How rare it is to see sheep in the field in front of my house. Yet it doesn’t stop my Lucy, a Bearded Collie, a Beardie, from guarding that field for sixteen hours a day.
Lucy has watched over my home for more than thirteen years. She begs to be let out as soon as I rise in the morning and begins her day patrolling the perimeter of the property. Watching carefully, I see her stop from time to time to check the new smells – the neighbor dog’s feces, tracks of animals that have passed in the night, new holes to the homes of untold inhabitants of the field. When she has completed her initial tour she settles herself on the bank where she can survey her entire domain all day.
Lucy is a Bearded Collie, a Beardie, whose Scottish heritage begs her to round something up. Her ancestors have not worked as herding dogs for decades, yet she seems to know what is expected of her breed. I imagine, as she sits at her post high above the rolling fields of hay and clover, that she is watching over vast numbers of invisible sheep. At times she will bark at something not seen with the human eye, and racing to the middle of the field, circles round a time or two before moseying back to her perch. I am convinced she has gathered a stray back into the fold, so I call out a ‘good dog.’ She turns, smiling and panting at me, pleased I have recognized her success.
Over the years she has proven herself worthy of herding dog status on many occasions. A particular behavior of hers that speaks to the power of lineage is her refusal to leave the field during thunderstorms. I have known many dogs to cower and run for the nearest indoor hiding spot during a storm, but not Lucy. She races to the field at the first rumble or flash and will not be coaxed inside under any circumstance. To watch her is to know the job of a good herder. She runs circles around the imaginary sheep, every so often detouring to a corner in search of a stray, barking incessantly, her white flag of a tail waving above the tall grasses to show her location. She is agile enough to make quick turnabouts and bound over the grasses with ease when a threat is seen.
Watching her perform this routine for 15 or 20 minutes causes me to worry about her health. I have attempted many times to get her in, where I think she’ll be safest. At the first crash of thunder I go into the yard and call her in my least threatening voice, sometimes even trying to bribe her with a treat. She never falls for it. Instead I watch her drop low to the ground, hiding in the grass. If I am foolish enough or mad enough to march into the field after her it is a waste of my time, as she easily outruns me.
For many years Lucy joined me on my early morning runs a few miles down a dirt road, passing a small farm. Often we would see the farmer beginning his chores before rounding up the cows for milking. One fall morning, as we neared the dairy, I noticed three cows in the road, Farmer Brown amongst them, hands thrown up in frustration. As we moved closer, he managed to get two of them inside the fence, but the third placed itself between us. With little thought, I said, “Lucy, get the cow, go ahead; get the cow.” Well, I’ll be damned if she didn’t head down the road, place herself at the heels of that bovine and begin to bark. What’s a cow to do under the circumstances but start moving? As it did, the farmer moved so the cow was now between him and the fence, and Lucy continued to bark the cow right back into the field.
“Wow, she’s good,” was his astounded reply.
As much barking as she has done over the years, in the name of protecting something, she did know when to keep quiet, as I learned one day when we were visited by a moose. Standing at the kitchen window I saw the imposing animal step out of the cover of trees in the far corner of the field. Expecting Lucy to bark, and not wanting her to scare it off, I went in search of her. I walked around the house with no luck and as I came back to the front I saw both the moose and Lucy walking toward one another in the middle of the field. Afraid to call to her, I held my breath as I witnessed the two of them tip toe in the direction of one another. Ever so slowly they came closer and closer until they were less than a yard apart. Trying not to breathe, I watched the two of them take tentative steps forward, lengthen their necks toward one another until their noses touched for the briefest of seconds. Each then took a step back, allowing room to pass one another, as they sauntered off in opposite directions, heads held high.
One other feat performed by this incredible canine occurred in January after it had snowed several inches. At the time we had a young cat who, because of a carnivorous fisher cat in the neighborhood, we had been trying to convince to be an indoor cat. On this particular day I’d gotten fed up with her constant yowling at the door, so opened it and let her have at the great beyond. She got as far as the middle of the field before she realized she was in over her head, literally. There she sat, covered in snow yowling louder than ever, this time begging to be rescued. Not wanting to trudge through the field of snow myself, I looked hopefully at Lucy and pleaded, “Go get the kitty, Lucy. Please? Go get kitty,” pointing in the general direction. Well, I’ll be damned again. Off she ran, straight for the field, picked the humbled cat up by the scruff of the neck and brought her right back to the safety of our living room.
Lucy is thirteen now, nearly fourteen, so her forays in search of errant sheep and cats have slowed, but she continues to stand guard, sole protector of house and home. Every day she positions herself carefully atop the hill, and though her eyesight and hearing fail, she has done this long enough that intuition is her guide. More often now, she barks at the frequent bikers passing on the trail. I don’t think she’s forgotten the sheep though. She sometimes sits and mourns; whining for the longest time, as if to say, “I miss them.”
I hear her bark now, either in greeting to a passerby, to reprimand an intruder, call an imaginary sheep away from the fence line, or to warn me of something out of sorts. This time the bark is chatty, continuous, and begins to fade as she moves away from the house. When I get up to look, sure enough, our neighbor has come to weed the shared garden and she is walking down to investigate. She will be back momentarily. She never leaves her post for long.