I had a little bit of a critical situation just this morning. I had not been rotating my goat herd from pasture to pasture frequently enough. Over the course of the summer, the herd had nibbled down the barn yard’s grass too closely to the ground. That in turn led to a problem with parasites. One of them even contracted bottle jaw. In addition to treating him, I had to move the whole herd right away to avoid further problems.
The last time I tried moving the goats was this past spring. It did not go well. Honestly, that is the reason I had been lazy about trying again. But now I had little choice. I had to move them. And I needed a dog that would help me without adding drama to the situation. My English shepherd Hawkeye is a little heavy-handed. Too much dog for those little Pygmy goats. And my English shepherd Josie is just two weeks from whelping. Could not use her. So, that left Rusty or Sugar. I flipped a coin. Heads. That meant Sugar.
Sugar is just about ten months old now. I had shown her the goats a few times as a young pup, but then kept her away from them since. I had an old goat that was gentle enough to expose her without too much risk. But even so, I did not want any puppyhood incidents to put her off goats forever. So, these past few months we have just worked on some basics and on our handler-to-dog bond. An easy task with Sugar since she is so darned eager to please me.
So, back to today’s predicament. I needed to move the goat herd through the woods and on up to the other pasture. The path through the woods can be a problem because the goats want to go off into the trees and nibble. As goats are wont to do. Once they are off in the trees, it can be hard to get them back out of there until they are ready. That can take forever. So, I took three tools with me. Sugar the ten-month-old black and tan English shepherd, a red stock whip from Tractor Supply, and a green plastic feed scoop. The stock whip was to push the goats along, the feed scoop was to pull them to me as a bribe, and Sugar was a hail Mary.
I am not trying to say that Sugar earned any kind of herding titles today. I would not know how to judge, even if she had. But I had a working partner today. Sugar was not trying to amuse herself or just play around. She was there by my side, wanting to help me. To please me. I will just simply say that she seemed to know what to do and when to do it. When I had to drive them from behind, she helped. She kept them in a tight bunch and nibbled at their heels while I drove them forward. Without my asking her to, she even went off and rounded up two stragglers. A few times, I had to get out in front and pull the stubborn goats along with my feed scoop. I would clap the scoop on the side with my hand and holler, “come on, goats”. Sugar just seemed to know to get on the other side of the herd, opposite of where I was going, and push them towards me.
I must tell you; it was the highlight of my day to see Sugar push those goats to me. That is the exact moment at which I knew I had a working partner out there helping me. “Wow”, I thought. “So that’s what that feels like”. I do not think I will ever forget that feeling. I even look at Sugar a little differently now. I guess she has kind of received a field promotion in my eyes. She is now truly a proven working dog, bred to purpose, willing and capable of accomplishing the task she was made for. I have read and heard so many stories about the black and tan English shepherds of the old days. I have spent hours reading the letters many dog owners submitted to Mr. Stodghill’s magazine. I have listened eagerly to the stories of fellow Tennessean Mr. James Maynard as he imparted them to me over the phone. And I felt like a giddy schoolboy as I anxiously travelled to Mrs. Janice Sallee’s old Kentucky home to meet her and her dogs. I witnessed the end of an era that day, listening to Mr. and Mrs. Sallee as they spoke cherishingly of their black and tans and of the need to downsize their farm. Of their remaining dogs, they could only keep one. So, Mrs. Sallee said each of their names, and when a tear came to her husband’s eye, she knew which one to keep. And when my truck pulled away from the Sallee farm with one of her last dogs in a crate in the back, I understood the treasure I was taking with me. The history and heritage represented by Rusty Jr.
So many larger-than-life tales of these brag dogs. Accounts of their selfless heroism and of their pragmatic utility. And now here in front my me stood an amber-eyed, worthy representative of that farm dog legacy. A young and willing English shepherd dog faithfully helping her handler take care of business. A simple farmhand, earning her next meal. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a camera with me. The situation was too pressing, and I just had to get it done. Maybe next time. But I have been moving goats for about seven years. This was easily the most expedient and the most enjoyable experience I have ever had while moving the herd. Sugar did not apply too much pressure. Just the right amount when needed. Sugar works stock with a calm sense of authority and a posture of command that both she and the animals just seem to inherently understand. She works silently, without threat. At times, it seems like she is directing them with just her eyes. I have heard and read that both eye color and coat color can play a factor. I am no expert. I just know that there is just something special about her way. I am elated by Sugar’s behavior when I needed her. The way she stood up to the plate at just the right time. She watched me, then she looked at situation, and then she acted appropriately. While I write this, she sits at my feet enjoying a well-earned dog biscuit. I think the next time I need help with the goats, I probably will not need to flip a coin.