Craig Working sheep and cow dogs are invaluable to ranchers, and throughout the years, when I was growing up, we had a variety of different cow dogs. But, the dog I remember most wasn't from my childhood.
She belonged to our son, Jody. This is her story:
Bernie (short for Bernice) was a little black collie-dingo mix with white markings. Jody found her at the Greeley pound when he was on the Front Range on business. He wanted a dog that he could train to work cows, so he adopted Bernie and drove her home to Craig.
Sadly, Bernie had been abandoned on a rural Weld County road. She had puppies, too, but they were weaning age and had been adopted out separately. We never did know just how old Bernie was.
Bernie settled in with our family. She never did become a cow dog. Perhaps she was too old to be trained. But, even though chasing cows wasn't her thing, she made up for it by chasing barn cats.
Despite all of our warnings and a few close calls from cats that had been pushed too far (even scratching Bernie's nose so that it bled), Bernie could never resist a good chase. Fortunately, for the cats, there were plenty of places to run to safety - up fence posts, into the wood pile, under the barn door and more.
One September, Jody was away at college. It was the time of year that some mama barn cats had late litters of kittens and then often abandoned them. One morning I heard "meow" sounds from a kitten as I was doing chores down by the barn.
I didn't have time to investigate the exact whereabouts of the kitten, but I noticed that Bernie had her ears perked up in the direction of the haystack. As I got into the car to go to work, I gave her a firm warning to leave the kitten alone.
Bernie wasn't at her usual place on the front porch when I returned home. In fact, she was nowhere in sight. When I passed the coal shed on my way to feed the bottle calves a little later, I couldn't believe my eyes. There on her daytime bed of rugs was Bernie, and she was nursing a kitten.
Bernie whimpered as I picked up the tiny orange kitten. When I set it down, she promptly (and very gently) picked it up and carried it back to her bed. I pinched myself to make sure that I wasn't dreaming and tried to decide what to do.
It was fine that the baby knew how to nurse on Bernie, but the little dog didn't have any milk, and I remembered the effort our family had put forth to save a batch of abandoned kittens the year before.
So I picked up the kitten and set off to find a mama.
Not one barn cat would pay the slightest attention to the kitten. I even tried "Zipper," a cat with older kittens. But she was in the weaning process and wouldn't pay the slightest attention to the kitten.
So I hunted up a hypodermic syringe, tossed out the needle, warmed up some milk, and gathered up Bernie and her kitten. We headed for Bernie's nighttime headquarters, an old house where she was safe from raccoons, skunks and other prowlers.
Feeding the baby was a rather comical sight because as I tried to get the baby to drink from this unusual bottle, Bernie jumped up and down in an effort to reach the kitten. Once she even grabbed its tail.
But, persistence paid off, and the baby, now named Ernestina, was drinking milk greedily and flourishing.
Bernie took care of all of the nurturing duties, letting the baby nurse on her and making sure the baby was curled up beside her at night.
She even washed the kitten.
Ernestina continued to thrive. It wasn't long before she was playing with Bernie's tail and crawling over her adopted mama's back. But when she started climbing trees, Bernie's troubles began. She'd bark and whine until her baby was back at her side.
Then one day, Jody pointed out that Ernestina was actually an "Ernest."
As spring approached, Ernest was busy with tom cat duties. He disappeared for days at a time. But, not to worry because Bernie had other things on her mind. She was going to have another litter of puppies.
Bernie lived a long, full life - not as a cow dog as first expected, but as a nurturer.