Bess’s Tail (Bridport Times, January 2020)

We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.

Written by Leila Simon

Just thirteen years ago this month, Ellen returned from Puddletown veterinary surgery with a roly-poly, black, tan and white collie called Scamp. Probably between 2 and 4 years old, Scamp was, we hoped, to be our new sheepdog. We’d spent two months without one, struggling to gather and move the sheep alone. Perhaps more difficult than that, we’d had no loving doggy presence in the house or companionship out and about. For years we had been looked after by a golden retriever who thought we kept the farm especially for her to play in, and then we got Moss as a puppy who we trained up as a sheepdog ourselves. She had died suddenly at 8 years old from an undiagnosed liver cancer that haemorrhaged. She had been asking for gates to be opened rather than jumping them, however she had seemed fine and was working well – just the evening before, she had moved the cattle very neatly from below the car park at Cogden to the field next door. The day she died had been spent apparently enjoying herself as a passenger in the tractor cab but when she got out she clearly felt bad, and we were on the phone to the vet when she died curled up in her basket. We had mourned the loss of a companion and a working partner and felt we couldn’t wait for a puppy to grow and, as we couldn’t afford a trained adult dog, we tried out a rescue dog.

We looked at this new dog, not completely convinced she was 100% collie. Maybe the rescue home had got it wrong? She looked more like a labrador or German shepherd-cross, with her broad shoulders and plump belly and no classic white on the tip of her tail, so important for spotting her in the dark. First, though, she needed a new name. No self-respecting sheepdog would answer to the name of Scamp! Fly, Jill, Gyp, Dot, Flo, Meg… traditional collie names are short and easy to shout across a field. Riff had been the sheepdog of my babyhood, belonging to my grandmother, and Moss the dog of my childhood. We settled on Bess.

Bess had been in kennels for 4 months, having come from Ireland. That’s all we knew about her past. We started her slowly, taking her for walks and introducing her to the various animals of the farm. After dieting and exercise, she began to slim down and, incredibly enough, a white tip did begin to appear on the end of her tail. We got an explanation for this after a boring day when she’d done less than usual. Never before, and never since, have I seen a dog chase its own tail, but Bess spent the better part of the evening doing so – and catching it! With more to fill her mind and keep her body active when she was with us, she had stopped this exciting self-harm. After a short while she looked like a proper sheep dog and had the basic fitness and obedience needed for a farm dog.

Now we wanted her to prove that she could work with the sheep and cattle. Keeping with her, we started using her to ‘walk up’ behind the sheep. They responded just as they should, by moving forward and away from her. She, however, showed no sign of enjoying this. Never mind, we said to ourselves, it will take time to teach her.

It took five months to realise that Bess was never going to be a sheepdog. We had invited John Randall to visit, a neighbouring farmer who had more knowledge of sheepdogs in his little finger than we shared through the whole family. He watched her with the sheep and thought she might have potential eventhough she lacked the focused, instinctive behaviour of a good sheepdog. We worked as he suggested but there was no joy in it for her or for us and she never learned. Mostly unperturbed by the sheep, she was scared silly by the cows. She did at least learn to tolerate the horses, which was handy, as we often check on our animals from horseback.

If there is one thing Bess did do well though it was to fill the void that had been left when Moss died. We’d spent months expecting to trip over a dog lying in front of the stove, looking for one to take walking when we went out or to tidy up spilt milk on the floor, and it felt proper to have this again. What she did love was finding and following scent; she loved it even more if she had an excuse to dig a hole to follow it. She was shaped and coloured like a collie but at heart she was a terrier. By the time we were sadly certain of this, she was too ingrained in our lives to think of giving her up to a new home. She was happy and settled with us, and we loved her. She had arrived as a wayward adolescent with an unhappy back-story and now she was a happy adult. Luckily, she proved her worth as a farm dog by finding and taking rats. At about that time a neighbouring farmer had a young collie needing a new home. One-and-a-half years old, she came from a working family and had already been doing the basics with the sheep. So, Toffee joined the farm team and there we were, a two-dog household: one for companionship and one an effective worker. And that is how we stayed until three years ago when the now-ageing Toffee started getting very arthritic and had to be forcibly slowed down. We then bought Sally, Toffee’s great-niece, from the same neighbour, in the hope that she too would be as good and faithful a friend and servant. We became a three-dog family.

Sally has learned the basics and is functioning reasonably well, though her outrun is not the best. However, she’s still young and still learning. She did not start working as soon as she should have because the threat of retirement had caused a magical short-term cure of Toffee’s arthritis!

A year ago this month our beautiful Bess died. The death of a friend is never easy but this time the loss wasn’t such a shock. At 14 years old (at least) she’d been slowing down for a while and we knew it was likely to happen. We buried her in our back garden, where she liked to sit, and readjusted to being a two-dog household again.

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