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Stories from the valley

The Dog Days of Summer

Contributed by Dan Macon

According to Wikipedia (which is always accurate, right?!), the expression “dog days” dates back at least to Roman times. The dog days of summer are the hot days of mid-summer – which happen to coincide with the rising, at sunrise, of the star Sirius, said to be Orion’s dog. On our foothill sheep operation, the dog days mark a stretch of the year when we pay close attention to the needs of our working dogs (who, incidentally, also arise with the sun).

Dog Days 1

Every working Border collie that I’ve had has had unique physical and mental characteristics. Mo and Ernie, the two dogs that I rely on at the moment, are half-brothers – but their similarities end with their related pedigrees. Mo, the older of the two, is the more cerebral dog. He’s incredibly thoughtful when he’s working – he knows where he needs to be before I (or the sheep) know it. Fine-boned and graceful, he also gets hot easily and will take a break in the midst of a job to cool off. While he’s rough coated (long haired), he sheds stickers easily and doesn’t have much of an undercoat. Ernie, on the other hand, is the more courageous of the two (in most situations). He’ll generally take on an aggressive ram or mother cow. He also works faster and closer to the livestock – which means he’s sometimes out of position. Also rough coated, Ernie has a thick undercoat, which seems to attract stickers from miles around! And I have to make Ernie quit – even when he’s overheated. As I begin training my newest dog, Mae, I’m excited to learn her strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the older dogs, Mae is smooth-coated – she’s short haired and sleek. She’s learning the joys of swimming in the irrigation canals and stock ponds near the house, so I’m sure she’ll figure out how to stay cool while working.

During the summer months, we generally try to work or move the sheep in the early morning or late evening to avoid the midday heat. Cooler temperatures are easier on sheep and shepherds alike – and on the dogs. There are times, however, when our work extends into the hot part of the day. At all times, we make sure we have water available for the dogs – to drink, and more importantly, to cool off in. And Ernie gets a summer haircut, which results in fewer stickers and much cooler dog. I know when Mo is too hot – he simply disappears for a brief time and then comes back dripping water. Conversely, Ernie won’t admit to being hot – I have to make him stop working to get a drink. And once the job is completed, we all take a break in the shade and have a drink of water.

Dog Days 2

Every August, there comes a morning that smells and feels like autumn. The anticipation of that harbinger of cooler weather keeps me (and my dogs, I’ll bet) going during these dog days of mid-July!