Troy Balderston's family refers to his trusted border collie, Duke, as the "ghost dog." "The first thing in the morning, he's in the pickup," Balderston says. "And he goes straight to the doghouse when we get back." Unless he's working cattle, Duke can usually be found sitting silently at Balderston's side. "My wife and two daughters love him. He's such a good dog."
But Duke isn't just any stock dog – he also fills the role of a service dog. Balderston has been in a wheelchair since an automobile accident near his home in Beaver City, Nebraska in April 2010 left him quadriplegic. "I was driving on a rural road, and I came across an intersection. I hit another vehicle and was ejected from my pickup," he says. "I spent 25 days in the hospital in Kearney. After that they sent me to rehabilitation in Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska."
Being in a wheelchair put Balderston at a disadvantage when working cattle at his grower/custom feed yard near Beaver City, Nebraska. Cattle didn't always respect him, and his chair often couldn't move fast enough to stop them from going the wrong direction. "I want to do things I used to do, and therefore I sometimes get into bad situations," he says.
Lending a helping hand
Unfortunately, Balderston wasn't able to continue feeding on his own. However, in August 2012, things took a turn for the better when Chris Harting of C & T Farms, Inc. a grower/custom feeder, stocker, and row crop farm in Norton County offered him a job, and had some adjustments made around the working facilities to accommodate Balderston, including ramps around the working facilities and house and easy-to-open gates, and easy-to-operate squeeze chutes.
Nebraska Vocational Rehab had purchased him an all-terrain wheelchair, making it easier for him to navigate pastures and get in and out of pens, but his pickup, needed for the many chores around the farm and feed yard, wasn't wheelchair accessible. So, Nebraska Vocational Rehab had some modifications made – an extending driver's side door and lift to accommodate his wheelchair, as well as a hydraulic lift-equipped flatbed to lift Balderston up into combines, tractors, and fourwheelers. "Now I can haul cattle trailers," Balderston says. "I used to have a van, and a van just doesn't work for that."
However, the biggest boost came when University of Nebraska Agrability put him in touch with Jackie Allenbrand, founder of the PHARM Dog program in Missouri. Although it stands for Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri, PHARM Dog's purpose is to help disabled farmers across the Midwest. Since 2009, the program has placed dogs on nine farms, including both stock dogs and service dogs.
The program is funded through donations, and dog food is donated by Cargill. Border collies are usually placed at one-and-a-half to two years old after getting started with trainers in Iowa or Missouri. In July 2013, Balderston met Duke for the first time.
Taking the place of two cattlemen
After establishing trust between one another, they've been inseparable, whether at Balderston's home in Nebraska or in Kansas working cattle. Duke often helps work cattle through squeeze chutes, working tubs, alleyways, anywhere in the working facility.
But where Duke really shines is on pasture, where he easily takes the place of two cattlemen, Balderston says. "Duke and I could move a lot of cattle by ourselves on pasture," he says. "When we go out and get cattle, we can bring in a lot. Some other cattlemen will take off on horses, and Duke and I will gather a bunch of cattle before the cowboys can."
With this partnership, Balderston can now do things he wasn't able to before. "There is no way sitting in this chair that you can move cattle by yourself. I can't get from point A to point B as fast as Duke can. These chairs aren't that fast. You just can't move like that," Balderston says. "There are times I can send him out and he gets quite a ways away. I can push cattle down an alleyway with him going quite a ways away, and I don't have to move."
With Duke's help, Balderston hopes to one day start feeding cattle at his grower/custom feed yard across the state line in Nebraska again. "People say 'I can't believe you do this.' I'm just like anyone else. I've got a family to feed," he says. "Sitting around the house is just not for me."