Monday, October 8, 2018

Thank you, Ernie

Our border collie Ernie has been a frequent subject of this blog, as some will know. While I got to use Ernie to herd sheep, he really belonged to our youngest daughter, Emma. In addition to his sheep dog duties, Ernie was Emma's companion. She showed him in agility and obedience at our local fair. He often slept at the foot of Emma's bed. They were buddies. All of this makes this post difficult to write.

Ernie came to us from our friend Ellen Skillings in 2010. Emma and I drove to Tulelake on the California-Oregon border to pick him up in January of that year. At around 6 months of age, we started introducing Ernie to sheep work. He proved to be a challenging dog - he loved the work, but he didn't want to work with a human partner.

In 2013, I took a part-time job at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista. The position involved working with large numbers of sheep on a daily basis. With my old top dog, Taff, slowing down and nearing retirement, I needed Ernie to help take some of the load off my new top dog, Mo. Ernie proved to be up to the task.

But Ernie's training process wasn't what you might expect. I have come to believe that shepherds are given the dogs they need at a particular point (and I suspect this is true of most working dogs, regardless of the work we ask them to do). What I needed at that point was a dog to show me how to pay attention to how the work was being done. Ernie began to improve when I needed him to accomplish big tasks - and when I realized that I needed to be totally present and totally focused when we worked together. Mo was a dog who relished our partnership; Ernie taught me that I needed to be a partner, too. He also taught me to work with a dog who's drive wouldn't allow him to rest. Unlike Mo, who'd find water if he got too hot while we were working, Ernie wouldn't quit. On hot days, I'd have to force him to take a break.

The following year, I worked as the beef herdsman at the University of California's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. Neither Ernie nor Mo had ever worked on cattle, but both dogs took to the work immediately. From gathering pairs from the bluffs overlooking the Yuba River to moving steers and heifers up the road, both dogs benefited from the regular work. Ernie, because he needed to be more thoughtful in his work with larger livestock, started to listen better. And working cattle helped him become a better sheep dog.

As our sheep business became more part-time, the dogs didn't get to work as regularly - but I still needed their help for things like moving sheep at lambing, catching ewes for treatment, weaning the lambs, or moving sheep on or across county roads. Ernie's heart and stamina made him my first choice when I needed to complete a difficult task. At times, Ernie would come to the office with me, too - and when he was home, he honed his skill at chewing on hoses and digging holes.

Ernie was always afraid he'd miss something, I think - and so he always made sure he jumped into the truck if the opportunity presented itself. There were times I didn't realize Ernie was with me until I got to town. And this wasn't just my truck - sometimes Ernie would jump into any available vehicle. Several years ago, after a long day of shearing sheep, I called the dogs to help me put the freshly shorn ewes back out on pasture. Mo came right away; I eventually gave up on Ernie and had Mo help me with the work on his own. We searched all of Ernie's usual hiding places (the back of my truck, the hay barn, Sami's office) to no avail. I finally called our shearer, Derrick Adamache, who had nearly made it home to Truckee. I asked Derrick if Ernie was in his car (he drives a Subaru station wagon). Derrick did a quick check, told me, "no, but let me pull over and check," and then said, "yep - he's curled up right behind the driver's seat." Derrick was gracious enough to drive back towards Auburn - and ever since that day we've checked his car more carefully when he leaves!

Earlier this summer, we noticed that Ernie was drooling and bleeding from his mouth. We thought he might have a foxtail embedded under his tongue, but the diagnosis was far worse. Ernie had a cancerous growth in his mouth. We had the growth removed, knowing it would come back. On September 30, we realized he had new masses in his mouth and throat. Swallowing was becoming difficult for him.

A week ago, I knew I would need to move one of our breeding groups onto fresh pasture. This job is typically pretty easy early in breeding season - since we're feeding barley to the sheep, they'll follow a bucket anywhere. But I decided I wanted to give Ernie some work. Despite his condition, he jumped in the truck when I called him; his drive was undiminished by his condition. I could tell he didn't have his usual energy, but once he came into contact with the flock, he was his usual hard-driving self. He brought the ewes off the hill and into their new paddock - managing to ignore (as he always has) the livestock guardian dog who wanted to play.

I wasn't prepared at my own emotions while watching Ernie work. I realized that this was likely the last time we'd ever work together. I realized that in some ways it has been easier for me when my dogs have left me unexpectedly. I found myself on the edge of tears most of Monday (and over the edge on several occasions).

Over the weekend, we all realized that it was time to let Ernie go. As anyone who has ever loved a dog will know, losing a dog is difficult. Those of us who have relied on working dogs, I suppose, feel this loss deeply - we've lost a companion and a working partner. My sorrow is intensified by the knowledge that my daughter has lost her pal. Thank you, Ernie - you were the dog I needed, even when I didn't realize it. See you on the other side one day, I hope!

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