Learning to Herd: How Dogs Become Family

I was raised by people who didn’t let dogs in the house. The common opinion was that dogs should live outside or in the barn. On our sheep farm, there was a hard line between us and the animals we depended on for a living. But my mother insisted I spend the day outside with my father and farmers are notoriously lousy babysitters. So, I ran with the dogs and the line was blurred immediately.

In my twenties, my dogs had to have long hair. I cried a lot and multi-tasked them as mops. We left the house at 10 pm and wandered down suburban streets peering in windows from the sidewalk. We saw furniture, men in tv light, and women in the kitchen. Cats peered back from windowsills. I was slow to find a real home, but the dogs gave me a place to be after work, they walked me until I was calm, they gave me a place to sleep at night. It isn’t that I didn’t have relationships. It’s just that when they broke up, I got another dog.

Over the next two decades, I brought generations of dogs to work with me in my art studio/gallery. Many wore black, some had ears like French hats, and they affected an artistically skeptical gaze. Aloof, oblivious of children, and cautious with strangers, the dogs were too cool to wag. Any illusion of sophistication I have, I got from them. I learned to have a dog in my professional headshots because alone, I’d tense my neck and hide between my shoulders in a way that made my head look the size of an apple. When people asked if the dogs were in the gallery for protection, I tensed my lips into a straight line over my teeth nodding, certain I was hiding my secret.

Once I moved to the farm, the dogs stretched out. They napped by the arena when I worked horses and trotted along to the barn for chores, always tripping on my heels and pulling my socks down. They took the herding job seriously, running laps around my pens to keep track of the horses and llamas inside. When I trained off property, they came along to guard the truck. At night we shared a beer and howled at the coyotes from the comfort of the porch. Horses may be my fondest passion, but I slept in a dog pile.

All dog stories end the same way, but I’ll never blame a dog for having a shorter life than mine. I did my best to help as long as I could and then let them go before the worst. Sure, I mourn them, but wouldn’t it dishonor a dog if we gave up herding or playing ball or sleeping in a pile? Wouldn’t they prefer their beds are used and their bowls filled? Of course, I cry big snotty tears and hack phlegm into a wadded-up bandana, but since I will miss that good dog forever anyway, I get another dog.

A different generation of dogs naps under my desk tonight as I write. Literary dogs have a barely audible snore, tend to be a bit soft in the waist, and would have you know that writers are as clever as clothes on hangers.

When the pandemic canceled my travel schedule, I started an online Barn School and the dogs took up a second job timekeeping for Zoom meetings. Preacher Man is a master of wiggling into my lap as I start to wrap up, staying just off-camera, but digging toenails in as he spins to settle. He’s a bit too long to be a lapdog, but he’s no quitter. On camera, I look like I have gas, a sporadic speech impediment leaving me unable to finish a sentence, like my breasts have suddenly come live inside my shirt.

I’ve been self-employed for over forty-five years now, and I have never worked alone. I’ve never even gone to the bathroom alone.

When my parents were alive, they frowned at my rag-tag hairy family, saying it wasn’t how I was raised. I remember differently. Dogs became family not just because they were the historical choice. They seemed remarkably good at it. Dogs have had my back, in one way or another, all this distance and not once was I lost.

There is always an old dog in the pack. Right now, it’s Finn. He’s the Dude Rancher’s dog, my step-dog. I swear, draw any line you want, and a dog just won’t care. Finn is one of those dogs who hated to play ball but didn’t want to disappoint. He’d saunter out to the ball and pick it up. Then he got flustered, looking both ways first, he’d skulk away. If you chased him down and threw the ball again, he’d follow it nervously, feeling obligated to pick it up, but then look embarrassed. Sports-dread. He wasn’t stupid, it’s just his heart was never in it. Now his hind legs don’t always move properly, so I stand behind and to one side. We both take old-dog-sized steps. I never nip at his heels and it’s useless to talk to a deaf dog, so I wait. The slower Finn goes, the more time I take. It’s about the only way a human can improve for a dog.

Car rides scare Finn now. Loud voices make him cringe. He thinks the backyard might be haunted. Sometimes when I’m sitting on the toilet, he rests his gray muzzle on my knee and lets me know he’s fine. That it’s okay being an old dog who likes a head scratch. No regrets and no more plans for the future than he ever had. He’s fine, as near perfect as a dog can be.

For Finn:

A deliberate old dog with gray dreadlocks and a
stiff stride paces the backyard. A badly constructed
mixed-breed with a heavy body on spindly legs,
but too restless to nap. He has worn a path along

the fence line but he remains a bit bewildered, not
trusting his clouded eyes, his nose intent on the air.
Is there something in the distance just beyond? Give
him extra at dinner to hold his weight, an egg on top.

Call his name. He appreciates the reminder with
a wag but doesn’t come. Old dogs do as they like.
It’s cooler after dark, but he can’t find his way back
inside, so he stands and barks in a flat tone, one boof

after another, plaintive and blunt. Here. Here. So,
I go there, guide him up one step and in the door.
He takes a drink, water trailing from his whiskers
across the linoleum, then again, the plastic flap-flap

of the dog door. Soon he calls, more impatient now.
Here! Here! Answer the bark, rescue him. Hold the
door wide, wait till he recognizes me in the threshold
light. Give him the time needed to remember his home.

He pauses to listen, his ears long deaf. Still not certain,
he rocks onto one leg to pick up the other, and just so
tired, he paddles past me, his tail following reluctantly.
Not a wag really. It’s more like a slow wave goodbye.


Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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46 thoughts on “Learning to Herd: How Dogs Become Family”

  1. Oh boy, this resonates, Ann. My LC did this exact thing, that lone, flat “wuf” over and over. Eyes clouded, deaf but smiling, tail wagging slow. Brings tears to my eyes this morning. I will always miss that dog, the friend who saw me through the worst and best days of my life. And yes, another dog not long after … Lily who knows your voice. Thank you.

    • Give that young thing a stratch. I remember her too. We never forget either, do we? We’re the lucky ones, Kaylene.

  2. You just described my 13 year old GSD, Pancho. His cloudy eyes can still light up reflecting the joy he has for life but most mornings now, I give him a minute to remember where he is before letting him outside. Like Finn he’s deaf, can’t see well and his hinds legs betray him. We know we don’t have much longer with him and my husband says “no more dogs”, not wanting to go thru the loss again. I used to reply “better to have loved & lost than to never have loved at all” but now I’m going to say “since we will miss that good dog forever anyway, we’ll get another dog.”
    Our horses are wise to our human short-comings and very good at humbling us but our dogs, well they think we’re amazing! Yes another dog will find us, of that I’m sure.

    • Good boy, Pancho. These are precious days, and life hurts without dogs, too. Thanks Sueann. Wishing us both a kind summer.

  3. Oh Anna, tears on Friday morning seem to be a pattern these days. Luckily I have a good old terrier to lick them away while the Ridgback pushes her big head in to make sure all is well and naked dog looks for an opening. Home has always meant being where my dogs are, generation after generation.

  4. If I were a dog I’d say this is as raw and delicious as a big meaty bone from the butcher, but since I’m not, all I can say is I hope to be half as good at holding open those doors. Thanks for leaving the light on.

  5. Only been about 6 months since I “lost” my Suzy dog – and got another dog – Axel. So I too never go to the bathroom alone! Its either Axel or Juliette(cat) – they take turns – it depends on who gets down the hall first – its a contest! And SA – youre right – another will find us – always. But boy, is it hard, as their life winds down & you know its winding down.
    Another tear jerker Anna but really good, close to home one.

  6. “I have never worked alone. I’ve never even gone to the bathroom alone.”

    Truth, that. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m down to two, which is the smallest pack I’ve ever had. I’m not even sure if two qualifies as a pack? And I’ve never paused this long after losing one. Uncharted water I guess, so the plan is to keep on treading for now. Meanwhile, Chase uses Hazer’s dinner bowl and bed. It only took five years to decide that was OK. And Gus sleeps on the bed where Nina kept watch all those years, a quicker transition because I missed the immobile lump on the end of the bed. But the truth is, I may be done with dogs that are “too cool to wag” and regard most people and children with a considerable dose of skepticism. Hahahaha! Who am I kidding? 😉

  7. Anna, This one is so special to me. Living with, loving and saying “good-bye” to my dogs through the years has been such a blessing.

  8. Well crap, Anna. That made me cry. I see that inevitable slow wave good bye in my own dogs and in my patients, too. It’s hard. I’ve seen it all too often, but it never stops me from doing it all over again.

  9. I have thought about your loving and powerful essay off and on today. I, too, grew up in a family where the dogs lived outside.. but at some point I did have a chihuahua named Mitzi. She was the most loyal and loving creature alive at that time. I would snuggle with her in my bed as a child, and she was with me through parent’s divorce, and a move to my grandparents’ farm. When she died, I was sitting on the floor with her, beside the coal stove in the living room on a cold night in winter. . It was devastating loss. Even my grandmother , a very religious woman, said if a dog ever went to heaven, it will be Mitzi, and she was crying, too.

    Somehow I ended up being a cat person but I still love dogs. Your tribute to Finn made me cry. The slow wave goodbye is a heartbreaking phrase, in a good kind of way !

  10. Thank you Anna! Touch my heart! ❤️
    Our Aussie girls have grown old…Ruby is 13 and no longer responds when we call her. We often wonder if she’s gone deaf, but then we’re sure she has not. She barks non stop at times, has slowed way down, and to heck with this Texas heat she’ll lounge inside.
    Bella is 11, her body is stiff but she will always be true to her nature. Her run is explosive, but is reminded “not so fast” as she bunny hops back, yet it seems she’ll never remember she hurts. Her anti inflammatory works well.
    Many years ago my son discovered that dog is god spelled backwards. The awe in that for him was priceless. We can’t argue any of that!

  11. Thanks Anna, the dogs that have lived with me since childhood have been my steadying force. As they move on they seem to send replacements! Knowing that the horses are comfortable, the dogs are all in (finally, on a nice night they like to hang outside) and the cats are doing whatever! (cat door) is my glass full. Hope we ALL have a peaceful summer ? TAZ

  12. My good bad terrier is 13 now, and recent health check was great, and he’s happier now the worst of summer is past and we can enjoy the mellow days before the cold hits our tin can. But, instead of me hurrying to keep up on walks, I slow down to his more moderate pace. A reminder that these days are precious and to take time to enjoy them. As always, grateful to you for your wisdom.

  13. I can’t sleep unless it’s in a dog pile. (Or I am heavily sedated in a hospital.) I cannot imagine my life without a dog in it. My crazy other dog obsessed friends and I (all of a certain age) often have discussions about what size dog is a perfect “old lady dog” that we know we will have to assist in THEIR dotage.
    Right now there are 5 in the house….ages 15 down to 17 months. Every one of them uniquely his or her self. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Thank you for this gorgeous piece about a species I owe my life and most of any sanity I have to. It’s is wonderful.

  14. As others, this essay brought some tears and sad smiles. Thanks for writing and sharing it. My old guy (adopted, age unknown but 10+) is slowing and I imagine a hard choice will be upon us sooner than later but, in the meantime, I’ll take the advice gently offered to slow down some and just love. #2 dog and cats will miss him when he goes so I imagine we can use them as an excuse (as if we need one) for another eventually.

  15. Anna, I read the title of this piece last Friday and had a feeling it might open my recent wounds. So, I postponed reading your heartfelt writing until this evening. I am still feeling empty from letting go of my cattle dog back in January when she told me she was ready to go after a fabulous 16years. And saying my final goodbyes to Hawkeye, my oldest horse, on Easter Sunday, reminded me of all the souls who have left before him and he knew almost all of them. But I steeled myself and read on with the anticipation of another bucket of tears. Bottom line…..I’m glad that I read your precious words tonight. Yes, they moved me deeply, but they gave me such comfort in knowing that all of us who dare to love, develop the strength to endure loss so that we might love again. Thank you Anna.

    • Thanks, Laurie. I would hate to think I made things worse. Maybe it’s our age. Last week, I lost one of the original, here on my farm from the start. It kind of starting what you describe, a slide show of all who are gone now but brightened my life for the time we shared. I just hate giving death the power to dim their lives. Sorry about your losses, and so thrilled for the abundance of souls you’ve held.

  16. I am sorry for your recent loss Anna. Can’t believe you were then able to turn around and write this piece. Kudos and thank you!

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