty and their love. What do we give them in return?

Her slow rhythmic breathing was soothing to me, almost like the lapping of water across  the bow of a boat. Her nostrils flared in and out. I could see the gentle rising of  her chest. Tess saw me looking at her and gave me a half-hearted thud of her tail and burrowed her gray muzzled into my hand that lay next to her head. I did not move my hand  and she nudged it again, perhaps to let me know that I needed to pet her. I looked down at her and her old wise eyes stared back at my eyes and then at my hand. I gently stroked her head and soon contended sighs came from her and she feel into a deep sleep that was interrupted occasionally by her front legs stirring, as if chasing a ewe in flight.

I bent over, looked at her aged body in detail, and noticed items that I had missed. Her tail and hindquarters were shot through with grey. There is a new hollow above her eyes and her paws that were beginning to splay outward. Her coat was thick and luscious and her ear were still pricked but full of white hairs. I began to massage her front legs and she stirred, opened her eyes and smiled and soon went back to sleep. I massaged her back legs and discovered one was very tight and work on it until it was loosened. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she was a bit off on her stride. I made a mental note to myself to have her adjusted in the next few days. After I was done with her massage, she awoke and nudged me to pet her some more.

I then lay next to her and we gazed into each others’ eyes. I saw into her soul. I saw the depth of her love and kindness there. Her pink tongue whipped out and tickled my nose. I laughed and she wagged her tail heartily on the leather couch, making a heavy thumping sound. We snuggled for a bit then she fell asleep, her loud old dog snores soon filled the room.

I began to remember all the gifts that she had given me over the years. I wondered if I had returned her devotion in kind?

Our dogs give us so much and we often take it for granted. When we train, we drill or expect them to understand and do it right. Do we realize that we might be part of the problem? We can have a bad day, the tone will carry in our voice and the dogs will react to it. We expect them to perform just as well as the day before or better, not realizing they might not be feeling well or just off. Being angry at the dog on the field only adds frustration to the training and is a roadblock. If you do get angry, put the dog away and then work another time when your head is clear.

Perhaps they do not do the tasks at hand because we are not conveying the message in a clear enough way for them to understand. More than likely they are feeling the pressure of the sheep or environment that we do not see?

For example, one trial, I sent Tess on an outrun and she stopped short. I whistled her around to no avail and she walked straight into the sheep instead. The lift was gentle and she brought them online. I was mad at her at the turn and scolded her and her shoulder dropped a little and I could see the hurt in her eyes, but yet she continued. We finished the course but I was still upset at her for not going to the top of the lift. Later that night at the handler’s dinner, I sat next to the setout crew. They told me that Tess was the only dog to stop in the correct position for the lift. The sheep were drawn to the setout pen where the lambs were crying for their moms. She stood between the sheep and the pen then had a perfect lift.

Why hadn’t I seen that? It was because in my mind I thought I was right and she was wrong. I failed to see her point of view. In spite of my failure, Tess carried on and  did excellent on that run. As I went to sleep, I cuddled my little faithful dog to my chest and cried in her fur. She licked the tears from my face and I never doubted her again on her lift.
There have been other times when I tried to flank her on the drive, she then stopped and  turned her head and gave me a scathing look. It was the look saying, “Hey dummy, IF I took that flank, WE will miss the panel?” I quickly realized that I was wrong and would give her a walk up which she would do with gusto. While she was not a flashy dog, she was a good, honest steady worker. Give her a job and she will do it right. Shut up and she will do it better.
Tess was a penning specialist. Open the gate, shut my mouth and then close the gate was all that I needed to do. If I would give her too many commands and she would look at me in disgust. She would lean slight to the left or right, turn her head, take a step, all without a word from me and the sheep would ease into the pen. I remember many trials where the sheep were impossible to pen and she would sneak them in, making it look easy.

Of course, her skill as a penning dog didn’t happen over night but over countless hours at the farm, during lambing, moving sheep from pasture to pasture, from good old-fashioned work. Maybe I took her work for granted.

Her gift to me was to give me her heart and teach me how to handle a dog. Not to train a dog but to handle a dog. Her steady nature was a delight to me.

At home, she did anything I asked of her, no matter what the job.

We frequently get major floods in the winter and sometimes the sheep get stranded. Tess will swim out to the island, get them off, and push them towards dry ground, all without commands from me. She has dragged chickens that were floating away in the floodwaters without injuring them. One time, a major flood came up in the middle of the night. The local dairy farmer’s barn was under water, but he got his calves out in time and rushed them to my barn. Soon after, we had over four feet of water in our driveway and at midnight most of my fields were flooded.

My sheep were stranded on a small bank and soon would be swept away. The valley was a huge lake, many miles long and I didn’t want my sheep to drift away. Tess gamely swam out to the island but the sheep fought her, wanting to stay on the rapidly disappearing ground. She used teeth and fine cutting moves and had them swimming in the water.

Unfortunately, they turned and were headed out to the miles of water and not towards the barn. I gave Tess a come-bye flank and she swam strongly to the come-bye side and turned them. I had no idea if they would swim away in the darkness and not return. Soon, they all appeared and she put them into a stall. It was pitch dark and I used a huge flashlight to see what was going on. The rain was coming down in sheets and it was difficult to see anything.

The chicken coop was filling up with water and was past my hips, so I sent her into the coop to bring the chickens out. She grabbed chickens and brought them, and we snagged the rest as they floated by. The flood was the worse in history and came up quickly, Tess worked much longer moving sheep around and once all was settled, we dragged ourselves to the house. It was called the “500 year flood”.

She didn’t complain as I dried her off as she was definitely exhausted. She leaned into my arms as I toweled her dry and fell asleep standing up. I carried her to the bed and put her on my pillow. She gave me her all and I blessed the generations before her for this wonderful dog.

The working ethics were bred into her and proved true. She never questioned me that night but did as I asked. It was a gift of “it needs to be done.”

Have you looked at your dog and seen what blessing he or she has given you that you may have overlooked? They give so honestly and freely, and all without question. I really was blessed to have Tess in my life and her devotion is the best gift that was ever bestowed upon me. If you should ever have a true deep partnership, I hope you will realize what a special gift it is, and cherish it. It’s a special bond and we often can communicate without words; we just know. If you have a bond like that, it is the greatest gift you can ever have.

 Her snores soon brought me back to reality, I stroked her head again and she gently stirred. My gift to her now is to make sure in her twilight years she will be spoiled as much as she has spoiled me. I can only hope my gift to her can show her how much I truly love her.


Michele said...

I am reminded and thankfull every single day for each dog from my past as well as the ones I am sharing life with at present.

Monique said...


Kelpie and Collie said...

Timely post- I just wrote something related to this myself.