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Putting Shep Down

Essay by Clint Driscoll

Rural Life – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

When I first moved to Buena Vista, one of my neighbors was a 12-year-old Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix with the unoriginal but practical name of Shep. His owners, retired ranchers, had sold their property near Nathrop and settled in town, raising vegetables and a lawn instead of beef. Shep had been a working animal, earning his living on the ranch moving cattle and guarding against bears, coyotes, deer, and other, smaller critters. I don’t think he ever really got used to town life.

Shep knew all the whistles and hand signals that were part of his herding trade. My neighbor showed me a few and I enjoyed watching the dog respond to them. He had appropriated the neighborhood as his working territory and made daily rounds, leaving scent spots in all the yards and collecting dog biscuit tribute from all the soft touches on the block.

Since there were no cattle to move, he herded other dogs, cats, and motor vehicles. Cars and pickups were escorted down the street with barks and nips on the bumper and tires. Animals were nudged along with the same barks and pushes of his muzzle until they were positioned where Shep thought they should be. Once satisfied, Shep would trot home, lie down on the front lawn, and survey his spread.

About a year ago, a lump began to grow on Shep’s right front shin. The vet diagnosed bone cancer, probably caused by a long-ago kick from a horse or heifer. He said treatment would require removal of the leg. By then Shep was almost fourteen. His owner felt he was too old to adapt to such a radical change and elected not to have the surgery done. Shep didn’t seem too bothered by the lump and continued his daily routines.

Over time, of course, the lump got bigger and Shep began favoring the leg, bouncing around on the other three with his tailless rump bobbing in the air. He hadn’t slowed down too much and kept up his herding duties all through June and July.

But in August the heat bothered Shep, and It was obvious his pain was constant. His eyes became bloodshot and his long, shaggy fur lost its luster. Late one afternoon my neighbor came over and told me Shep had quit eating. She said she thought it was time to put him down and asked if I would help her.

Being a city boy, I thought she meant she wanted me to help her shoot him; she being a tough mountain rancher and all. She must have seen something in my face, because she smiled and said she lust wanted me to drive her and Shep to the vet the next day.

Shep’s last truck ride went as well as could be expected. My neighbor was red-eyed and her voice was shaky. The vet was gentle as he gave the shot and we all stroked Shep until his heart quit beating. He was buried among some cottonwoods near a fine hay meadow where he used to chase deer away from the stacked bales.

As I drove home after burying him, it occurred to me that Shep’s life mirrored the changes taking place up here. He’d been raised and earned his keep on a working ranch. He was tough as an old piece of rawhide, adept at his skills, and had been an integral part of the working life of the valley. Yet, in the end he was buried by new residents whose way of earning a living had nothing to do with the vagaries of weather or the contrariness of cattle.

In his old age, Shep had adapted as best he could to his in-town living conditions while staying loyal to his nature. He was friendly to new arrivals without being obsequious, and he gained our respect and affection as we learned the values he was raised with.

I hope folks with experiences and temperaments like Shep’s remain in Central Colorado as times continue to change. They’re much of what make this valley worth living in.

Clint Driscoll lives and writes in Buena Vista.