A couple weeks ago I wrote about how this time of year is full of new beginnings for farmers and seems like New Year to us. At the time I talked about our new website and was hoping to be able to share some other news with you soon. Well, here it is everyone, meet Moss! Moss is a 10 year old Border Collie who moved in with us on Saturday, and here is the story of how that came to be.
We have an amazing dog named Coco. We adopted her from the Oshkosh Area Humane Society when we moved to Green Lake in 2013. She came with some serious anxiety issues, but has now become a pretty secure dog with a lot fewer quirks. She is a Boxer/Shepherd mix so she has always had lots of energy, and encouraging her to burn that energy off is part of our daily routine. Luckily she enjoys running very fast in circles when happy and is great at playing by herself with sticks and snowballs. She is a wonderful companion who is very easy to take care of.
What Coco is not is a herding dog. Coco much prefers the livestock be her friends and playmates than anything, which is something the livestock have varied feelings about. Some of the sheep and cows like to offer Coco their noses to have the sweat licked off, while others have standoffs with her that have resulted in Coco being shoved by a cow or receiving a face full of horns from a ewe. She loves to chase the lambs and calves, which sometimes works in our favor but often doesn’t. She loves being at the farm, but isn’t all that useful.
Over time we have thought more and more about getting a herding dog. The right dog is worth three people easily and they are truly poetry in motion when they are working animals. As the number of animals on the farm has grown there are things that have become increasingly difficult. Gone are the days when the herds were so small that all of them were bucket trained or would come when called. We do have better facilities than we used to, but having to load sheep on the trailer in the back pasture if we want to move them down the hill to the barn is time-consuming and frustrating. With a good herding dog a day’s work could be cut into a fraction of the time, which is definitely a tempting thought.
So last year I started looking into herding dogs more seriously. There are a variety of herding breeds out there, and our Icelandic Sheep are known for being challenging with dogs so there are lots of recommendations about which breeds to go with based on herding style. However, the herding world in Iceland, the UK, and Wisconsin is really dominated by the Border Collie. Regal yet fearsome, both ridiculously fast and intelligent, Border Collies are known for their ability to rock an agility course, catch any Frisbee, or tirelessly gather up wayward animals. I had hemmed and hawed about which breed to get for a long time, but after a lot of research it seemed like a Border Collie was going to be the right fit.
We have a good friend who raises sheep and has two trained Border Collies, and I asked her last year how to go about learning about herding and finding a dog. She invited me to audit a clinic with a famous trainer to learn the ropes and maybe get some advice. I went and was convinced that a Border Collie was something I wanted. I loved the partnership on display between dog and handler, and was reminded of the six years I spent in the 4-H Dog Project and the two years after that that I served as a trainer. Herding was a new form of partnership, and it fascinated me. Six months later and that trainer came back and did another clinic, and this time I was able to convince Jordan to go watch with me. Jordan is not really a dog person and has no training experience so this was a lot for him to wrap his head around. The real clincher was when we visited our friend’s farm and watched her accomplish with one dog in 20 minutes what would be an all day operation for us.
Now what about Moss? Well, we had really put the idea of a Border Collie on the back burner because we were aware that a good, trained dog that would be ready to go was not in our budget for the time being. This saddened me, because not only did we know that a good working dog would make life on the farm more fun, but that the right dog would also prove a good companion for Coco and help keep her active as she starts to age.
Well I wished, and facebook answered. The Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association posted about an older male Border Collie that was in need of a new home. There were no other details, but something told me that this was important, so I private messaged the WWSDA. I talked with their representative via messenger about dogs and this dog in particular, and eventually I had been properly vetted to be sent photos and a write-up about Moss. As I read I knew this was the right dog for us. He was older but still had lots of energy, enjoyed playing with other dogs(we were not ready for a puppy), had been trained to herd but hadn’t in a while, and a male to Coco’s female which can be important for territory reasons. He had some anxiety issues which I felt confident dealing with as I had helped Coco with hers, and was generally in need of a good home. I thought, “well, we may not have the fanciest house or the most experience with herding dogs, but we can provide green pastures to run in, a playful companion, and lots of love, so why not?”
I started communicating with the owners about Moss and we had several phone calls and email exchanges discussing dog training philosophy and what we would provide for Moss. Eventually they chose us, and we were overjoyed. The anticipation of waiting a month for him to arrive was killing us, and then his arrival got moved up by two weeks, yahoo! That meant lots of reading about adding a second dog to the family, brushing up on training with Coco so she was well-mannered, and relocating the cats to a part of the house where we wouldn’t have to worry about conflicts.
This Saturday was the day. We met in a public space in Princeton and went for a walk at this neutral territory so the dogs could begin being acquainted and accept each other’s existence. That went well so we moved to the farm. We walked them up to the back pasture away from the animals, and let them go. It was magical to see a dog that could keep up with Coco and wanted to play in her bouncy, full-frontal kind of way. We let them get their energy out at the farm (which took awhile, they probably ran over 5 miles) before we went back to the house. This was the big moment of truth as Coco has usually been good with having playmates over to the farm, but they don’t come back to the house. She has been protective of me most of her life so I made sure to handle Moss a lot in town and at the farm to teach her that he was part of our family now. We took Coco inside and prepared to feed them both so they associated each other’s presence with something good. Then I brought Moss inside and Coco never even flinched. She acted like it was the most natural thing in the world as she ate her food and then started to play with him. Moss checked out the new digs and took a long time to calm down, but eventually was willing to lay down and chill on the floor as if he’d done it every day of his life.
It’s now Sunday night, and as I type this the two dogs are snoozing peacefully. They have played in short bursts at least 20 times today, and definitely deserve the rest. Coco has been ridiculously well-behaved and polite, and Moss is starting to learn the rules of a true house dog as he was more of an indoor-outdoor kennel guy before. We have not let Moss loose around the livestock yet, and don’t intend to until we have been able to take him for some refresher lessons with a herding trainer nearby. We know that our sheep may prove too rough for the old boy, and we are okay with that. We do not have our hearts set on him being a herding dog, but we want him to live out his years as fulfilled as possible. If that is as a working dog who can help us with chores, great; if not he has already proven a wonderful companion for Coco and that is enough. He will also help us understand Border Collies so that in a few years when we are ready to invest in a younger, trained dog we have a better idea of what we are getting into.
They say God only gives you what you can handle. Well lately I had felt as if God had put too much faith in me. Teaching and farming are both jobs of unending labor without a lot of financial compensation, and recently they have been harder than usual. Mud season is here on the farm and seems likely to last just about forever which can make feeding and watering difficult; and teaching has been heartbreaking as we are confronted once again with a school shooting, and our country’s paralysis on any solutions as well as incidences of racism that happen all too often for the 21st century. But with Moss I think God and I were more on the same wavelength. In less than 36 hours this dog has made me ridiculously happy and I say gratefully to all of you, Happy Farmer’s New Year.