December 16, 2005
Animals, particularly dogs, seem to capture our imaginations in a way that the rest of the world cannot. Letters are still coming in to the editors about Krabloonik’s management of its kennels and Buster, the Louisiana mutt (along with his associated animal care providers) has captured more than his fair share of ink. In the last 40 years, Aspen has seen at least two murder-suicides, other “romance”-related murders, and none of them got nearly the press that today’s canines can generate. We always had cow dogs around the ranch because without them, our days would have been much longer and less complete. Nothing can get a bushed up cow or bull out of the jack oaks or thick pines better than a dog who relishes his job. My dad and granddad preferred border collies, dogs whose intelligence and boundless energy make them naturals in their work with cattle. During my relevant years on the ranch, my dad had two, Wolf and Tag, and my granddad, in addition to his hunting hounds, had Topper and Tag. Through circumstances of life and death, Tag out-lived my grandfather and had plenty left to become my dad’s “right-hand man” until the end. Back then, dogs had no designated shelters, no advocates, other than the few people around town and the valley who quietly cared about them. Every once in a while, a strange dog would surreptitiously appear at the ranch, the echo of the slamming door on a pair of disappearing tail lights our first clue of its arrival and there’d be some discussion about what to do with it. It was a smaller town then and more often than not, a little sleuth work could turn up an owner, usually a person who wanted nothing more to do with the dog. If it was abandoned, we’d sometimes take it on, hoping against all odds it would make a cow dog to some degree. We never had one make the cut, because they were either too pusillanimous or aggressive and in most cases, yours truly was charged with dispatching them in the most humane way possible out on the far reaches of the ranch.Our dogs were never brought inside, but found shelter in sheds or on enclosed porches around the ranch houses, sleeping on old blankets and pillows. One particularly cold January, when the mercury dipped down in the minus thirties, we felt bad for Tag, huddled on the back porch with some barn cats for warmth, the ends of his black hair white-tipped with pervasive frost, and invited him into the kitchen to warm up a bit. It was apparent from the beginning, in his distressed look, that Tag was an outside dog and as soon as the door was opened again, he bolted out to the realm of working cow dogs. When my folks sold the ranch and left the pastoral life behind, they took Tag with them, of course. He was getting along in years and really didn’t seem to mind a life of little to do, although one day he escaped from the yard and was found much later, apparently working his way back to Woody Creek. I’m sure the jerks and moans in his sleep were over dreams of cattle drives long gone by and the day my dad finally took him to the vet for a merciful end had to have been very difficult for both of them. The tears in my dad’s eyes told the story as he wished aloud that he could have allowed Tag to die on the ranch in a more natural setting.Funny thing about dogs, though. My sister and I will remember Tag until our memories cease to be, that time when we can only hope to meet up with some cows on the side of a steep, red dirt mountainside somewhere, motioning for Tag to “move ’em up and get ’em out of here.” Tony Vagneur thinks shelters are sometimes more about people than animals. Read him here on Saturdays and send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.