Nell Now Herding for God

“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

Whether or not Will Rogers said that, it’s certainly a nugget of holy truth. Our Nell, who we put down this past week, is proof.

Faithful Nell at her place of ready. Photo by John

Nell, like all dogs, was a miracle…but in our bias, we think she was even a little more so.

She was the great granddaughter of Stuart Davidson’s 2002 International Supreme Champion, Star; granddaughter of Davidson’s 2008 Scottish National Champion, Rob; and daughter of Peter Hetherington’s Lynmar Hemp, who ran fourth in the 2008 Scottish National and 7th in that year’s World Trial Qualifying round.

Sitting in the quiet and dimly lit room that our veterinary hospital kindly uses for families who are having pets put to sleep, Connie and I had plenty of time for tearful memories of Nell’s nearly 16 years of life.

I thought of Peter and Molly Hetherington, who perfectly hosted me for the 2011 Scottish Nursery Finals. Peter ran Nell; and when the sheep approached the out-drive panels the sheep stopped and turned and would not move, so Peter had to retire her for that trial. But judge Kevin Evans made sure to tell Peter that up to that point Nell’s run was absolutely perfect: not a single deduction from her outrun, lift, or fetch. I thought of the many years I had run Nell in trials, and how amazingly sharp she was in obeying my whistles, and marching the sheep through the gates and into the pen—and how she would come through the smallest gap to shed the sheep. But Gordon Watt also explained that she had a “hard face” that could sometimes stop the sheep in their tracks, and make it hard to get started again. She had plenty of power almost all of the time—but rarely she could freeze the sheep in their tracks as well.

I persuaded Peter to sell Nell to me, and he demonstrated her mastery in gathering, driving, and shedding. As we were standing there I wanted to see how she would respond to me, and I snapped my fingers. Since I was standing next to a fence, Nell thought I meant to jump it; so from a standstill she sprang over the four foot barrier with ease.

I remembered fondly one of the several trials that Nell won with me. I had, by that time, noticed that, while Nell had a great talent for holding a line driving the sheep, she could also get sort of mesmerized and not hear or respond to my whistle to shift direction just a bit when needed.  Gordon Watt had advised me to simply and sharply shout her name to snap her out of it, and then carry on. Well, in that particular trial I did this sort of sharp but quiet voice command perfectly. And when we walked off, the judge said to me, “That was beautiful.” That was the only time in all my dog trial life, that I heard such a fulsome compliment. And sitting there waiting for the two shots that would put Nell to sleep, I wept.

I thought of all the demonstrations Nell and Connie and I put on for visitors to our farm, or for people at parks in Northern Illinois. I thought of the ways Nell could run and run and run, even on hot days, and then run and run some more. She was stoic. She was serious—not one for silly games or tail wagging. Just business—just getting jobs done and then returning to her place to be ready for more.

I remembered how her place was as my faithful shadow. Peter had trained her to walk at heel, but it was so built into her that I never had to say “heel.” When she wasn’t actively herding the sheep, she was always there, at my side, but a step behind. So, often I would turn to look for her and have to spin almost in a circle to see her, finally to remember that she was always my shadow—always just to my side, but that step behind.

Almost all of my tears flow before I put a dog down—not so much after. And it was certainly this way with Nell. They say the average life expectancy for a Border Collie is 13.1 years, but Nell was going strong well into her 15th year. But then Connie and I had the pain of seeing her progressively fail. Her hearing went first, then her eyesight, clouded by heavy cataracts. Then she slowed from effortless gallops to walks and then to wobble. Her rear legs went at odd angles. She was slow, but always back there trying to catch up to be the shadow she had always been on walks. Finally she could not hold her bowel movements and became erratic in her eating. And when it looked like she was confused about how to even get out of her bed, I thought the end had come—a few short months from her 16th birthday.

The greatest pain for me was watching the decline in her health and choosing the right time for euthanasia. I needed assurance. Nell was feeble. She was confused. She was failing, but she could still stand and walk a bit. Should I end the life of this girl who gave us so much of herself? We took her to the veterinarian and asked for that assurance. Was it time? Dr. Brown said we were right to have her put down. She had lost too much muscle. The arthritis, weakness, and blindness were robbing her of any pleasure in life.

Nell went to sleep quietly on my arms and with the loving strokes from Connie and me. She impressed the technicians and the doc. She impressed us one more time.

Almost all my tears flow before and not after. But it is now a week after, and as I write this tribute, the tears flow again.

These are tears that tell me I want to go where Nell has gone. Connie and I  believe in a God who, in infinite wisdom and love created a beast like this, with such faithfulness, passion to please, speed, stamina, and power to impress. Could this miracle just evaporate? Could this creature now be anywhere other than herding the flock of the Great Good Shepherd? I don’t know what this place is called, but I agree with Will Rogers. If it’s not heaven, then when I die I will loudly rejoice if I can go where our Nell has gone, and walk with her again as my faithful shadow.

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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