Gimme the Dirt… “On Farm Dogs”
“Close your eyes, and don’t peek!” I was leading my husband into our farm store, where his birthday gift was waiting. The idea was mine, and I was excited: a cute Jack Russell terrier puppy, huge pink bow around her neck, wiry rough coat, and enormous bushy eyebrows giving her eyes a deceivingly angelic appearance. When he was standing in front of her I said, “Open your eyes!” and he instantly fell in love. His huge farmer’s hands enveloped her tiny, muscular body, and she snuggled right in. Molly was home.
We are dog people here on Hilltop Farm. We are also cow people, cat people, chicken people, and horse people. Ok, we are simply animal people, so it makes sense that recently an internet video captured our attention. We’ve watched it about twenty times, and it still doesn’t feel like enough. It’s shot on a cell phone by someone on horseback, somewhere out west. A man’s voice is calmly calling “Awayyyyy…..stand…push ‘em up, away, stand, there.” It’s not the most Hollywood-worthy script, but the action is incredible. On the screen are four Border Collies, and by themselves, they are loading a group of enormous bulls onto a stock trailer. It’s one of the most interesting videos we’ve seen in a long time and, given the millions of views it’s received, we aren’t the only ones who think so.
Training dogs like the ones in the video is not a simple task. We understand this because we’ve known a few dogs in our lives, and none of them has ever worked like those border collies. They are serious dogs with a deadly serious job. We also know this because Molly has proven to be almost more than we can handle, training-wise. She has a heart of gold, but oh, my goodness she is willful. Typical Jack Russell!
We’ve been owned by a wide variety of dogs, some purebreds, some mutts, all of them dearly loved. At this moment, Molly’s 5-year-old cohort, Winston, is lying at my feet, his head resting on Molly’s favorite toy, a soft, squeaky fox. He’s passive-aggressively taunting his little sister with it, and she is whining louder than a timing belt gone bad. Winston is a West Highland white terrier, a breed from the Highlands of Scotland, where vermin are hunted in the brown and gray bracken, and a bright white coat can be seen at a long distance. The short, sturdy tail is meant to be grabbed like a handle when the dog is down a hole and needs a rapid exit plan. I’ve tried this with Winston, and let’s just say he didn’t care for it. He also growls menacingly if we wiggle while he’s performing the critical task of lap-sitting. He loves to run the length of the manger during feeding time, licking the cows’ noses, and rubbing up against the huge round bale of smelly haylage we are feeding. The smellier the better for him. Winston’s double coat is a trait of his breeding: it keeps him extra warm in the wintertime, and the wiry outer layer easily hand-brushes clean, which is fortunate after his hay-rolling sessions. Another favorite outdoor pastime is scrubbing himself with manure, also the smellier the better. Remember, his coat is white, and he’s teaching Molly, whose coat is also white, everything he knows. He’s been sprayed at point-blank range by a skunk, resulting in greenish goo covering most of him and an odor that took a full year to disappear. I had to throw away the clothing I was wearing when I bathed him. At midnight. This is one lesson we hope he learned the hard way and that Molly pays attention in class.
Winston’s and Molly’s predecessor, Violet, is what we call an epic dog. She was ten pounds of pure terror, another Jack Russell terrier, and her claim to fame was that she once killed five woodchucks who were digging under the foundation of our barn. Hence her nickname: Violence. When confronted by a regular farm visitor, a Rhodesian ridgeback bred to take down lions in their native Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) homeland, tiny Violet turned into a vicious dominatrix, without a single doubt in her mind that she was top dog. She had no clue she might be swallowed whole. Violet was a ratter extraordinaire. Rats are an endless problem in barns where there is hay for nests and grain for food. We would stand up to go outside for our nightly barn check, and Violet was out the door before our boots were on. Once she cornered a rat nearly her size, and the dastardly creature bit her. With blood dripping into her eye, and another wound on the side of her cheek, Violet lit into that rat with a fury that terrified even us. Another time, we were loading cows onto a stock trailer when Violet escaped the confines of the house. She ended up attached to the heel of a cow that outweighed her 160 times over, and she proceeded to herd it onto the trailer. The truck driver stood there sucking on his cigar and chuckling in amazement: “Look at that little dog! Where’d she come from?”
Once, we acquired three piglets; on the first night they were here, we heard a commotion that startled us out of deep sleep. Down in the barn, we realized there were only two piglets in the pen and panic set in. They were small and our farm covers a large territory. We needn’t have feared. We heard a distant bark, and with a flashlight in hand, we discovered Violet had run the errant piglet to the ground, gently holding it there by the back of its neck, until we were able to get to her way out in the pasture. Somehow she always knew her job without being told by us. We had other nicknames for Violet: “Small Dog” and “Weasel.” She watched television with discernment and she especially enjoyed the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She would sit in front of the TV with rapt attention for the two-night event. At bedtime, she would dig her way to the foot of the bed, buried snug under the bedclothes and in the morning we would wake up with her between us, sound asleep on her back, head on a pillow, her paws peeking out of the covers as if she was part human. But she was pure canine.
Cute stories aside, farm dogs have a purpose, usually clearing the barn of critters that aren’t supposed to be there or sweeping the fields for interlopers who might dig holes hazardous to farm machinery and cows’ legs. They protect livestock, and herd them, too, like those collies in that video. The job depends on the breed. Great Pyrenean shepherds protect cattle and sheep from predators; they live with their herd or flock from the time they are two months old and seldom set foot inside a house. The Bernese mountain dog is an outdoor breed from Bern, Switzerland where, historically, without a human to guide them, they hauled carts laden with cans of milk miles through the mountains, from the farm to the creamery and back home again. Dachshunds are scent hounds, ferocious hunters of dangerous prey like badgers. Jack Russell terriers like our Violet and Molly are vermin hunters, meant to keep problem critters from overrunning the farm. But perhaps the most important job of a farm dog is simply keeping us company. Farming can be solitary work. The large animals we care for enjoy their routine and routine can make for monotony. The company of a dog in the manger, nosing around in the barn, or sitting on our laps in the skid steer means we aren’t ever really working alone.
The list of farm dogs we’ve known is long, but a special group deserves recognition for the companionship they’ve generously given us: Bungee, Angus, Roscoe, Violet, Puck, Grover, Diesel, Max, Sammy, Zoe, Oscar, and Whiskers. And now we’ve got Winston and Molly. Molly isn’t yet a year old and is still learning manners, farm rules and boundaries. But her cuteness knows no bounds, so she tends to get away with more than she should.
And so I return to Winston. For all his faults – a severe, shark-like overbite, barking fits whenever that insurance company emu makes an appearance on television and all his manure-rolling – it is the company-keeping we are most grateful for with Winston. Just before Molly came to live with us, when the windows were still letting in the cool evening breeze, a pack of coyotes started howling far too near our late summer calves in the pasture. We jumped out of bed and Winston did, too. The howling was loud and close. Together we all ran downstairs in the dark, but Winston tripped and tumbled down from the very top, tail over head. I checked to see that he was okay and rushed outside with my husband to scare the coyotes away. But once outside I realized some of the noise was coming from another source. Sitting just inside the front door in the dark was Winston, howling his little heart out. I’m not sure if it was worry, the call of the wild or a primal connection to his wolf ancestry that made him howl like that. But it sure did make us laugh, which pleased Winston to no end. He has yet to assume any real farming tasks, but it appears he does have a purpose after all: comic relief and unconditional love. As long as we don’t wiggle while he’s sitting on our laps.