January 21, 2012

I haven’t written in a long time because….as the years go on and we repeat the actions of each season in turn, there isn’t always anything new on which to exposit. But finally that has changed. We have a puppy.

This may not seem like a big deal to many people, for whom a dog is one of the accouterments of modern living. Since moving to the country almost ten years ago to the day, we have not had good experiences of the canine sort. Which is to say, we have had horridly bad ones. For us, dogs have meant: dead and dying poultry, hours/days/months of time spent nursing injured birds back to health, harassment of our cats, intense stress, hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars spent on fences and gates, nasty and highly emotional conflicts with neighbors, a better knowledge of California dog law than anyone should have to possess, legal hassles, nightmares; and at the very worst, having to shoot dogs that killed our livestock. With all that, it isn’t hard to see why we haven’t looked too fondly at anything in the canine department. And, it was sad to realize that it had come to be this way. I grew up with a dog that was the apple of my eye, and never could have imagined that as an adult living on a farm, that I would not only not have a dog, but would come to borderline hate them. Not a good situation at all, and one I was totally unprepared to encounter when I moved from suburbia to a rural home.

Years ago, we met friends about an hour away; our commonality being that they also raised heritage turkeys like we did. On and off they would tell me, usually after patiently listening to my latest dog-related tragedy, “What you need is a hound dog”. I would smile and think, “Really, no, I don’t”. They had some breed of dog I’d never heard of. I’d ask what the dogs were, and forget the answer just as fast. They were big and they had brindle coats. Whatever.

Time went on, life went on. Our immediate neighbors, which had always been a huge part of the Dog Conflict Equation, moved away several months ago in fall of 2011. In the years they lived next door, they provided another dimension to my dislike of dogs owned by some people in the country. I’ve always felt that if one is going to keep an animal, regardless of species, it should be done right. It is unfortunate that most of what I witness in my county of residence includes: not knowing the words “spay” and “neuter”, lack of proper housing and socialization, ignorance of canine behavior, letting dogs roam the neighborhood uncontrolled, little or no veterinary care, and dogs being illegally transported without crossties in the back of pickup trucks (of course no one ever gets a citation for this). I watched the dogs next door for years; kept on chains or in squalor-filled pens for the worst sort of backyard breeding operations, neglected and sometimes underfed. No regular attention, just someone going out every few days to toss bargain-brand dog food on the ground for them to eat. Never any walks or exercise, and little or no adult supervision of any of the animal “care”. No thought ever given to their welfare in the bitter cold or insufferable heat. Incessant barking and dog s**t ignored and left to pile up on the evening breeze…but they were always just barely on the right side of the law. They met the technicalities of providing food, water, and shelter, so there was nothing to be done except shake my head at what stupid, ignorant, insensitive people they were. And lament further that they were raising their children to believe that this was an acceptable way to treat a living creature.

Not so long after the neighbors departed, my friends with the hound dogs sent me an email: “We had a litter we weren’t expecting. We would like to offer you a puppy.” My first inclination was to snort and write back thanks, but no thanks. But I didn’t respond immediately. One aspect to the neighbor conflicts was that after all the hullabaloo caused by their dogs being loose, I could not afford to have a dog or ours set so much as a toenail on a blade of grass over the property line, even during training exercises. But now with that pressure off….I thought about it for a few days. And then I even started asking questions about the dogs. I knew that their hounds were able to run off unwanted dogs and protect their livestock from predators, and then reminded myself as to the breed: Plott hounds. I did some reading, and came to understand that I was being offered a pedigreed hunting/homestead dog that many people out there would give their eye teeth and left toe to own. And I thought about it some more—though I know myself well enough to realize, that if I already thought about it this much, the answer is probably “yes.” The biggest thing of all was that I was tired of having such negative feelings about dogs, and that this was an opportunity to change that to something healthier. My dog didn’t have to be an untrained hellion that no one wants to be around, and could indeed be a huge asset to our lives on the farm. Maybe the dog could even prevent some of the heartache of the sort that has occurred since we moved here. But then there was reality. Dogs need training, and a lot of time. And it matters that the breed matches the need, and I knew little about these dogs at first…so I started reading everything I could. Most breeds are a paragraph, whereas Plott hounds are a whole book. They have been carefully bred for the past 260 years, much of that time in the hands of the Plott family whose ancestors emigrated from Germany in 1750. They were selected to hunt bear and hogs by scent, promoted over generations to be the most persistent, enduring, fearless and athletic dog out there. Some folks consider them to be THE premier hunting dog of the United States. Highly trainable, multipurpose, and relentless. A badass Ninja of a dog. Hm. I had always seen myself as more of a Mastiff type. A dog that was big, but lazy as hell (when I’m done working for the day, I don’t want to do much)….but I’m in my mid-40’s now, and maybe a dog that would actually get me in gear for some aerobic exercise wouldn’t be such a bad idea. My friends were nice enough to offer me the pick of the litter, but I wasn’t going to be that silly. They know their dogs, and they know me. I left it to their good judgement as to which one was “my dog”. On a visit in late November, I was handed a pudgy whiny thing with an unusual brindle coat (which I since learned is properly termed a “gray brindle”). He was the biggest boy in the litter. It chewed, it moaned. It whimpered. We looked at each other. I recall thinking….”ummm….”  In the past I would have had the “puppy crazies”, but the years had hardened me into a puppy- impervious grouch. But, I was going to be open-minded about all this. Dog. Thing. In the next few weeks, the time to make a final decision was at hand. I talked with the people I’m around the most to gauge their feelings about a dog entering our lives—although this would be primarily my responsibility, it was important to inquire about how everyone felt, since the dog would not be living in a vacuum. I took a deep breath and ordered the outdoor kennel and the indoor collapsible crate. Friends kindly gave us a second large crate and leashes and harnesses. Other wonderful friends donated about 60# of premium large-breed puppy food to the cause. Somewhere in there, I went to a pet store and bought a few toys and rawhides, and downloaded a book on training and behavior by a well-regarded veterinary behaviorist. We were as ready as we were going to get. I brought home Beren on December 9th. (It took a long time to pick out the name…but all diligent JRR Tolkien students will recall the immortal Tale of Beren and Lúthien. It didn’t seem like too big a name for a Plott hound to carry.)

The car ride home was not fun. He howled, he cried in his crate. I felt sorry for him and had my friend drive so I could hold him in my lap. Motion sickness wore him down until he was plastered on the front seat, asleep. I weighed him that night, 17 lbs at 9.5 weeks. He was pretty much canine tabula rasa, and for the next four weeks he was intensively trained, earning every bit of his food as a reward for some kind of good behavior. We made it through “potty”, howls, pulling on leashes, biting hands, picking up garbage, wanting to chew on undesirable objects, chase birds, chase cats. He is a smart dog but Plott hounds are oh, so stubborn. At  the time of this writing he is just shy of 16 weeks old….at 32 lbs. He has changed our world, and it is already hard to remember what life was like before him. I have the sense that he will more than pay back what we have put into him….and will put into him yet. The time involved is staggering…I can see how most dogs just don’t get this kind of effort because it isn’t possible for people with conventional employment and complex family responsibilities. Training is often a puzzle, and I am no expert, but I give it my best effort. There are days he is so annoying I want to scream, but then there are time times late at night, when I bring him on the sofa and rub his tummy while he has puppy dreams, and he looks like a little angel with great big paws….yeah, I’ve gone mushy. But I suppose that was partly the idea. It is strange to find that we have ended up as Plott people…we owe our friends a huge debt, because there is no other way it would have happened. But now that it has, we are proud to be carrying on an American tradition in the best way possible. Working farm, working dog. That’s how it started with dogs and people, and the story continues.