Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sammy the Philosopher

Yesterday our sheepdog, Sammy, aged 11 years and 6 months, was put to sleep. In his honour I'm reposting a piece I wrote about him when he was in the full vigour of his youth.


Sammy the Philosopher

Sammy is a red and white, longhaired sheepdog. Surprisingly for a dog, he is also a hero, a philosopher and a teacher.

He is ostensibly a purebred Border Collie, though he can’t claim all the lengths of a pedigree. I know  (though he doesn’t) that he only exists as an accident, due to a half day hiatus between his mother Molly arriving at the Collie Rescue Centre farm and his father Bob being taken to the vet’s for neutering. The moment Molly arrived on the farm, they got together and a litter of five was the result.

Both Molly and Bob were non-workers, which was why they were at Collie Rescue in the first place. They had been sent to find new homes where no sheep demanded responsible attention. Both found, happily, in due course and Bob is now doing agility tests and taking owners for walks, while Molly is generally being a rural but non-farming angel.

We intended Sammy to be the farm’s guard dog. Shep our previous sheepdog had died, after a long and effective existence. 

I am not sure that I really picked Sammy out of the litter. In the goat pens where his family lived at the time, there were two red girls and himself, and I am fairly certain it was one of the girls who came forward and introduced herself to me. But we’d had girls for twelve years along with all that “taking to the vet” stuff when they were molested by the local Romeos. We wanted a boy again, so Sammy it had to be.

He loved the car ride home, sitting on my husband’s knee and behaving with perfect decorum while I drove. Periodically he licked Graham’s face and ears with great enthusiasm. For weeks before he arrived the various animals of the farm had been admonished by my husband that they would have to behave “when my puppy dog comes.” He is still emphatically Graham’s dog, except when he misbehaves, when he becomes mine.

Back home on our yard Sammy attached himself to our ankles and waddled anxiously after us wherever we went. Unfortunately, because his destined role as guard dog meant he would have to spend his nights outside the house, he had to become accustomed to sleeping on his own; so we made up a bed, with straw and boxes, in the stable normally occupied by Mr T the Fell pony. We gave him water, and a meal mixed with ewe’s-milk-replacer powder just like at Collie Rescue; and we went about our business. Sammy howled and cried. And then stopped. Suddenly there he was, out on the yard again, investigating the midden and delightedly waddling after us once more. We blocked the gap in the door with a straw bale.

When we went indoors for the evening and left him in the stable, Sammy howled and cried again. We felt like child-murderers, even though he was a big well grown pup of ten weeks old and we were pretty certain he wasn’t going to fade away overnight. It was still a relief to go in early the next morning and find him bouncing with delight at seeing us again.

His first coat was rich brown with the classic sheepdog white collar, chest, muzzle, tail tip and socks. The short dense puppy coat turned into a long dense adult coat, fine and silky and remarkable for keeping itself clean in the dirtiest of weather; his long feathery socks are hardly ever anything other than pure white.

He wasn’t quite brave enough at first to clamber down the steps to the back door, so we have a lot of early photographs of him sitting wistfully on the top step, gazing down into the kitchen. We also pounced on him in passing and carried him indoors quite a lot. This was supposed to be so he could socialise with us and learn our commands. In reality it was just such fun having a pup around the place that we were quite unable to resist the temptation to play with him.

He learned very quickly that “Fetch” was a good game, and within a week of his arrival he was reliably bringing back all the toys that the family offered to throw for him. Lacking any hens to practise herding, and sternly told off for being too keen on sheep, he took to herding the family. He still does. He knows, now, that when people go out they will come back again, but nevertheless he sighs deeply when presented with the jingle of car keys, accepts very reluctantly that his group is divided, and goes to lie down somewhere and wait for our return to make the pack complete once more. This is all very well, but when we come home his insistence on trouser-browsing to find out the news from abroad can get a little wearing, especially on a wet winter day when he’d be better off snuggled down in the cart shed with the blackbirds and we’d be better off indoors with a hot coffee.

In his second summer, the brown shades in his coat bleached to foxy reds and blond highlights. In winter its density enables him to sleep out in the open, which he evidently prefers to sleeping in a building or a dog bed, though he retreats there to shelter from the rain. Whether due to the influence of ewe’s-milk-replacer powder, or just being a naturally vigorous young creature, Sammy has outgrown both his Mum and Dad and become what our farming friends call “a strong dog” with seemingly boundless energy.

Both his ears, at first, flopped over. In time, one stood up like a huntaway’s, but the other never managed to match it. This clownish lopsided appearance has set the character of most of Sammy’s escapades. When he began to grow his adult teeth, the chewing started. Sammy has adopted many strange toys in his life so far and one of his favourites is a worn-out rubber horse feed skip that had endured some fifteen or twenty years of being snuffled, chewed, picked up and stamped on by various ponies. Having eventually developed a split down one side, it was replaced, whereupon Sammy took it over as his chewing toy. Unfortunately this also developed in him a firm conviction that rubber was a good thing to chew. It led to us losing “the electrics” once from the car towbar, twice from the horsebox towbar, once from the tipper wagon, and twice from the trailer lighting board; from the horsebox brake lines, only once, thank God, after which I think he must have reasoned that brake fluid tasted really nasty and perhaps rubber was not such a good thing after all. Still, by persistence he has gradually removed both handles and all the sloping sides from the feed skip, and it is now a twelve-inch pancake that he will fetch, and throw at you, and demand that you throw, for him to fetch endlessly and throw at you again.

However, it was and is Sammy’s deeply held belief that the world is a sad place. Winter is the worst time; it preys on his philosophical mind. If nothing is happening outside, he sits sighing in the rain at the top of the kitchen steps. Stopping occasionally to shiver and whine, he observes us all dimly through the frosted glass of the kitchen door and is thrown into transports of delight when we reach for our boots and bend to put them on. Occasionally, when he thinks we have all gone out, I have heard him wind up from a whine to a howl, as he used to when a puppy. Solitude is his bane; attention his only goal. He cannot believe that he and you exist in the same dimension unless he has a minimum of one foot on you, or around your leg, and to ask him to exercise self control in this is equivalent to asking him not to breathe. Yet, if you advance on him for the ultimate in attention, a good grooming, he turns into a hedgehog, rolling on his back and paddling his long white-socked paws at you to keep you at a distance. Brushing with the pin-brush (the only implement that can get through his six-inch pelt) is an activity that, he tells us, was invented by the Devil. In Spring, the fine fawn-coloured piles that I rake out of his moulting winter coat could fill several cushions.

He is a most handsome animal now, silkily feathered and in the prime of his strength; a vital young dog, sleek of muscle, deep through the heart, with tremendous speed and agility. He has a jaunty bounce to his stride as he trots round the yard flashing his white socks. Yet despite his vigour and power he is still deeply worried that his pack will vanish if he does not keep it under tense surveillance, and Graham’s frequent remarks to him that he is “a hero” have a distinctly ironic flavour. True, if he were arrogant and haughty, the term would fit his appearance well, but his tendency to stick out the tip of his tongue and cock those lopsided ears would give him away. In fact, he is determined to put a brave face on his knowledge of the infinite sadness of the world. He is convinced that no human being can have, or has ever had, enough Fun, and inevitably that turns our Philosopher into Chief Clown. Because he is (of course) the only dog who knows the sad facts of life, it is his Heroic Mission to add Fun to everybody’s existence who comes within sniffing distance.

For example: most people who have dogs, throw balls or sticks for them. It must be a rare family that has, as we have, a dog who throws balls or sticks for us. When you go to feed in a morning, Sammy is there with a toy of some sort; he cares nothing for his breakfast and will allow the blackbirds to steal most of it while he attends to giving you the first of the day’s doses of Fun. He stands up against the feed chest, plonking his big white-feathered feet on the lid until you give him a morning cuddle; then when you lift the lid and reach in for food he will be there, dropping the toy inside, licking your face with his huge tongue, then looking keenly into the depths among the sacks and scoops, waiting for you to retrieve the toy for him. Take it out and tell him to go away? it just doesn’t work – he’ll  be right there dropping that toy in again. When on occasion you just don’t have time to retrieve such a slimy item, his disappointment is palpable. Put down the lid and walk away leaving the toy within, and he’ll sit down and stare at the chest in disbelief, as though a law of Nature had been suspended. Come in from work and cross the yard from the car, bearing a box full of groceries, and Sammy will be at, around or in front of your feet, uttering muffled greetings through his Santa Claus playball; and as you start down the kitchen steps he will throw the ball merrily to coincide with your descent. He can’t believe your curses are not friendly, and he doesn’t accept your refusal to throw it back; he will sit there looking intelligently down the steps at it until you give in and throw it back up to him. You see, he KNOWS you need to do it. He only has to wait till your Fun level drops to the point at which it needs a top-up. The game ends when you throw the ball far enough that by the time he’s retrieved it, you have mastered your hysterics and shut yourself indoors.

You may think that this comedy is all due to us being a load of softies: that the whole family is daft to humour a fool of a dog, and spoil him rotten. Not so. Let a stranger appear on the yard and Sammy will be there, proving his worth in his originally intended role of guard dog. There is not a shred of aggression in this. He is genuinely interested in the unusual and will take considerable pains to investigate it, and therein lies the uncertainty for newcomers. I have seen three big delivery-men sit doubtfully in their wagon cab, staring out at the red-blond dog who waved his tail at them and stared right back. His perfect white teeth were bared in a cheerful grin and his sheepdog-keen amber eyes gleamed with what I knew to be a desire to share Fun. They just didn’t dare to put it to the test.

He is in charge of the yard. He’s probably the only dog in the world who does it by teaching the poor sad humans how to play. Bringing with him the immensely long rope on which he is tethered while we’re away, he will bounce and sniff and dance around the stranger. Uttering muffled wuffs through a mouthful of whatever toy he finds within reach, he almost always trips up the intruder in the friendliest fashion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses call him and his rope “The Reaper”. If I’m indoors, it isn’t Sammy’s bark that warns me of visitors; no, they announce themselves, with cries of, “Gerroff, dog! Giddoot, man!”

Sammy has no need to bark at strangers. He trains them instead to do what he requires. He is an excellent teacher, too; roofers, plumbers, children and postmen are usually trained in less than half a day to throw whatever toy he presents to them. Electricians and builders, so far, have been slower to respond. Busier? Or less intelligent?

Sammy’s out there now, panting in the summer sunshine, watching Graham move building materials around the yard; two red haired, fit animals filling the place with an atmosphere of health and vigour. Let him into the kitchen and he immediately occupies Graham’s bentwood chair, sitting up very straight and quivering with pride at being allowed to fill the Pack Leader’s place. Take him round the fields and he is a streak of lithe muscle, golden-red against the green grass, his white socks flying; he can gallop and leap and turn with dizzying speed and yet drop into statuesque stillness when told “Down” in the face of sheep. Give him company, let him be in on the act, and he is happy.

His one remaining ambition is to master the third dimension: the air. The red dog’s deepest wish is to be a Red Arrow, to rival the swooping swallows. April to September is spent in total concentration, attempting to match the grace and speed of the birds who dive-bomb him in defence of their family’s air space. It doesn’t matter that in this he singularly fails, and makes a complete fool of himself, because during those summer months our loveable philosopher, teacher and clown is honestly too busy to remember that the Life of Man is Sorrow.


Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books


Unknown said...

This is a lovely piece, very nicely written, and enjoyable to read!

Carol Warham said...

That is beautiful Sue. He is a sad loss for you.

Richard Abbott said...

Great stuff, Sue!
Also I must apologise for being unable, in the end, to get to Brough Castle on August 31st. The day just did not work out as expected. I hope the event went well

Jackie Sayle said...

Sue - This is the most wonderful tribute to Sammy. I laughed about the circumstances of his conception, his idea that throwing a ball at you while you were descending steps with a box in your arms, and the way he dealt with visitors. At the same time, there were tears in my eyes because I know he is gone.