Year of the Dog

A year ago today Alanna and Arden and I got in the car and drove a couple hours west to buy a puppy in a Friendly’s parking lot. It sounds sketchy when I put it like that, and, to be clear, I don’t think the parking lot of a casual dining establishment is the best place to find a dog. (I would recommend a rescue unless you have a very particular task you need help with.) Her chosen meeting location aside, the woman we were purchasing the dog from was reputable. Other farmers had recommended her dogs, and after contacting her we went through the usual involved back and forth to determine that we were indeed a good match for one of her puppies. The parking lot meetup was brought about by a whole lot of boring logistical factors, but the upshot was that by the early afternoon we were back on the farm with an eight week old English Shepherd named Oban.

Though we had dogs growing up, I was never directly involved in their training. But I read everything I could about it, and I felt reasonably well prepared. I did all the house training work at the outset, taking him outside every twenty minutes when he was out of his kennel as well as getting up a few times in the middle of the night to let him nose around in search of a clump of grass worth peeing on. In no time Oban had learned, and one of my proudest accomplishments is that he never - not even as a puppy - pooped indoors. Unfortunately, this is the only area of his training that I consider a complete success.

I read that, when selecting a puppy that will one day become a working farm dog, it is good to pick the most outgoing and playful individual, and the breeder - who owned a farm, but sold dogs to both farmers and non-farmers - agreed. The theory, which seems sound enough to me, is that a gregarious, inquisitive dog is less likely to be fearful of or reactive to stock and more likely to be robust enough that one unpleasant encounter, like getting kicked by a cow, will not permanently put it off work.

Oban has this personality, but in his case it manifests as an extreme, irrepressible enthusiasm for everything. In a way this makes him easy to train. He’s smart, and he’s very attentive, and wandering into a literal hornets' nest while playing fetch didn't put him off his ball for a minute, even as his face became comically swollen. But the flipside is that he goes crazy for anything new; when someone he doesn’t know or hasn’t seen in a long time (meaning more than two days) comes to the door, he will go sit where I tell him to, waiting to be invited over. His whole body will quiver, and he will hardly be able to hold himself back, and when he is allowed to come say hi he will sit and roll over and sit again in about two seconds, manically wagging the rear half of his body the entire time. After about half an hour of single minded focus on the newcomer he might relax a little, but not much. If he sees a cat or a deer or another dog he’s exponentially worse. At least he’s good and getting better around the stock, which I have made a point of exposing him to since he the day he arrived. I can walk through the cows with him or take him into the chicken coop without a problem.

But as of now he has showed no signs of wanting to work. It’s possible that the instinct hasn’t kicked in, which can happen as late as eighteen months of age, and it’s very possible I just don’t know how to help get him started. But he has not exhibited any of the behaviors that a herding dog apparently does when it is ready to begin doing something productive with its life.

Oban is very much a part of the family, and a complete lack of interest in working (something that can show up in even well established working lines) will not make me replace him. But if I intended to get a dog primarily for companionship, I would never, ever get one with his drive and energy. He has been, and continues to be, a ridiculous amount of work. I’m sure part of this is my lack of experience, but I’m also sure a lot of it is his personality.

When I set out to write this post I didn’t intend it to be a downer. As I type away Oban is lying beside me, dutifully not going over to eat the huge pile of rice cereal and dried fruit my daughter left lying in the middle of the floor. It’s fun to have a buddy who is more excited about going outside on the most brutally cold day of the year than I have ever been about anything in my entire life. He’ll happily walk the whole fenceline with me, and when, after a long day, I sit in front of the fire and let him climb into my lap, the sheer ecstasy he exhibits at getting to be so close to a human is alway infectious. It’s been a slog, but his behavior and self-control have consistently improved over the last year, and I see no reason they won’t continue to get better. Even if he never helps move the cows into a fresh paddock or rounds up a runaway pig, he’ll still be a good dog.

-Garth

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