Abbie’s Death Leaves a Hole in Our Hearts

Yesterday we put down our beloved Abbie. It has left a big hole in our hearts!!

Of course, if you are part of the human race, you have already flinched, because you have the pain stored in every cell of your body. And, if you are among those who share with us a special fondness for working Border Collies, you know even more of the bitter-sweet flavor of this kind of experience.

Each dog is a miracle of God’s grace. Yet each dog is a unique version of that miracle.

Abbie certainly was unique. I had asked Gordon Watt, when he was shepherding in Norfolk, England, to be on the lookout for a one-year-old bitch with good trial potential. These were the days of long distance phone communication. He soon said he was helping train two bitches for a woman, and she agreed to sell Abbie, since she favored her other one. Gordon told me Abbie had the whole package and was one of the quickest learners he had ever worked with—if not the quickest. He had put very few hours in on her and she needed absolutely no pressure.

Connie and I picked up Abbie from Gordon when we were in Wales for the 2008 World Trial. Gordon was there with his sidekick, Mark Day, who had also worked Abbie on the hills; and Gordon put Abbie through her paces—everything but shedding (separating sheep from sheep). She showed everything I had learned to look for in a fine working dog.

We then took Abbie with us to the World Trial for a time, but soon discovered that she wanted to be everyone’s dog. She sidled up to folks on the walkways and in the bleachers, and everywhere—so much so that we soon realized that if we were going to focus on the competitions and not on everyone’s fondness for Abbie, we were going to have to leave.

During our time at the World Trial we stayed with the local Vicar, Roger Hughes and his wife, Jen. Roger even arranged with Meirion Owen to let us use one of his nearby fields, with a packet of sheep, to work with Abbie. Meirion was the head of the organizing committee for that 2008 World Trial, and had one of the amazing top runs, with just a small glitch at the pen putting him out of the very top score. It was especially gracious of him to allow us to use that field and those sheep. Abbie’s time working there was a thing of beauty, in the tall South Wales grass, with the ancient church and vicarage in the background.

Abbie practicing in Meirion Owen's field, with the Llangathen church in the background. Photo by John.

Abbie practicing in Meirion Owen’s field, with the Llangathen church in the background. Photo by John.


From Llandeilo, Wales, we toured the ancient standing stones of Avebury, and then on to a farm B & B in Oxfordshire, England. Abbie popped up, like a garden troll, in every photo of every place we visited—even being invited into the pubs. But one of the most touching episodes came when we made acquaintance with an elderly man—an inventor—whose beloved horse had recently died. The death of that horse hit him so hard that his wife wisely decided that what he needed was a road trip to visit old friends. He was finding that trip medicinal; however he too had a big hole in his heart. Abbie sensed it and leaned against him for the longest time, and gave him a very special outpouring of loving kindness. He thanked Abbie, and he thanked us.

Back home in the USA I soon learned how special Abbie was on the competition field. In England, Gordon had her in just a couple nursery trials. And Gordon’s policy is to put no pressure on dogs in nursery—just to have them move right, and forget about getting through the gates. I suppose that, in my excitement of running her, I moved her up too quickly. But I only had her in a couple of pro-novice runs, just to get the feel of her. So, when Abbie was two years old I put her in her first open run. It happened to be one of the most challenging open runs there is in this country, I think: the “720 yard” run on the back side of the Marvin McLeish farm in Caledonia/Portage, Wisconsin. That 720 yard measurement is as the crow flies, I believe, and it is much more difficult than you might think, going over several hills along the way, crossing a dike, and up a final hill to pick up the sheep. I probably wouldn’t have tried Abbie out on that, but Gordon said that when she was even younger he sent her on a 600 yard gather and she did it perfectly—no sweat.

Abbie in action. "I can't wait to dominate!" Photo by John

Abbie in action. “I can’t wait to dominate!” Photo by John

Many dogs never made it to their sheep on that outrun. But when I sent Abbie, she flew and flew and flew. Now, the sheep were set out in the shade of some big trees, behind which was the set out pen and sheep. I watched Abbie, and she disappeared. I thought she had gone off behind—around the set out pen. So, after a moment, I blew my recall whistle. After a moment Abbie appeared at the top of that last hill before the set out. So I sent her back for the sheep. She brought them up, perfectly on line, over that hill, then to the top of the next. But at that point there was a ewe with a huge udder, who refused to budge any more. You see, all the sheep had been fun for perhaps a mile and a half, over some big hills, to get to that set out pen just before the trial. The ewe was pooped. And so we retired before finishing the fetch.

But at a break in the trial Jean Bass, who was part of the set out crew for that run, came to me and asked me why I had called Abbie back after her outrun. I explained that I had lost sight of her and I thought she had run behind the set out pen. But Jean told me Abbie had outrun exactly to the right spot for the lift. It was the best outrun of the day, she said. A thing of beauty.

So that was the propitious beginning of our competition partnership. Abbie was wonderful to work. I could relax. She would do her thing. I would hug and thank her every time. The three highpoints, I suppose, were when we came in third, behind Gordon’s Storm and Moss, in a pretty big field of dogs at Happy Hollow one year. In fact, we might just have beaten Gordon if he had been a bit more precise when he explained that I was to go just on the other side of the “dead tree out there on the cross drive.” Of course, there were two dead trees, and I sent Abbie around the wrong one. The other highpoint was at the end of the next year’s season when Abbie won one open and was best all around at the Crook and Whistle. Then there was the WWSDA trial at Hudson where Abbie had a fantastic run, in my humble opinion. But we had missed the handlers meeting, and so, when we were coming off the field, and I was feeling pretty high, someone said to me it was a shame I had missed that meeting. I soon found out that they had shortened the fetch significantly by putting a traffic cone at the bottom of the hill up to the handler’s post, at which we were to turn for the drive. I didn’t know. We had run a far longer course—which put us off course for much of the way. But what a beauty of a demonstration Abbie made of it anyway! So, in spite of lots of handler error, and relatively few trials to compete in, Abbie seemed to thrive on competition.

As dominating as Abbie was with her sheep, she was just that gentle with all humans—old and young. At our many demonstrations she would thrill the many children by offering her body up for hugs and pets, with many squeals of delight. And Connie has spent many years taking Abbie to a local nursing home and rehab center and a retirement home. Abbie is everyone’s favorite because of the way she just goes down the line of people, making sure everyone who wants to could have a pet and hug.

Abbie with her admirers after a demonstration. Photo by Connie

Abbie with her admirers after a demonstration. Photo by Connie

So, as I write this, I have to keep going back and changing the present tense to the past. We have taken Abbie on her last road trip—down to the animal hospital.

Two nights ago it was as usual. Abbie had been getting weaker and weaker, especially in her hind quarters. A bump by another excited dog and she would fall over. There was a time or two when she needed help getting up in the morning, or off of her little bed in the living room. I thought, at times, that she just was being stubborn, and didn’t want to leave us in the living room, but she was obviously failing. Connie and I worried that she wouldn’t make it through the winter. I couldn’t visualize her making it through heavy snow. But, two nights ago it we made it through the fourth of our four daily trips around the 26 acre hay field. Abbie walked most of the way—trotted a bit here and there.

But yesterday morning I she wasn’t up with the other dogs as they bark to get going. She was lying, with vomit and feces all around her. I had to carry her out to the yard, and went back in to clean up the mess. When I went back to her I could see clearly that her eyes were darting rapidly back and forth. It was the dreaded vestibular syndrome. Our experience with two older Border Collies of our own, and the dogs of other friends, did not bode well. This affliction attacks the inner ear of the dog, and therefore the sense of balance. The dog feels it is on a tilt-a-whirl all the time, and gets nauseous and dizzy.

Abbie could not stand. She fell over, then struggled to get upright, then stumbled in a circle, then fell again.

We took the last road trip to the veterinarian, who told us that a decision to put her down “would not be wrong.” Then she allowed Connie and me the chance to talk things over. Through our tears we considered that Abbie would have a miserable time this winter with the snow and her underlying weakness. Making her struggle with this nausea and dizziness would just make things intolerable. So we decided to have her put down.

We hugged her and spread our tears all over her as she laid her head on our arms. We held her as the doctor injected the blue, then the clear fluids. Within seconds we were left with this hole in our hearts and her collar for remembrance.

But what is the meaning of this hole in our hearts?

It means that we had a holy, sacred being in our midst for 13 years. The pain and loss we feel points us back to this incredible stream of blessings: her “I can’t wait to dominate” attitude with sheep, her flight on wide outruns, her quickness to please, her easy ways and accompanying aversion to any temper or shouting, her gentle generosity and way of saying to everyone, “I want to be your doggy too.”

This hole in our hearts reminds us that this whole world is full of dogs that bless. And a surplus of other things that bless as well. This world is saturated with sacred. Because God is holy, all things are holy. And the only thing that taints this world is that we don’t notice and cherish and treasure these things. This is our sin.

So this hole in our hearts is something that makes room for God to fill it.

Tonight, just before I finished typing this posting on our web site, as the sun was setting in the West, I put out hay for the sheep, put Bilbo, the guardian dog, in the barn, let him lick me as I mentioned Abbie and spirit and God. He turned and looked me in the eye.

I then got Abbie’s daughter, Betty, and let the sheep out of the pasture. They wanted to make a bee-line for the hay feeders in the feed lot, but I had Betty head them off and move them about a bit in the hay field. They fought her, but she has her mother’s willfulness. “Thou shall not pass! I can’t wait to dominate!” Then I commanded Betty to stand there and let them go to their feed. She did as I said; and I called her to me and thanked her with a long, long pet.

Then I took out for their run-before-feeding, Betty, Hector, and Zac—all pups of our Cap and Abbie (Cap passed the summer of 2018). Silhouetted in reddening sky they flew. They flew with the spirit of Abbie, and of the living God pulsing through their lungs and veins. A long formation of geese glided overhead and trumpeted; and all the universe was filled with ALLELUIA. Nell—our in-season bitch—went out too, and seemed to have a high-stepping joy that needed to get out. She too looked at me with the eyes of God.

Holes in our hearts mean we notice, and we honor what deserves honor. We cherish it and suddenly it is everywhere.

Abbie. Alleluia. Photo by John

Abbie. Alleluia.
Photo by John


Someday all this world will be cleansed from our forgetting. The days are surely coming when ALL will be ALLELUIA!

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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7 Responses to Abbie’s Death Leaves a Hole in Our Hearts

  1. Carla Vanatta says:

    A beautiful tribute to a gifted and loving dog- truly a gift from God. The bond between you was strong and will be both missed and cherished. May The One who created you both soothe your heart and soul.
    Thanks be to God for this gift of Abby and her devoted guides.

  2. Margaret & Graham says:

    Love and condolences to you and Connie. A wonderful remembrance of Abbie.

  3. John says:

    Thanks, Carla. I know that you and many others share this experience of being blessed by God through dogs. And we have so many other means of grace to attend to. Let’s let them touch us mightily! John

  4. John says:

    Margaret and Graham: We have shared an awe and love of Border Collies as they make it possible for us to tend our sheep. May God bless you as you enjoy these gifts and share them generously with others.

  5. Shannon says:

    John, through your eloquent storytelling, I know the feeling of joy love and pain that goes through with each of our dogs lives. Each of them leaves us with a special something that will never be replaced by another. And yet the dog will bring us another set of unique “something” that will thrill us in an different special way. Godspeed, Abby. You were so well loved

  6. Hank Milner says:

    I read the end of your tribute to Abbie through eyes filled with tears. Tears of sorrow at the depth of loss that you and Connie have experienced and tears of joy at the beauty you describe that surrounds us all. The joy that God takes in the thriving of all living beings, created from God’s loving imagination. What a gift you have given us in your deeply moving reflection. Thank you. May both you and Connie feel God’s loving arms holding you close during this time of sorrow.

  7. Roberta says:

    You’ve brought tears to my eyes. How special she was, as is your love of all the animals in your care. Thank you for your eloquence, as always!(Give Bilbo an extra scritchy-scratch behind his ears, for me.) Hugs and blessings to you both.

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