A good herding dog is a shepherd’s joy: Molly remembered

This is only my second eulogy in over a decade of blogging, thank goodness. Several years ago I wrote about my country veterinarian father. Doc Peterson was scary smart, hard-working, loyal, committed to safeguarding the livestock under his care, and definitely not the urban sort. Our first and only border collie, Molly, could be described in much the same terms. Today, alas, it is her turn in the spotlight.


Every border collie worth her salt exists to herd, and Molly was no exception. She never got the memo telling her Soay sheep “lack the flocking instinct of most sheep and attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in the group scattering.” (Wild Fibres and numerous other sites relying on this opinion). Based on our 13+ years with Molly and with over 700 Soay sheep for her to herd in that time, we can emphatically confirm Soay sheep can be herded and it is a joy to watch the interaction between a focused and trained herding dog and her flock.

Are Soay sheep easy herders? Not at all. They are shy, often downright skittish, and it takes a “soft” herding touch very distinct from the more aggressive style appropriate for cattle and big hulking sheep breeds like Suffolks. Steve is still embarrassed to have entered Molly as a very young dog, prematurely, in a herding competition using cattle. The poor dear was immediately disqualified and slunk from the arena when those big oafs wouldn’t budge and in frustration her instincts kicked in and she bit them in the butt, and not using the approved biting technique, either.

Fortunately this mishap did not permanently scar Molly, for she contentedly directed our sheep year after year around our pastures, often contributing to the ease of chores by successfully transferring them from one area to another or into their shelters at night. She and Steve happily went through a lot of training with both our small Soay sheep and also larger sheep for variety. She became quite good at it, despite the undeserved bad reputation of Soay as unmanageable.

Over the years, we became so used to Molly herding the sheep and the chickens and almost anything with a pulse, that we took for granted her ability to do so. We seldom gave a thought to how hard-wired and instinct-driven is the phenomenon of herding. And then one day last year we got a note from a Norwegian archaeologist who specializes in human-animal relationships in ancient societies, with a focus on the Bronze Age. (NB: For those of you who have forgotten your Soay history, it is generally accepted that Soay are the oldest breed of sheep in the world, dating back to the Bronze Age). Not only was Dr. Kristin Armstrong Oma studying bronze age sheep, she had come across a petroglyph – a rock carving- that is interpreted as an ancient herding scene complete with shepherd and herding dog; she wanted permission to use a specific photograph from our website in the book she was working on.

Now I ask you, what could be more fun for a couple of retired city people running a heritage sheep enterprise than to be linked directly with the Bronze Age from whence cameth our sheep? We submit these mirror image pictures tell it all about the ability of a herding dog to manage “unflockable” ancient sheep.

Herding sheep 2007, Saltmarsh Ranch, Oregon, USA

Herding sheep 3000-1200 BC, southwestern Norway


Big dogs do not intimidate a smaller but alpha border collie

As with herding, a border collie’s off-work relationships with the other animals on the farm vary from dog to dog. We don’t know whether working border collies typically are ultra-friendly with the other animals on their farms, but for Molly, the big dogs were to be tolerated and the cats even less so. More on her relationships with humans later.

Over the years, Molly survived the indignity of sharing the farm with nine huge livestock guardian dogs by letting each LGD puppy know from the get-go who was boss. And then she somehow maintained the same Alpha Dog approach with the big guys as they grew to a hundred pounds and more. Even as she declined and could no longer see or hear them, she could bring any of them up short, including 160-pound Alfie, when they occasionally got fresh with her. She would grab them by the scruff of their necks and upend them, an amazing sight.

But she gave herself away when her feigned disinterest was overtaken by her desire for a good scuffle just to remind the big dogs she was still in charge, or when she wanted the sheer pleasure of a good romp around the fields and needed a sidekick.

If our dogs at least interested Molly, either as tools for her to demonstrate her primacy or as occasional recreational companions, the cats only rarely brought anything but complete disregard. It was only when she sensed a cat might get more chin-scratching, or when one appeared in an unusual place, that Molly gave it even cursory attention.

Pay no attention to the cat despite our shared phenotype as self-colored darks with white spotting

Hmm, is it worth chasing that cat? Probably not, but interesting new hidey-hole


Exhibit A, cute puppy gallery

Even disciplined, driven, hard-working border collies begin life as adorable puppies. Enough said.

Day 2: first leash lesson

Resting after the stress of learning about that darned leash

Downward dog, anyone?

Day 3: now both the puppy and the trainer need a nap (no comments about the couch, please)


Received wisdom tells us a dog can have only one primary human and if that is so, there is no question Molly was Steve’s dog. But before I put up the gushy pictures of Man and His Dog, allow me to submit an alternative theory: both humans and dogs have the capacity to love more broadly. Because I am the resident photographer, I have little tangible evidence to support my theory, but my heart and soul are filled with the largely undocumented proof:

Molly has faith her smaller size will not be held against her by her lady boss when it is time for treats

Posing for the annual report of the Oregon Cultural Trust on sales of their special Oregon license plates

Happy shepherd, happy companion

Of course no report of the joys of owning a border collie would be complete without the iconic pictures of the Principal Shepherd and His Dog. In the end, it’s the best advertisement I know of for owning one of these sometimes-neurotic, always-faithful creatures.

As I was rummaging through my collection of Molly-related pictures, I came across our 2005 Christmas card. It’s a fitting end to this remembrance of Saltmarsh Molly (June 27, 2005 – December 21, 2018). She lived a long and fulfilled life and left for the greener pastures in the sky more gently than we could ever have imagined.

Saltmarsh Molly

For now …

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