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Shooting the Dogs

It is tough country out beyond Gundagai; not many trees, low hills and thin grass. In summer the place is all glare and dust. In winter the frost can be as thick as snow. The merino sheep here grow fine wool in their hunger –19 microns or less. After the sweat of the shearing sheds, the wool eventually makes it to the mills of Milan where its turned into “100+” suits. Managing these sheep are steady men and their dogs.

The dogs live on chains in the yard. When visitors come up the drive they set off a right racket. There are only ever 4 or 5 as the farmer needs no more. They are treated with a kindly familiarity. Each dog known by name: Georgie, Alice, Badge, Blackie, Screwie (short for Screwloose). There is also Jess, the farmer’s first dog. At almost 18 she can barely walk and can be a mean bitch. The farmer has a love for her and she alone of all the dogs knows what lies beyond the farmhouse door. She was a great worker in her time and most of the dogs are related to her in some way.

The great passion of the dogs, aside from dinner, is working the sheep. It only happens every 3 or 4 days and that is their time. They become what they were born for when they are unclipped from the chains. The farmer shouts out the odd command: “get back”, “go-round”, “behind” or “speak up”. The last request is met with a staccato of barks that will move even the dullest sheep in the yards. For long stretches they work without commands as they seem to be able to look towards the farmer and guess his desire. Generally there is one dog, but only one, that knows right from left. The farmer can shout, “left Alice” and she will move to that side of the mob. Folks from the city don’t notice but the farmer smiles inwardly at how clever she is.

Every couple of years the farmer needs a new dog to replace one that is getting old or is injured. He will take his top bitch and mate her with a neighbour’s dog he knows is a good worker. Out will come five or six brown balls of fur. The bitch will suckle them protectively. The farmer will watch them as they grow. None are named. In due course they earn their own chain. They strain to be taken out with the other dogs to work the sheep. The farmer is careful here because a new dog can cause a mob to split or worse. He introduces them slowly and watches. It is hard to guess his thoughts at this point.

Over time each of the dogs learns the basics but some learn quicker and some seem to know what is required before the others. The farmer watches. Is that dog a little lame? Does that dog bite too hard when asked to “nip”? Does that dog move left with Alice when I call? He watches. And he begins to judge.

The first one isn’t the hardest. There is always one dog that wasn’t meant for the farm. It will be late in the day. The farmer will walk up to the dogs and release just the one dog from its chain. This is rare and the free dog is dizzy with the treat. The farmer will gently rough her round the ears. He will look at her with a terrible kindness and may reach into his pocket for a bit of dried food. They will walk out. She is young and won’t walk close like the older dogs know. For the moment the farmer doesn’t mind. His thoughts are elsewhere. He carries the old sawn-off 22 (its not strictly a legal gun but is very convenient). They will walk for a little while and then perhaps a little while longer. The farmer says to himself he wants to be out beyond where the other dogs can hear. He gains a little more time in the presence of this unnamed dog. He calls her to him and all-trust she runs up and delights in his special attention. The rest is quick. A single shot.

The hardest dogs are the last. These are the ones who could almost make it. They are almost named (the farmer has the inkling of a name in his head). He walks even longer with these ones. He will drink an extra beer in the evening after he returns. At the end there will be just one, good dog from this litter and he or she will be named.

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It makes the tough decisions of the city look pretty easy.

Tags

dogs, gundagai, sheepfarming

Comments

  • Wendy  Slee
    Wendy Sleealmost 7 years ago

    I come from a farm, and have learned there is no room for feelings where animals are concerned. At times you have to be “heartless”.
    It breaks me. I cannot bear what gets done, the things I see and hear.
    Yet I am sure that if the animals are nurtured in the life they have, that those quick fleeting seconds of death are honorable and unrecognized for what they are. It is we humans who carry the scars of each and every death.
    This is a horrifying yet true story….and I recognize the truth in the farmers actions….what a hard and horrid task….one that I take my hat off to, as I could never do this, no matter what.
    (I am the one hiding under the bed with my fingers in my ears, crying, so I cannot hear the gun…..)

  • jetsta42
    jetsta42almost 7 years ago

    oh god Martin, you’ve nearly got me sobbing violently here at work…i’d love to say ‘how cruel and awful’ but i know damn well that it is also honest and that people who buy their little kids toy dogs or cute puppies are usually committing far worse…especially when they realize the dog has grown too big or the ‘toy’ can’t come along on holidays…these dogs have names too…

  • Cathie Tranent
    Cathie Tranentalmost 7 years ago

    I could never do this, but neither could I live with the twists and turns of mother nature’s warped sense of humour. It’s a fact of life (and death) on a farm, you need to earn your keep.

    A farmer friend of ours allowed his children a pet pig only after they acknowledged that it would ultimately become bacon. Harsh but fair.

  • Rose Moxon
    Rose Moxonalmost 7 years ago

    my kids will take the dogs!!! this is wonderful martin.

  • Pilgrim
    Pilgrimalmost 7 years ago

    People will ask why these farmers don’t give the dogs away to people in the city. This would be far worse. The dogs are meant to run large distances and being in the suburbs with the odd walk around the block would kill them slowly. We all know people who have working dogs – when they really should have a Pekingese or Cavalier Spaniel.

    As for keeping them. The farmers simply can’t afford non-productive dogs. It cost $3-500 a year to feed a working dog and there is not the luxury of keeping more than are needed.

  • Paul Louis Villani
    Paul Louis Vil...almost 7 years ago

    For a complete city slicker I’m drawn to the cruelty but the realist inside me understands the need. This is quite a piece Martin. Thank you for sharing.

  • jetsta42
    jetsta42almost 7 years ago

    Martin, I know exactly what you mean…I had a border collie x Kelpie a few years back, Tess, she was my absolute everything and I always felt so guilty for not having a wide open farm for her to run around on…I’d take her for runs, throw balls until she was utterly exhausted and my guilt somewhat washed away for another night. They are the best dogs in the world and so loyal (but that’s another story). But yes, if i get a dog again and am restrained to city living, I will be forced to reconsider my breed choices…

  • Damian
    Damianalmost 7 years ago

    Nicely done Martin, I thought it captured the feel of it. I grew up on a farm, so see nothing but the truth of things here. Farm living is based on life and death, although the killing is always hard at first.

  • Suzanne German
    Suzanne Germanalmost 7 years ago

    Martin that’s fantastic! what a read…and how educational…so many wouldn’t know about the lives of these sheep dogs and their farmers. Felt so connected to these dogs….you really put so much life in to this piece….Love it!

  • Gisele Bedard
    Gisele Bedardalmost 7 years ago

    I just put my old dog to sleep with the vet.gentle touch ,I thought I was ok until I read your wonderful writing .It’s just been 4 days,thanks to you I realise I still have to cry a little….xxx…Gigi

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