We have always had a farm dog. The first dog I can remember was appropriately named Dusty. Pat her short fur and a cloud of sandy loam dust always puffed into the air. I didn’t know her breed, farmers often did not pay attention to pedigree. We wanted a creature who barked at strangers, was kind to kids, and liked being outdoors.
We were never very creative with names. Over the decades, we’ve had about six different “Homers” (no relation to Greek writers but a very common name — because they stayed close to home?) We never used some of the most common names like Bailey, Bella, Max or Lucy. We inherited names like Jake and Cody — dogs given to us by friends or a rescue animal — or gone ethnic with Botchan and Takara — Japanese for a famous writer and the word for treasure.
All our farm dogs lived outside, ran though our fields, followed me out to work. One of our golden retrievers, first day on the farm, ran and followed me out on the tractor. He didn’t understand why I turned around at the end of one row to work the next, but with blind loyalty, ran along side the tractor and faithfully trotted up and down the first 20 rows. Then, as fatigue settled in, he stopped short of the end of the row and waited for the tractor to return. Finally exhausted, he sauntered home.
All of our dogs hunted. Rabbits, quail, squirrels, some pheasants, mice and even lizards were fair game. Mostly, they loved chasing them. I loved to watch them all run, dashing and darting with a yelp of excitement. Sometimes they’d bring home the bounty to share by depositing it on the front doorstep.
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And of course, the digging. Dirt flying, front paws burrowing, snouts stuck into a gopher hole. Other times a slow, methodical scraping to carve out a cool spot to plant a warm body. Since farm dogs typically are not fenced, none of our dogs employed their excavating prowess to escape. However, a number of young dogs have destroyed Marcy’s gardens and some felt compelled to exhume ancient bones. A few times, they dredged new, creative channels for my irrigation water (the precious liquid then ran down an avenue or flooded a different row).
Most farm dogs share a common trait: loyalty. They greet us with an honest excitement each morning, trot along side their owners, follow masters into the fields. Faithful and devoted. I knew of stoic farmers, hard working and reserved, who often held their emotions in check. Yet they talked to their dogs with emotion and affection. I’m sure other family members envied the attention.
Pets can display a type of absolute love and joy; that’s why they make such great companions. I love watching farm dogs play in the water. Each time, they act as if it’s the first moment of discovery: explore, touch, jump, splash, leap, roll, bathe, cool, lie, rest. I want to join and live vicariously through them.
Except when they act like dogs. Sometimes they disappear for a night, coming home with a slight cut on their leg — probably out drinking and chasing coyotes. Occasionally they appear with a special dog aroma: carrying the scent of place, like a neighbor’s manure or compost pile.
Or they act like, well, animals. First, dogs like to roll in feces. Why? One theory points to instinctual behavior when dogs were hunters and wanted to mask their own scent in order to sneak up on prey. Fortunately, the stink also warns me to avoid petting or hugging them after they bond with their primal character.
Second, farm dogs will seek out and then wear the scent of “dead.” Out in the countryside, they seem to find things in varying stages of decay, roll and rub their backs in it, bringing the odor home as if to announce “where they’ve been.” Then they seem to brag about their aromatic discovery and their new, stimulating perfume. Someone claimed the fatty oils of such sticky things helps their fur’s appearance — but I believe you have to be another dog to really appreciate such a beauty regime (and I’ve seen other dogs deftly sniff each other during such exchanges).
Our dogs also like to eat weeds and grass. They do have a discerning taste: I’ve never seen any eat Johnson grass — which may have a toxic flavor; they hate it and so do I. But all dogs do eat grass and then vomit. It may be their natural way of taking care of an upset stomach, they can’t digest the plant fibers but it can provide a quick and temporary fix — but certainly not pleasant to watch.
Farm dogs remain trusty and create life-long companions. And for old-time farmers like me, who often work alone and in solitude, they may be our only friend we interact with daily for hours and hours. In my lifetime, I’ve buried my share of farm dogs. We re-enact an age old farming ritual: we take care of the dead.
As I age, I begin to think of myself in dog years — together we age rapidly with each passing season. We will grow old, and I accept the fact we, too, will pass from this piece of land we call home.
Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people.