By Jennifer Welch
It’s no secret to most that I am part woman, part wild animal. I walk a paper thin line between human reasoning and animal instinct, between empathy for our man-made problems and disdain for the four walls surrounding me. I find it difficult to relate to most people, especially the ones that don’t have dog hair on their pants. Animal communication is simple, straightforward. Humans are much more complex and I constantly find myself fumbling through the intricacies of interaction. When I am in town I feel slightly out of place, the proverbial fish out of water, as it were. But when I come home there is a small tribe of humans and horses, poultry and swine, goats and cats, that make me feel at peace. There is also a giant dog that insists on climbing into the truck to greet me every time I pull into the driveway. These are the things that make those four walls feel like a home. It may not be the cleanest home on the block, but it’ll do.
We had talked about getting a livestock guardian dog for some time before I spotted the ad at the feed store. Raising small children and animals at the edge of an area known for its mountain lion population is not a task for the unprepared. So when we drove down into the San Luis Valley to pick out a puppy to safeguard our tribe, it felt like business as usual. Aside from the small hiccup of pulling into a stranger’s driveway only to realize one of my children had neglected to wear any pants, the trip had been uneventful. We walked over to a goat pen with a mama dog and several puppies. The pen was neighbored by another pen which contained an enormous male dog that stood on his hind legs and barked incessantly as we drew closer to “his” goats. It was unnerving, to say the least, but we continued in to visit the puppies and see if we could find a new family member. The breeder and I stood and discussed the ins and outs of livestock guardian dogs, or LGD’s as they are commonly known. I had expressed an interest in finding a dog that was not too aloof or aggressive, given that we have small children in the family and plenty of visitors to the farm. She agreed that this was an important factor to consider and that she had been eyeing one puppy in particular for our circumstances. She turned to look for the candidate, but he was nowhere to be found. She began examining the puppies one by one until she walked over to where my children were sitting and laughing in a little circle, surrounding the pup she had chosen for us. We took him home that very day in a crate with chew toys and blankets, somewhat foreign items to a guard dog. When we arrived back on the Acre, he cautiously sniffed around but never traveled very far from myself or the children. At three months old, we had assumed we would be battling puppy nips and chewing frenzies, but he remained calm and cool as a cucumber.
The Dude, as he became to be known, quickly grew from a fuzzy pup into a big 140-pound dog. Judging by physical appearance alone, he is an intimidating creature the size of the famed dire wolves that once roamed the earth. But his personality is that of a stoner hippie that occasionally, as if prompted by an acid flashback, runs and barks after things that go bump in the night. He is calm and friendly and eats enormous quantities of food. He is exactly what we never knew we always needed. Tasked with his training, I relied strongly on my ability to connect with animals more easily than with humans. His training sailed smoothly along and began with me showing him his “perimeter” which we would walk and mark daily. If we encountered strange noises or sudden movements on our walks, we would stop and growl, then bark, and investigate if warranted. If the coyotes sang at night, we would stand on the porch barking and growling. If a hawk flew overhead, we would stand and bark before giving chase as it flew away. Sometimes, we would mistake a passenger jet for a hawk, but one of us figured it still made for a good training drill and let it slide. We would bark, “Here, we are here, steer clear of us!” Truthfully, I had no idea if it was working, if my acting like a dog was showing him how to act like a dog or if it was just confusing the both of us. Until one day, when he was around six or seven months old, he awoke from a dead sleep in the middle of the afternoon and chased his first coyote away from the entrance to the barn before heading back to the porch to resume his nap. And though he spends most of his time making sure the porch doesn’t blow away, we haven’t been hit by a single predator since. He will be four this spring.
Do I like my dire wolf more than most people I meet on the street? Absolutely. Is that such a bad thing? I hope not. I surely can’t envision myself peeing on a bush alongside everyone and their brother with any justifiable reasoning, so let’s just leave it at that. Besides, any dog named after The Dude, that basically wears a man’s belt for a collar, is bound to be cooler than most of the people you’ve ever met. And although I know that instinct played a very large part in his skill and ability to ward off predators, I like to think that I helped him fine tune his skills. After all, he can now tell the difference between a hawk and a passenger jet. So if we cross paths on the street and I greet your dog without making eye contact with you, don’t take it personally. Chances are, your dog is the next best thing since sliced bread. And you … well, I guess if your dog likes you, then you can’t be all that bad.
Jen Welch lives and writes in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and can occasionally be spotted in town between bouts of marking her territory and howling at the moon.