Tony Vagneur: Living life to a T
“Come on, T-Bone, let’s go!” He’d rip around the side of the house from his shady spot in the grass, or jump up from his lookout on the porch, or less likely, untangle himself from under the dining room table and we’d be off. If I was going out the door, he was going also, unless I gave him the seldom-used command, “You’re in charge,” and then he’d unenthusiastically lie down on his blanket, disappointment all over his face.
He must have wondered last September when he’d come into my office to get his ears scratched and ended up with a full-on back rub. That’s when goodbye started, only he didn’t know it. I hope he didn’t.
A routine physical, “Come on, T, let’s get it over with and we’re done for the year.” Except the vet, Ben Macklin, noticed an abnormality in Topper’s heart sounds and before long, a leaky heart valve was diagnosed. “A year, maybe two,” was the prognosis. “Let him work as long as he wants to.”
Working cattle was Topper’s passion — he lived for it — and he got in some good licks this spring before it became too much for him. You see a lot of cattle dogs who, on command, charge in and nip the heels of a bovine beast, getting it to move along. Then they’re back alongside their master’s horse, waiting for the next opportunity.
That was not T’s style. He took the calm and steady approach, staying behind the herd, working from side-to-side, moving them along, giving a nip or two here and there when needed. If he had a fault, it might have been that he was a little left-handed and I’d have to occasionally point him over to the right side to get some stragglers moving faster. More than a few longtime ranchers and cowboys mentioned what a good cattle dog he was.
You don’t know what you’ve got with a new dog, but T-Bone showed great promise early. Trying to turn about 20 head around on a sparsely treed, steep hillside, a black angus, one of those nasty, spoiled broads used to getting her way when she wanted it, was leading the herd through downed quakies at a full-on run. I was about 60 yards above where it was less thick, trying vainly to get around her with my horse.
From out of the corner of my eye, Topper suddenly took off, jumping over the dead-fall at a fast pace, catching that runaway cow by the snout and bringing her down to her knees in a bellowing halt. She turned and went back the way we’d come. Twelve-hundred pounds of brute force cow against a 40-pound dog. Over the years, that became his signature move.
Topper, along with a good horse, was all I needed to get my work done. We rode or hiked most every day in the summer, but it’s difficult to have a working dog who is also a pet. If I rode 20 miles in a summer day, T probably ran 40, and was ready for more. In the winter I walked him about 4 miles a day, which seemed to be enough to keep him satisfied. My partner Margaret and I also took him on long winter hikes several days a week with his Burtard family, Abby and Lucy.
This spring, it became painfully clear he could no longer go on the long rides and I began leaving him home. He seemed to understand for he didn’t put up much of an objection. Margaret and I would sit on the back porch and watch Topper and her dog Blanca play, sometimes chasing squirrels, barking at odd-sounding vehicles on the road or at coyotes across the creek. Then they’d come over for a short pet on the head and then flop down on the grass in front of us, enjoying the day.
Near the end, Topper quit eating and refused his medications, but didn’t seem to lose his curiosity or enthusiasm for life. Two weeks ago, a longtime nemesis of his wandered through the yard, a bigger dog that used to back Topper down. This time, T-Bone knocked him to the ground and sent him whimpering and yapping for home.
His water station is full and a couple of treats lie in his food dish. He doesn’t need those things anymore, but I do. Habitually, I listen and look for him around every corner and when I’m ready to leave the house, I still sometimes holler, “Let’s go, T” only to be met with a lonely silence.
Tony Vagneur and his son-in-law, Ty Burtard, got their dogs about the same time, July 2007. A week apart in age, they got into a lot of trouble together when they were pups. Ty’s Irish wolfhound, Abby, died this year on Father’s Day. Topper died on July 4. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.