My father was raised on a working farm in Dakota County, NE. It wasn’t a large spread, just under a quarter section (or about 160 acres.) It was a typical small farm: crops grown for market & to feed the family; cows, hogs, draft horses & of course, dogs & cats.
The beauty & peace of rural life can take your breath away. On a recent visit back, I was treated to spectacular high plains sunrises & sunsets. There were thunderstorms so violent you could feel the vibrations in your bones & your hairs stood on end from the electricity in the air. I counted over a dozen kinds of birds visiting the birdbaths, as well as a sighting of a gorgeous ring-necked pheasant out in the fields. And because it was so amazingly quiet, I could hear birdcalls as distinctly as church bells.
Farm life has always been both idyllic & brutal. Statistics indicate that farm work is one of the most dangerous & labor-intensive careers in existence. My own uncle was a victim of an accident that tore off most of an arm in a corn picker. No one who has lived as a farmer has any illusions about the growing of animals & crops for food: to eat, something has to die. None of the animals being raised for slaughter were ever named, even though they were well fed & well treated. And even though the working animals such as the cats & dogs were often graced with such monikers as “Spot,” “Boots,” or “Snowball” they were never considered companion animals the way we city folk do with our pets.
My father has told a story about a Jack Russell-type terrier they called Jackie who was a good cattle dog until the day he went rogue. On that day, Jackie decided that it was a great sport to chase cattle all over the pasture. As a pastime for a hyper dog, it may have been entertaining, but of course having a dog that endlessly chased the cows could not be tolerated. For several weeks, they tried different methods of re-training Jackie, but it seems that the switch had been thrown & there was no shutting off this bad habit.
In the end, they did what had to be done. My uncle & father took Jackie out into the bluffs for a nice run. They tossed a ball to him for a while, then, they shot him dead.
When I first heard about Jackie, I was completely horrified. How on earth do you just shoot a beautiful dog in the prime of life? Why couldn’t they have tried harder to fix the problem? Wasn’t there another place for him to live? What was wrong with these stupid farmers? Didn’t they have hearts? Didn’t they have a responsibility to this little guy to keep trying regardless of how bad things got?
I found answers in experiences from my own life with animals.
I have always loved animals of all kinds & have had cats for many years…always at least 2 so they can keep each other company with their own kind. When I was able to move into a home of my own, I was finally able to indulge in acquiring a dog, an English Shepard stray. I began to work with Greyhound rescue & have been a foster home provider for dogs fresh off the track. Well over 30 dogs have passed through “Aunt Sandy’s Boot Camp for Newbies” over the last few years. This led to the acquisition of my 2 other dogs that are ex-racing greyhounds.
I also have fallen into a side business of pet care: walking, overnights, etc. I am not a full-time pet care gal, but on a typical holiday weekend, I may have up to 15 animals in my care. I tell you all of this because I have become something of an expert in animal care & handling. I’m no “dog whisperer” but all my charges seem to enjoy my company & we always have a fine time.
I do not consider myself a trainer in any formal sense, but often I find myself in that role, as many of the dogs I care for seem to be completely out of control. They are oftentimes not properly trained to walk on-leash, & some owners don’t even have leashes, meaning that those guys are never walked at all. I hate a dog trying to yank my arm out of the socket because it is so full of energy it simply cannot control it’s behavior.
In addition, many of my clients’ dogs are locked inside all day & are expected to control their “potty” calls for up to 12 hours at a time. When was the last time you held it for that many hours? Try it, I guarantee you won’t have an enjoyable time.
Dogs are descended from wolf stock that only survived by covering massive amounts of ground every day: to hunt & to hold home territory was an undertaking involving constant patrolling of perhaps hundreds of square miles of ground. When we domesticated the wolf, we began a process that has evolved domestic canines into a myriad of physical types.
However, what didn’t change in all of those different types of dogs are the basic instincts of pack behavior & movement. Why do you think your dog gets so incredibly excited when you bring out the leash? He’s going to MOVE, be on walkabout, and be able to interact with others of his own kind & with you in the most natural way for him.
Which brings me to what I have come to believe. When I started thinking about Jackie & how I thought he was somehow mistreated by his fate, I began to compare how we treat our companion animals in this supposedly enlightened & modern-thinking society. How we lock our dogs & cats in small, boring boxes for endless hours. How they don’t get the proper exercise while getting endless treats, toys & usually way too much food. How we take pack animals & force them to live alone under these conditions because we somehow think that allowing them proper companionship of their own kind will reduce our relationships with them.
Jackie’s life may have been cut short. And although I would never be able to pull a trigger on a dog, I have had, over the years, some of my pets put to sleep using the vet as a hired gun. Both kinds of deaths are sad, yet relatively painless & certainly the kindest thing for the animals in the situations they were in. But one thing that Jackie had that most companion animals don’t have is a simple purpose in life, a job to do & the natural freedom to do it. My father’s family was in business to grow & sell food & they found themselves with a dog that was unfixable. What were they to do?
They solved a problem in the best way possible given their situation. They didn’t take Jackie & tie him to a tree in a park to starve to death (yes, I have seen this.) They didn’t put him in a car, drive him to a far-away street & shove him out to starve to death or get hit by a car (yes, I have seen this as well.) They didn’t take him to a shelter (even if one had been available at that time) to be in an unhealthy & chaotic environment for the last week or two of his life while he awaited execution.
Having the opportunity to work with other’s animals has been a fantastic opportunity for me to appreciate having my pack of animals around me (currently 4 cats & 3 dogs.) They provide me with a sense of deep contentment & I treat them like animals. Everybody’s happy.