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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ted and Spike - Canine Capers

We had two memorable cattledogs, Ted and Spike. Dad acquired Ted from Ted Whitney, hence the name. We tended to name animals after who we got them from, so the grey mare we got from Rusty Toohey was called Rusty, even though she was as grey in colour as the ash in our stove. I don’t know where Spike came from as there was no-one in the district called Spike as far as I knew, but Spike he was.

I don’t have pictures of either of these dogs handy, which is a pity, as they were quite different in appearance and breeding, but I had this bright idea of searching Google Images for dogs that looked like them so you could get an idea. Oddly enough, I found not one picture that you might say bore much resemblance to Ted, but quite a few that looked a bit like Spike. This one for example:

Spike [lookalike]

The caption for this picture was:

Clever, independent, energetic and hardy, these are all traits essential to a driver of headstrong cattle. This dog was bred to be active and tireless, and must have a job to do. Given challenging mental and hard physical exercise daily, it is extremely responsive and obedient of dogs.

Now here’s a very strange thing. That description is everything Spike was NOT, even though the picture is a tolerable likeness, but those words would have fitted Ted to a T. Spike we always regarded as a cross between a cattle and a sheep dog, with no idea which he was supposed to be. A mongrel, in other words, and useless most of the time. Ted looked more like he had some border collie in him than any of the hundreds of images I saw in Google, but he was just brilliant as a working cattledog. The best. He looked a bit like this but leaner and smaller:

Ted [lookalike]

Now I’m starting to think the truth is that Ted was in fact the mongrel, great at his task, while Spike was the purebred, but sadly bereft of real cattledog talent or instincts. As you can see, I’m far from being an expert in cattledog breeds – I just make pronouncements on such matters based on instinct, prejudice and irrationality – the way most people do. [There – I’ve just done it again….]

Honestly, I don’t know why we ever got Spike, but maybe it was because Ted was halfway through his working life and Dad figured he could do with some help. Ted did what he could to help train Spike, but he turned out to be a slow learner as far as cattle were concerned. For example, Ted knew that when he nipped a cow’s back fetlock joint to get the cow to move, he had to duck down low straight away so a retaliatory kick from the cow would pass harmlessly over his head.

Spike quickly picked up the nipping bit but failed to understand the importance of ducking down. He would bite, then stop with his head up, eyes half shut, waiting for a kick in the teeth, and that happened more often than not. As a result he got kicked so often that he decided to down tools altogether and resign from active duty. Life in the front line was not for him. Or anywhere behind a cow.

Ted really didn’t care about this, as he was far better rounding up the cows without Spike’s assistance than with him getting in the way. Spike just went and snoozed and Dad was too busy to razz him up, so he got away with it.

Then, things changed. Spike was a good deal younger than Ted, but started to get much bigger and stronger. Their breeding was different, as I said, and Ted was slighter of build and not so muscled up. More serious for Ted, Spike got bored. Ted was of course favoured by Dad because he was the only dog doing any work, so Spike got jealous as well. One day he decided that Ted had been kingpin long enough, and there was an almighty fight between them that Spike won convincingly. He was new top dog. And still as useless as a hip pocket in a singlet.

Having reached the pinnacle of dogdom, Spike set about cementing his position. Spike may have been mixed up psychologically, but he wasn’t stupid. He invented a new game that Ted had to play, or face the certainty of a beating. Spike would find a good sized piece of timber about a metre long and as thick as a baseball bat, and would pick it up and sling it across his forequarters, balanced on his shoulders with commendable skill. Ted would be required to attempt to wrest it away, poor old sod. He’d get back home after a hard day at the office rounding up cows, to find Spike waiting for him with the heavy stick across his shoulders. There was no way he could refuse to play, and Spike kept him at it for ages, twisting and turning and nipping Ted if he actually got in close enough to grab the stick.

If Spike hadn’t found a good sized piece of timber for this purpose – and he never used the same one twice – he would go looking for a nice shaped fortnight-old dry cowpat, pull it up and hold it like a Frisbee in his mouth. Given that there were sixty cows producing such cowpats at the rate of about ten a day, there was never any shortage of nicely baked cow dung for the purpose. So poor Ted had to try to get the cowpat from Spike, a game he enjoyed with as much relish as the one with the stick. It must have driven him nearly mental having to do this, and if anyone human interfered, Spike just beat Ted up, waited till they went away and the game resumed, only for twice as long.

Frankly, the best thing that Dad could have done at that stage was to take Spike round the back of the shed and shoot him, but one day, Spike mysteriously disappeared. This was very odd, as Spike wasn’t the straying type, and someone would have had to have come into our place to take him, which, if they could ever have seen him in action, would have been in lala land to do. Nor would Spike willingly go with anyone, I wouldn’t have thought, as he was on to way too much of a good thing chez nous. But he did look like a good type of blue cattledog, pedigreed even. Maybe some idiot who'd blundered all the way in to our house on the property took him on a whim. Who knows?

I even suspected that Dad had taken the Final Solution option for Spike, just as he would have for any other beastie on the property that wasn’t pulling its weight. That’s what happens on farms. If an animal exists there, it’s for a reason. If it fails to make the grade, it’s usually for the chop, one way or the other. But for some reason, Dad had a bit of a soft spot for Spike. I have no idea why.

Ted’s life suddenly became peaceful, and it must have been a huge relief for him not to have to play the stick or the cowpat game. Ted followed faithfully on the heels of Dad, wherever on the farm he went, whether on horseback or on foot. When Dad walked along the cow trails rather than riding, Ted would be just half a step behind whichever of Dad’s legs was rearmost, if you get the picture. On a warm sunny morning, he would amble along at a pace perfectly suited to Dad’s, the rhythm almost hypnotic for Ted. 

Dad had a wicked sense of humour, and when he noticed Ted in this half-dozing state just moseying along a few inches behind him, Dad would suddenly stop dead, just as if he were in a movie and they’d freeze-framed him, but not everything else in the scene. Especially poor old Ted.

Blissfully unaware what was coming, Ted would cannon into dad’s ‘back’ leg, and if you don’t think a dog’s face can show embarrassment, then you have never seen Ted’s face when he did that. Dad would turn round and stare at him as if appalled by Ted’s indiscretion. ‘O lord and master, forgive your humble servant for doing such a terrible thing as imposing upon your person in this impertinent and unmindful manner’ said Ted’s face, though I’m not sure he would have used those words. More likely, ‘Oh bloody hell! What have I done?’ I swear he would have been blushing furiously if his head wasn’t covered in black and blue fur. 

Then dad would laugh at him and you could see that Ted finally realised he'd been had, because, just as his face could show embarrassment, he could also grin when the penny dropped, and take the joke like a man. Well, dog. I know this because I was walking 10 yards behind them once when Dad did this to him, and it was the funniest thing I'd seen since a chook got bogged in Mum's failed bread-making dough that she'd buried in the garden - but that's another story. Thereafter if Dad tried to catch Ted out in the same way for weeks afterward, he never could, but the time inevitably came when, in a moment of doggy torpor, Dad got him again.

But it was all not to last. One morning, just as milking was finished, who should come limping footsore and weary up to the dairy but Spike. It must have been eight or ten weeks since he had disappeared. Dad called him by name and Spike actually leapt into his arms. Spike was so pleased to be home that when Ted rounded up the cattle after milking, Spike actually helped him drive them down the hill and out to the paddock, good as gold. It was like a miracle.

Sadly, it wasn’t. After Spike was reassured that he was home and had recovered from whatever long journey he’d undertaken to get back, he resumed his slothful ways and forced Ted back into the stick or cowpat game. He was more jumpy – nervous – as well. One day I pointed my capgun at him from about three metres back and pressed the trigger. There was a cap in the gun and it cracked like a pistol. Spike flew for me, had my hand in his jaws in a flash and I dropped the capgun mighty quickly. I had teethmarks on my hand and wrist but I didn’t say anything about it to anyone because I didn’t blame Spike. Someone had obviously taken at least one potshot at him with a rifle in his travels.

I did get my revenge for the bite occasionally, later on, by looking very serious and pointing my finger at him, which would always make him crouch down and snarl viciously at me for as long as I kept the finger pointed towards him. I made sure I wasn’t too close to him though, and certainly didn’t make any pistol-cracking noises.

After returning, he was also terrified of thunder and would be a quivering mess as a storm approached, and sneak up under my bed on the verandah. He’d shake and whimper till the storm was over, and then crawl out and slink away with a somewhat sheepish look on his face. I think it was related to the sound of rifles and he must have had some sort of close call with one.

My theory was that he was somehow stolen by somebody who thought he might have been pedigreed, had tried to work him or kept him locked up and mistreated him, and maybe even had then tried to shoot him, but Spike got away. There was never any evidence that he’d been hit by a bullet, unless it was maybe ratshot or shotgun pellets from a long way away and they hadn’t penetrated his skin. I don’t know. Just another of my wild guesses – take it or leave it. That will be a mystery that will never be solved.

Ted and Spike lived on in a state of Cold War, though with occasional flarings up, until I went to Teacher’s College. I know Ted passed on in my first year in Brisbane, but with the sale of the farm when I was away from home, I never saw Spike again and I don’t know his fate. Maybe a bigger dog with a cowpat in his jaws forced Spike into eternal games of Try Taking This. It would have been poetic justice, I guess, though I wouldn’t have wished it on him.

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