As Alda Owen messes with cattle, Sweet Baby Jo plops down right in the middle of things.
On her belly, ears up, wide-eyed and ready to spring.
“She don’t like ’em getting too close to me,” Owen, 62, says of the border collie as the Angus herd crowds around in a farm lot in DeKalb County in northern Missouri.
It’s almost as if the dog knows what happened before she got there.
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One day a big bull head-butted a gate and knocked it into Owen, who is legally blind from a childhood eye infection. That gate cost her 60 stitches and almost her leg.
Then came Sweet Baby Jo, part of a project called PHARM Dog. That’s Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri, which may be the only program like it in the country. Plenty of others train service dogs, but this program is specifically for farmers who don’t want to give up farm life because of disability or sickness.
Like Alda Owen. Sweet Baby Jo came to the farm she owns with her husband, Rick, and changed her life.
“I can get out and help Rick now,” she said. “I can get the cows in the lot while he goes gets a bale of hay.
“I feel sufficient, and I had stayed back hiding a lot of my life.”
And there’s Jim Harig down by Eminence, Mo. He could hardly get around his place because of idiopathic neuropathy. Now he holds onto a brace mounted on the back of Dixon, a yellow Labrador, to get out and check his sheep and horses.
Dixon can carry buckets, fetch tools and open gates.
“If I had to sell my animals, I think I’d lose the ambition to live,” Harig said.
The first PHARM dog recipient was Dennis Schmitz of Parnell, Mo. One winter day while grinding cattle feed, Schmitz’s coat got caught in his tractor’s power takeoff. The spinning shaft pulled him into the machinery, breaking his neck, three ribs, collarbone and right arm.
All three are still on their farms, along with nine or so others who have received PHARM dogs since 2012.
PHARM founder Jackie Allenbrand, who lives in Gentry County, hears this often: Why don’t these people just quit such a physically demanding job? Why don’t they sit on the porch, or move to town?
“But here’s the thing about farmers — and I’m married to one — they’re stubborn,” Allenbrand said. “It’s what they do. Most were born into it and they don’t want to give it up.”
Troy Balderston, who got a PHARM dog to help him run cattle from a wheelchair after a car wreck left him paralyzed from the chest down, put it this way: “I don’t know anything else.”
Allenbrand got the idea for the PHARM Dog program while working with Missouri AgrAbility, an initiative to help farmers overcome disabilities and keep working. She and her husband use border collies to help with their cow-calf operation on a farm in Gentry County.
Allenbrand got a small startup grant in 2005 and designed a plan with the help of groups such as the University of Missouri Extension and Midland Empire Resources for Independent Living. At the time, AgrAbility program director Karen Funkenbusch said Missouri was the only state with such a dog program.
Eligible disabilities include amputation, arthritis, vision impairment, cancer, cardiac problems, diabetes, spinal cord injury, deafness, back injury and traumatic brain injury.
The plan called for stock dogs and service dogs. Allenbrand registered the organization as an independent nonprofit in 2012. The big challenge was money. She needed dogs to be donated and trainers to work for free.
That’s how she came to meet Bobby Miller, who trains border collies at his place in Plattsburg. He’s 64, a Vietnam War veteran and a heavy equipment operator. A bumper sticker on his pickup says: “My border collie is smarter than your honor student.”
Allenbrand must have pitched the idea well.
“That night, I told my wife, ‘This thing might be a good place to put a dog or two and my time,’” Miller said.
So he called Allenbrand to say he’d like to help. She soon showed up with an old wheelchair.
“She told me the dogs needed to get used to it, so I’d sit in that thing and pups would climb on my lap,” he said.
But border collies are easy, he said. They want to work. Herding livestock is in their black and white. It’s farmers who sometimes need a lot of training.
Balderston, who lives in Beaver Falls, Neb., but works cattle in Kansas, had to learn it all from a wheelchair. Duke, his border collie, had turned up on the streets of St. Joseph. So now this paralyzed farmer and stray city dog team up to move cattle between pens.
“They don’t do what I say because I sit too low to the ground,” Balderston said. “They don’t respect me. They’ll listen to him.
“And he goes everywhere with me. He rides up in the cab.”
Not everything has worked out. The first PHARM dog, for Schmitz, got kicked in the head by a cow and died. His second got run over by a school bus.
“I’ve had terrible luck, but I’d sure take another one,” Schmitz said.
Jim Harig, 70, thinks his neuropathy came from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He’s pretty much lost use of his arms below the elbows and his legs below the knees.
“I used to fall down a lot,” he said.
He keeps horses, donkeys, sheep, mules and alpacas on his 200 acres. Every morning, he gets out and checks on them all with Dixon serving as a four-legged cane.
“All he cares about is helping me,” Harig said.
Miller tears up when he hears those stories. Allenbrand once told him she felt bad that for every dog he trained for the program, he was losing his usual fee of $350.
“You know, Jackie,” he told her. “Weeks from now when I lay my head on my pillow, I’ll remember where that dog went. If I’d got $350, I wouldn’t know where the money went. I’m good.”
Can’t get much more country than Alda Owen, and she’s got the middle name to prove it: Rea.
As in REA — Rural Electric Association.
“They sent my parents a refund check and they used it to help pay for me being born,” Owen said.
On a recent clear morning, she jumped into her Kubota utility vehicle and took off up a gravel road a couple of hundred yards to a cattle lot. Sweet Baby Jo rode in the back, face in the wind, excited to be going to work. She eyed Angus cattle gathered under trees.
Alda and Rick Owen live on 260 rolling acres north of Maysville, the Dekalb County seat. They both grew up on nearby farms. At age 10, she lost a lot of her vision from histoplasmosis, an infection she thinks she contacted through chicken droppings.
“Put a bucket on a fence post and to me it looks like a person, but I can drive this thing,” she said loudly over the engine.
A couple of years back, she had a cancer scare and afterward grew depressed. A friend of her daughter had heard about PHARM Dog.
Owen presented a new challenge for Miller as he trained a dog for her.
Most people with a herding dog stand far away and shout commands or blow a whistle. That doesn’t work for Owen because she can’t see what’s going on. She has to get close to the action.
“That’s different, but that’s what works for Alda,” Miller said. “Baby Joe will protect her.”
Every morning in the feed lot, the dog goes to work.
“She’ll hold them while I do what I need to do,” Owen said. “I couldn’t be out here if not for her.”
Allenbrand wants PHARM Dog to grow. She would like to expand with more dogs and into more states. Right now, Cargill Nutrition donates food for the dogs in training. Agribusinesses MFA and Pioneer have contributed.
“If I can do anything to help these farmers stay put, that’s what I want to do,” she said. “Same for everybody involved in this — we’re all farmers ourselves.”