Almost every powerful animal story has two elements to begin with, loss and gain. Animals are not like us, they do not live as long, they come and they go, they come as they wish, they leave when they are done. In our arrogance, we struggle to accept this, we are always shocked when they go, disbelieving. What, I wonder, did we think would happen? That they will live forever because we wish for it to be so, and because we need them? In our world, we have no respect for death, so death makes us respect it. For any animal love story, for every animal gained, there is an animal lost.
Many people write me wondering about Rose and Red, comparing them, wonder what I see as their similarities, their differences. Most people tend to think they are much alike, because both are so competent. But that is not so. They are quite different. Rose died more than a year ago, Red has been with me about a year. They are alike only in that they are both remarkable animals, possessed of great strength, intelligence, loyalty and focus. They are both creatures of great heart. But they were really nothing alike.
Rose and Red came to me at different times in my lives, there was different breeding, different needs, different environments, different things for them to react to. When Rose came to Bedlam Farm – she was in New Jersey first for several months – I was in chaos, bewildered, enthralled and overwhelmed by running a 90-acre farm with sheep and donkeys and goats and steers, four barns, paths in the woods, a beautiful old farmhouse. Rose sensed this void and filled it. She had lots of decisions to make, plenty of work to do. In terms of intellect, she grew and grew, her mind had a chance to learn and grow.
Rose was brave almost to the point of being reckless, throwing herself at belligerent rams, combative ewes, wandering cows, coyotes. She seemed to find her focus in watching me, accompanying me, and protecting me. She saved my life more than once, extricated me from many messes, kept order. Rose took responsibility for the entire farm, she watched every inch of it, noticed when anything was new, amiss, in need of attention.
Rose never slept in my bed, or even in my bedroom. It was a year or so before I even found her sleeping spot, the guest bed above down the hall in the farmhouse (photo above). Mostly, she moved from window to window at night, watching for lambs, coyotes, disturbances, escaped animals. She kept going up and down the stairs for better views. When something was up, she came to the side of my bed and got me up and moving. Red sleeps on the floor beside me, he could not get any closer.
Rose kept watch on the entire farm. If I lost a key or cell phone, I would re-trace my steps and Rose would go to it, every time. She had a map of the farm in her head. Red has no interest in finding my cellphone, he would never notice a key on the ground, his interests are the sheep and me, in that order, and he does a good job of herding us. They both were extremely intelligent, quick to learn.
Rose was not a loving dog in many ways, even though she had a great heart. She did not want or need attention and affection. As frightened, distracted and confused as I was, Rose made me feel safe and accompanied, although she never substituted for human companionship for me, she was too remote, so businesslike. She hated cuddling or cute dog talk, did not go near the people who offered that to her, or tried to bribe her with treats. People can be overly familiar with strange dogs, Rose did not permit it. She hated bookstores, crowds, strange people coming up to her. She had no friends in vet’s offices, and when people came up to her and saw “awwww, pupppy,” she growled and walked away. I loved her for that.
She was a determined and undeterrable dog, a tremendous force in my getting through the first winters in one piece, it is hard for me to imagine surviving without her. Nothing frightened her, she never quite a job. As I became more organized, as the farm took shape, as I confronted my problems, as I understood how to manage it safely, as Maria came into my life, Rose seemed to fade, lose her purpose, and then, she got sick. We could never figure out precisely what was wrong with her, she just withered. She had taken some terrible poundings over the years – torn up by barbed wire, run over by ATV’s, worn by miles and miles of running through tall grass and brush, pounded and butted by sheep and rams, kicked by donkeys.
She was ready to leave, I could see it. My love for her was profound, but also respectful. I could say we were very close, yet in some ways you could not get that close to Rose, she didn’t permit it. Yet I was the center of her universe, her purpose, and she never failed me.
Red has less courage than Rose in a way, although he is also very businesslike and not distractable. He is not about heroics, he is not dramatic. He will sit and watch while sheep plow into me, it is not his business, he doesn’t even seem to notice when I am sprawled on the ground, it has nothing to do with his herding sheep. Rose never let an animal come up behind me or knock me down, not more than once. She often anticipated danger – animals rushing towards me – she always intervened. She always had my back, and this gave me considerable confidence with animals in the pasture.
Out of the pasture, Red is many of the things Rose was not. He is my pal, my companion, my shadow, he is always near me, we are always together, he wants to go everywhere, anytime. Rose never liked the car, had no interest in making friends in hardware stores or farm stands, she was only at ease watching her farm, taking care of the sheep and keeping an eye on me. It was love, for sure, just expressed in a different way.
Rose was a farm dog, not really a herding dog. When I got here, I was new to sheep and herding. Rose became popular – she was on the cover of several of my books and videos and photos of her on the blog were widely seen. But that wasn’t the case at first. Some elements in the border collie world were upset at the way I trained her, and she was frequently attacked – along with me – on some websites, in some book reviews and magazine articles. The videos quieted her critics. I understand why some people are bothered by me, but I have never quite grasped why people would attack a dog. She was only doing what she was asked to do and trained to do.
Red was well-bred and well-trained as a herding dog, and also as a trialing dog, he is whistled trained, hand and voice trained. He even responds to whispers. He moves precisely and responsively. He had a wonderful breeder. I have done some work with Red, he needs slowing down sometimes and can come on too strong, but I could never have trained him to that degree. Rose and I figured things out together, we had an effective but decidedly hybrid style of working together, I was never big on the formal herding commands but we understood one another and she always got the job done. Instead of “come bye,” I would yell “get the damned sheep,” and it seemed to work.
Red is the most responsive and eager-to-please dog I have known. He is also the most trusting, Rose trusted me, but not too many others. Red trusts everybody.
If Rose needed little in the way of human affection and attention, Red cannot get enough of it. He seems to love everyone, happy to be noticed, talked to, cuddled. He loves it when people say “awww, puppy,” he melts right into the ground.
I have often said you get the dog you need. The dog, if he or she is instinctive and alert, becomes what you want them to become, what you need them to become, that is what they do, why they survive and prosper in our world. And when they become what we need, we pretend it was all their idea. They are mirrors, they reflect who we are at different points, they show us what we are like, what we want. Rose sensed what I needed, and so does Red. In that sense, they are much alike.
Isn’t it strange how love works, such different dogs, I loved (love) each of them fiercely. My wish for Rose when she died is the same, then and now. I hope she is not awaiting me over any bridge, I hope she is running in golden fields, sheep to the horizon, running and running without ever getting tired. If Red makes it over the bridge, he will be the heavenly therapy dog, greeting everyone who comes across.
I am so lucky to have loved and known these two remarkable creatures, and I celebrate their differences, each great in their own way.