Working Dog Diary

Chapter Four: Finding Bonnie

Dog breeder websites are all about the same. They have a home page with links like this: Our Girls, Our Boys, Brags, Rainbow Bridge (i.e. dead dogs). I got so I could tell in a few seconds that there was no chance of the kind of dog I was looking for, but there were literally hundreds of sites to wade through. It had been months and I was getting the feeling that if the old kind of Aussie was out there, it wasn’t on the internet, at least anywhere within a thousand miles of me. And I had no idea how else to find one.

Then I stumbled on a California website with a different style. No Our Girls, no Rainbow Bridge. At the top it said Home of Two Supreme Working Trial Champions. I didn’t know what that was but it sounded good (I found out later it meant a dog which won the Australian Shepherd Club of America National Stockdog Finals in all three categories–cattle, sheep, and ducks– in one year. The number of dogs who have done this so far is three.) It was mostly photographs of dogs flat on their stomachs biting cows’ heels, dogs leaping in the air snapping at cows’ noses, dogs putting sheep in pens. At the end was a list of available litters–there were three, as I remember. It said, “These pups will make ranch dogs, trial dogs, or just about anything you want.” If you didn’t want a show dog. Apparently these people did not believe in beauty contests.

I emailed this breeder, saying I wanted a female for agility competition, and asked how they would describe the available puppies’ personalities. This was a test. My experience of the show-bred Corgi world was that show breeders never really had the foggiest notion what their puppies’ personalities were like, although they sure knew which ones had the most correct topline and earset.

The breeder, whose name was Audrey, emailed me back that there were only two females left out of one litter (I was to discover that the website was updated infrequently), a black tricolor and a red merle, and the red was going to be a “very intense working dog–maybe too hot for what you want”. The tri would be more biddable. This lady had been breeding Aussie stockdogs for fifty years.

range cowsIt was September, which is a nasty smoggy hot month in California generally, and the Central Valley was as dry as an old cow bone. It hadn’t rained since April. Where there was irrigation it was given to wine grapes and alfalfa. On the long road to the ranch, I passed dairy farms, with their signature reeking mountains of composting manure covered with plastic sheeting anchored with old tires, and beef cattle ranches and vineyards and a lot of ugly overgrazed dry pasture, waiting for the winter rains. The last two miles were washboarded gravel.

I drew up as per my directions and my first impression was of a well-organized junkyard. About a quarter acre was devoted to farm machinery, long-dead cars and trailers, and scrap building materials. A little old house under two enormous oak trees, and a tiny old woman coming out of it. She had a tiny old husband too, they were like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. She led me through the house, which was dark and close (air-conditioning was too new-fangled for them, I figured), and crowded with framed photographs of dogs herding cows. The living room was dominated by the displayed heads of two gigantic elk, the more startling because the space was so small that they looked you straight in the eye. The house looked as if it had been spanking new in 1970 and never remodeled since. The couple reminded me irresistibly of my own grandparents, dairy farmers from Wisconsin, spare, taciturn, ruthlessly practical people who had spent their whole lives outdoors, working.

The pups were in the backyard, in a well-worn home-made run. All around the yard were small dog runs with bouncing Aussies in them. There might have been a dozen. I watched one effortlessly leap up to look over the top of his wire fence, maybe seven feet, over and over. Yikes!

The pups were let out on the lawn. They all ran over, jumped on me, and ran away. They didn’t look much like the adorable Aussie puppies I’d seen photos of. They were leggy and plain; the red bitch had a dark freckled face and the tri’s face was half white and half black, like a Border Collie’s. None of them paid much attention to me. They raced around after each other, grabbing toys and playing keepaway. The sun boiled down on the grass. Audrey brought the mother out. She was a black tricolor with a beautiful narrow face. She raced at enormous speed around the lawn twice, with the puppies pelting after her, then suddenly screeched to a sit next to me and put her muzzle in my hand. Her name was Jet. I met the father too, a coarse-looking blue merle whose promising trial career had been brought to a halt by a kick from a cow which broke his front leg in two places. None of these dogs looked like show Aussies. I wasn’t sure what they looked like. Nevertheless, when the black tri bitch puppy came and curled up in my lap, happily chewing on my fingers, I said, “yep, I’ll take her.”

The disheveled appearance of the ranch was deceptive. I was handed a packet which contained the orthopedic Bonnie as a homely pupcertification of both parents’ hips, the ophthalmic exams certifying their eyes to be free of defects, their DNA numbers certifying their parentage, a photocopy of the entire litter’s markings at birth, registration application papers, several photos of both parents, worming and vaccination schedules, starter pack of puppy food, and a seven-generation pedigree complete with inbreeding co-efficients.

I put the puppy in the crate I’d brought for the long drive home. She looked woebegone and spindly in there. “She seems so quiet,” I said to Audrey. “I hope she’s going to be lively enough.”

“Enjoy it now,” she replied.

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