Monday, November 16, 2015
That'll Do, Taff - Good Dog
I got Taff when he was 4 years old. He'd failed as a sheep dog trial prospect, but he was an above average ranch dog - and the first young-ish border collie I'd ever had. Part of his failing as a trial dog was that he'd sulk if his handler put too much pressure on him - he'd essentially quit working. He helped me figure out how to put the right amount of pressure on a dog (it's different for every dog) and more importantly, how to relieve the pressure as a reward. Taff and I got an enormous amount of work done together - moving sheep from field to field and on county roads, sorting sheep for shearing, moving weaned lambs away from their mothers, loading the trailer, and moving ewes with baby lambs. For several years, I rarely went anywhere without him. He'd go with me to the Roseville Farmers Market and nap in the cab of my truck (don't tell the Environmental Health Department). He went with me when I worked at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista. In fact, the first time I didn't take him to work with me, he chewed up my muck boots!
Taff had the goofiest ears - they touched at the top when he was listening! We affectionately called him the cone-head. As we got more working dogs, Taff became the alpha in our "pack" - the other dogs looked to him for leadership. Unlike most alpha dogs, Taff was a benevolent and gentle ruler - we also called him the Buddha collie. He was also a sticker magnet - he had the roughest coat of any dog I've owned. We clipped him every summer to keep him cool and manage the stickers - he was usually embarrassed for a day or so, but always came to enjoy being cooler. Even with his haircut, he never missed a chance to roll in the freshest manure he could find! For many years, he slept on the floor by my side of the bed - the dust ruffle is still stained!
While he wasn't the most talented dog in terms of his herding abilities, he had tremendous heart. His drive to work, when he was in is prime, was incredible. In hot weather, I had be careful about making him cool off while we were working - he didn't want to quit. When he wasn't working, though, he was very easygoing (in accordance with his Buddha collie personality). When Emma started 4-H, she showed Taff in agility and obedience - they made a great team. But he wouldn't work stock for anyone but me. If Sami gave him a flank command, for instance, and I was present, Taff would look at me to make sure it was ok. We imagined him saying, "Dan - are you sure she knows what the #$@% she's doing?!"
I've joked that my border collies have hobbies to keep them occupied when they aren't working. Mo likes to chase bird shadows. Ernie enjoys chewing up hoses. Taff, as he eased into retirement, apparently studied geometry. When he was about 10, he discovered that the shortest distance between 2 points was a straight line. Instead of going around a group of sheep (as I wanted him to do), he started going straight through them.
As I've written before, someone more eloquent than me once said, "I hope to become the shepherd that my dogs deserve." Taff certainly made me a better shepherd and better dog handler. He helped me see what a partnership between a man and a dog could accomplish. He helped me realize that in working with a dog, the responsibility for communicating lies with me. I'll miss his goofy ears, his funny bark, and most of all, his partnership. Good dog, Taff - that'll do.