I never really understood the symbolism of calling depression “the black dog”. I mean, I know in modern terms it stems from Churchill’s description of his own struggles. Funnily enough, Churchill’s black dog was probably a crucial factor in the defeat of the Nazis. Even a bad dog is still man’s best friend.
But the association for me with dogs is always, unerringly, positive. Anyone who has owned a dog will be able to relate, minus the odd chewed shoe or wrecked couch. But when you lead a team of dogs, work with them every day, rely on them nearly as much as they rely on you, that relationship intensifies out of sight.
I love my dogs. I tell people freely they’re 80% of the reason I’m doing what I do, and that’s probably an underestimation. They’re not people, but they have their own characters, their own personalities, and they’re hardcase and endlessly enthusiastic for life and for work. I bring mine on from pups, and watching them grow and learn and start to understand is tremendously satisfying. You share their achievements, and seeing one completely click on one day and nail a job perfectly for the first time is quite elating. I have six dogs currently, including an actual black dog – a rising 3yo bitch named Haze.
I was a little fortunate to even get Haze. I was struggling at the time with another huntaway pup with no chasing instinct. I finally admitted defeat and looked on trademe late one night for a replacement. Here was a well-bred, good looking pup only 45 minutes away, already chasing in the training paddock. Is she still available? Yes. I’ll be down in the morning. We hit it off straight away. First morning at work, she mustered some calves for me. It wasn’t really planned, I didn’t want to do anything with them, but she was enthusiastic and doing a tidy job, so I took them to the yards and back, gave her a pat and said good girl. And that was that – she was mine, and I was hers. She’s terribly jealous. If I do a job with another bitch, or tell another dog “good girl” she notes it down, and later on beats them up. The message is clear – I’m his girl, and only me. Capiche?
I went back to work this week, for the first time since the beginning of March. The dogs were fizzing after seven weeks of sitting idle. Usually just a weekend off has them raring to go. I have to say I couldn’t share their enthusiasm. It was a real battle for me. I’d reached a point where further time off wasn’t going to be of any greater help, but even so just two and a half days was enough to exhaust me. The second afternoon, I set out to do a simple job, something that should take an hour. I spent four hours trying, failed to complete it, and got so stressed out my nose bled. For an hour and a half. It’s going to be a long road back. I don’t know how long. How long is a piece of string? Last time around, it was two years later before I finally looked back and realised I’d had a good few weeks – not just better, but actually good. Healthy. Happy. I didn’t have the support around me then that I do now, but I wasn’t starting from as far down either.
The midpoint of those two years was the toughest. A couple of people have said that when I’m really struggling, to remember the worst day I’ve had, and tell myself that if I could make it through that, I can make it through this, too. It’s an easy choice. The 13th and 14th of August, 2011. Because I lost a dog, another black dog, my original black dog. I actually lost two dogs that day, but Bo was a special case. The first pup I ever trained, except there wasn’t really much training needed. I just took her to work one day and started using her. And she understood, everything. Here I was as a junior shepherd, relying on a ten month old untrained pup as my main dog, and she just did everything. You couldn’t ask for a better dog to start with, you couldn’t ask for a better dog fullstop.
I’d had Bo eight years by 2011, from a pup, and from when I’d started out taking farming seriously as a career. We’d grown up together really. I’d worked with her all day every day, and she was my main companion. I told her all my hopes and dreams, asked her opinion on all the big questions in my life. The bond between us was as deep as man and dog go. And on the 13th of August, while at a fancy dress party, I got a phone call to say she’d been killed. She and another huntaway of mine, dragged from their kennels, beaten unconscious and left on the road to be run over, in a twisted act of revenge for something I hadn’t even done. Here I was, deep in depression, leaning on these dogs as my coping mechanism, and suddenly the next day I was burying them. My best friends. The guts ripped out of my team in moments. Ripped out of me.
It took a long time to come to terms with that. No charges were ever pressed against the guy who did it, which burns deep in my soul. I still often have moments of survivors guilt, that I wasn’t there, that I couldn’t be there when they needed me. Eventually I realised the only thing I could do was move on, rebuild, and live a good life anyway. A hollow victory, but the only one available to me. And I had. I got through that. I rebuilt my team, better than before, stronger. I found another black dog. And now suddenly, once again, I go to work every day with not one but two black dogs trailing behind me. Hopefully, eventually, Haze will beat up the other one for me. Because depression is a bitch, and Haze reckons there’s only room for one bitch in my life.