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Water Dog

Garth Brown |

Setting out this morning I was in an optimistic state, mostly because five days of steady rain had finally come to an end. The pasture was still a swamp, with puddles of muddy water up to my ankles, and the pigs, who are always hard on pasture, had really done a number on the paddocks I’d had them in the past couple days. I also had a long list of chores to do now that the weather had broken, I had been up late failing to get my daughter to fall asleep, I felt like I might be coming down with the cold everyone on the farm has had, and yesterday I’d discovered that the line that provides water to half the farm had a clogged intake, which I was on my way to fix. So it is a testament to the sun’s power as a natural antidepressant that despite all this I felt pretty damn good.

Loyal readers of the blog will be familiar with my English Shepherd Oban. (You can find my previous posts here and here.) If anyone claims that a dog will naturally assume the personality of his owner, you can point to him as proof that this is not a categorical truth. In other words, I’m a fairly laid back guy, while he’s as manic as an over caffeinated squirrel. And running around as if every passing moment is the most thrilling thing imaginable is his baseline. There are some things - other dogs, new people, deer, and, for some reason, any body of water he can immerse himself in - that really rev his engine.

As always he had come along to do chores with me, investigating all of the groundhog holes and interesting tufts of grass in a fifty yard radius of wherever I was. He watched patiently as I refilled the pigs’ whey tanks, and he left the chickens alone when I told him to, even though he obviously thought it would be a good idea to herd them back to their coop.

We then headed up into the wooded ravine situated around the small pond that feeds the waterline. After the intake had been clogged about a dozen times Ed and I finally realized we could leave the waders and scrub brush necessary to clean it in the woods, rather than dragging them three quarters of a mile every time. As soon as I started putting on the heavy rubber overalls, a remnant of the brief period in which I sometimes went fly fishing, Oban sensed that something new was happening.

You might ask why I would deal with bulky, protective outerwear just to step into a cool pond in the middle of summer, but yours would be a question born of ignorance. First, over the years a waist-deep pad of the most exquisitely fine silt and rotten leaves has settled on the pond’s bottom, and it releases flatulent bubbles at the slightest agitation, which is gross. Second, when I was doing this job last fall I saw a leech roughly the size of my arm slowly but determinedly waggling towards me through the water. Just the memory of its inexorable approach makes me shudder.

Once dressed I headed into the pond. As I slowly eased my way in Oban began sprinting around the bank, and once I was up to my waist he joined me, plunging into the murky water with an ecstatic bark. He’d probably been dreaming his entire life of the day when I would join him in just such a situation. He swam back and forth while I made my laborious way forward. Though it was less than ten feet from the bank to the intake getting to it was interminable, since the the mud on the bottom basically tried to eat my leg each time I took a step.

I generally have patience for Oban when he fails or misunderstands when trying to help with the stock, since working animals is something he has a degree of aptitude for, and since, more generally, I can understand how a dog would have some idea of what he wanted a herd of cows to do. In a way I even find his boundless enthusiasm and reckless disregard inspiring. But I had a harder time not getting frustrated when he decided he should come help me unclog a waterline intake, despite his utter inability to have an idea of the what or why of my actions. He kept swimming in little circles around and sticking his nose in my face, as if he expected me to praise him for his diligence, when all I wanted to do was brush off the pine needles and leaves that had clogged the screen without sinking so deep I couldn’t extract myself or having a leech fasten itself to my forearm.

With his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth and his ears pinned back, bobbing about like a hairy pool float and bumping into me every time he saw an opening, he relentlessly encroached on me. I wished there was some way to make him comprehend exactly how counterproductive he was being. He obviously enjoys working - which is good for a working dog! - but the unfortunate aspect to this quality is that he seems to go through his life with an implicit belief that everything he’s doing is invaluable, whether it's jumping into a hole to help me dig it or escorting my daughter to the bottom of the stairs when it's her bedtime or ramming his head into my elbow when all I want to do is have a leech free morning.

Despite his interference I managed to finish the job, and then I slogged my way back to the bank, where he joined me. He was so thrilled that he turned a circle and savaged a stick before taking a few more wind sprints through the hemlocks, and for the whole walk back home he held his head high, immensely pleased with himself. And after a few hundred yards I couldn’t help but being pleased with him too, though that might just be because I’d come out of the woods and was once again enjoying a beautiful sunny day.


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