SIT, STAY, HEAL : DIANA DECKER

interview by Jen Barol
diana_decker1_fwIt is Diana Decker’s hard-working bond with Gus and Shine and the other herding dogs she trains that keeps her fighting the illness that consumes her.

Decker and her fifteen herding dogs are throwbacks to another time and place. In a society where working breeds like Australian Shepherds and Border Collies are more accustomed to car drives than cattle drives, visiting Decker on her Edgewood, New Mexico ranch feels more like visiting Hoss and Little Joe at the Ponderosa.

When she’s not working the same mailroom graveyard shift she’s worked for 22 years, Decker is here, training Aussies, Border Collies and Kelpies to do what they instinctively know how to do: herd livestock. Decker, a native of Oklahoma who moved to Albuquerque when she was a year old, has trained a variety of dog breeds, and their owners. She holds clinics and private lessons at her ranch, as well as in other countries like Australia and Canada.

On any given day, Decker is outside with her pack, polishing up on skills that will either win the dogs ribbons at herding trials or come in handy when they’re adopted out to ranchers looking for hard-working ranch hands. But, whether they know it or not, these dogs are tending to more than the livestock on Decker’s ten acre ranch. They are also tending to Decker, who, at 43 years old, is facing her second battle with cancer. It’s the same breast cancer she survived 3 1/2 years ago. The doctor told her in October it’s back, this time in her liver and lungs.

“If it weren’t for the dogs, I wouldn’t do as well,” she said. “They give me a lot to look forward to.”

“I’m having a harder time this time,” said Decker, a pint-sized woman whose slight frame hardly stands up against the harsh East Mountain winds. “I’m really run down.”
diana_decker2_fwBut that doesn’t stop her from putting her cowboy hat and Wranglers on each day and spending all the daylight hours it takes to feed and clean the dogs, as well as the goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens, mule, pigs, geese and billy goat that share the space.

Decker didn’t mean to get into the business of herding dogs. She actually started out training service dogs. But after adopting an Australian shepherd and training it in obedience, she discovered her obsession with the breed. She soon found herself taking in other herding breeds. She does some breeding herself but is a strong supporter of rescue. “If I breed, I need to do my part in rescue,” she said. In fact, a few years back, someone dumped a heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) over her fence. Instead of taking it to the pound, Decker worked with the dog, turning it into one of her most gifted ranch dogs. She adopted the dog out to a rancher who lives out of state.

“I only place dogs in homes that work them,” she said. “I don’t place them in pet homes.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t treat her dogs like pets. When the dogs aren’t working the ranch, they roam freely around the grounds or rest inside their spacious outdoor kennels. All fifteen dogs sleep inside the house at night — except for the two livestock guardian dogs, whose full-time job is to keep coyotes at bay. “My mom thinks I’m crazy for bringing the dogs in at night,” said Decker, who lives with her long-time boyfriend in a doublewide trailer. “I tell her, ‘You never left me out at night.”‘

If she could, Decker would never leave the ranch. Everything she cherishes is here. Despite the days she feels too sick and too weak from the chemotherapy to work in the mailroom, she knows the importance of a paycheck and health insurance. So five days a week, she drives the 45 minutes to the Albuquerque Publishing Company and, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., works the machine that puts the ad inserts in the newspapers. She often takes one or two of her dogs with her to work, taking breaks throughout her shift to let them out of her van and walk them around the parking lot.

“Knowing they’re there waiting for me helps me get through it,” said Decker, adding how grateful she is for the support from her co-workers as she struggles with the cancer. “Many of them have become like family,” she said.

Up until a year and a half ago, work was literally a family affair for Decker. Her father, Darrell Decker, retired from APC in 2005 after working in the machine shop for 42 years.
Decker admits it gets harder and harder to go to work now that she’s doing chemotherapy again. There are many days she would rather be in bed where she could endure the chemo side effects alone. She knows this time the cancer is stronger than before, so she has begun to make plans for her dogs. She has made a list of people who have agreed to take them if needed and continue their training. Her boyfriend would remain on the ranch to care for the livestock.

“As hard as the cancer has been, it’s really showed me what good friends I have,” she said.
decker1_forwebThose friends don’t all come in the form of compassionate humans. Watching Decker walk her ranch, fifteen eager shadows following her, it’s easy to see who is taking care of whom. Yes, these dogs are working dogs. Yes, they work hard. But maybe guarding the livestock and keeping the pigs out of the goose food isn’t their hardest job. Maybe their hardest job is caring for Decker — warding off hopelessness, providing purpose and comfort and a reason for Decker to get out of bed in the morning.

Decker raises Australian Shepherds, Border Collies and Australian Kelpies, training them to be working dogs on farms as well as competing dogs in herding trials. Gus, a 2-year-old Kelpie, is one of the dogs Decker is currently working with. “Gus is kind to his stock,” Decker said. “The sheep really respect him.”

This article was first published in the March/April 2007 issue of Stockdogs Magazine. Color photos are by KayLeigh Kandids and are added to the original. Diana Decker passed away on July 15th, 2008. She was 45 years old.