By Dr. Arn Anderson, DVM
My family has had more dogs than I can actually remember. They ranged across every breed and all sizes. The famous to infamous, essential to undesirable, and loyal to flighty. I’ve had Labradors, German Shepherds, Border Collies, Great Pyrenes, Rat Terriers, Pointers and Heinz 57s.
You may remember “Gracie”, the over-conditioned lab that taught me about electric fences I wrote about in a back issue. Then there was ‘Stonewall”, the Great Pyrenes that guarded our sheep who would bring dead lambs to our back porch and who stood quietly as my daughter made him into a zebra with a magic marker. We had “Spotty” the Border collie that we found under the house when we moved in, that could easily fill a pen with calves, and “Dakota” the German Shepard who, too this day, was the best babysitter we have had. But “Rebel” stood way out and far above all the others.
Rebel was the last born in a litter of 11 to an obsessive-compulsive black lab female and a psychotic yellow male. My youngest son chose him at weaning as his dog and the other ten pups were quickly distributed across the county. It’s easy to get rid of a litter when you’re a rural veterinarian; put them in an exam room at the clinic about the time school gets out and offer the first round of vaccines for free. Anyway, Rebel looked pathetic. He was undersized, lethargic and had a giant head. He learned to sleep in the dog bowl and simply wait on Delanie to bring the dog food twice a day.
At a year of age, Rebel topped out at 85 lbs. of muscle and bone. By the age of two this genetic outcrop had achieved 115 pounds and clearly dominated the animal kingdom on our farm. He was respected and lived quietly, sleeping on the front porch, effortlessly guarding his domain. Coyotes dared not enter the eight acres around our house, cattle did not graze next to the fence and even buzzards would not land on the fence posts. Yet chickens rested on his sleeping hulk and barn cats curled next to him when the cold weather came. Children loved to ride his back, pull his ears and twist his tail. My daughter’s boyfriends refused to get out of their trucks when met with his giant head and booming bark at their window. School buses were met at the highway and he escorted the little kids home. Somehow he knew who was welcome and who was unexpected, what animals belonged and which ones were up to no good. There were some mornings I found him in my youngest daughter’s bed. He was the perfect cure to bad dreams and any “monsters” in her closet.
Raccoons and skunks viewed Rebel as the personification of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He rained death on these varmints to the point of exhaustion. Late one winter night his barking notified us of an invasion of the hen house. With a shotgun in one hand and a flashlight in the other I opened the door with my knee. Rebel ran between my legs and smashed into a family of scavenging raccoons. Amid a strange harmony of hissing, growling and Rebel’s barks, six coons were thrown against the south wall of the house. I merely stood there in my boots and underwear shivering; I never fired a shot. The last raccoon was dragged back through the door and Rebel collapsed in the frozen grass. I went back to bed telling my wife I had taken care of the problem. Skunks met an unusual demise as Rebel bounced up and down on them with his oversized front feet until they were flat. He would drag his face on the ground going back to his porch and reek for days in the afterglow of a job well done.
The kids’ 4-H and FFA projects became his special concerns. Rabbit cages were guarded when the cage doors were left open overnight, barrows chased him for exercise, and children always had a companion when they fed and cleaned late at night after a basketball game. A commercial steer was Rebel’s favorite. My son kept his feed in sacks under a lean-to next to the steer pen. Some mornings, as I left for work, I would notice the remnants of feed sacks in the steer pen and spilled feed on the ground. At supper my son would get repeated lectures on the cost of wasted feed, on keeping the pen clean and on the responsibility of animal care. I was sure his denials of wrongdoing were merely his youthful refusal to accept responsibility. He was grounded, scolded, and made to get up earlier to have time to do a better job. Yet the sacks were still there in the morning and the feed mixed into the mud. Standing at the window one full moon night I watched as Rebel trotted to the lean-to and shortly returned dragging a fifty-pound bag of feed around the pen, under the gate and up to the commercial steer. The steer bucked across the lot while Rebel chased his own tail. The steer than tore into the sack and gorged on the whole corn and cotton seed hulls. I can attest that crow tastes horrible as I found out the next evening when I apologized to my son.
As a bovine veterinarian I meet, see and work with a large population of farm dogs. Some are well trained, know their job and shorten a long day. They are good employees that are never late, eat little and require only a water trough to jump into at the end of the day. Others are entertaining with comic performances, near death dashes from charging cattle and over-animated actions chasing my truck. Then there are those that stand in the gate, attack the cattle, get the vet kicked and steal my lunch. They are constantly yelled at, irritate the cows, chase the horses and occupy more time getting out of the way than they are worth. This last group quickly becomes dangerous, expensive and irritating for everyone involved. Guard dogs typically don’t work with herding dogs at processing. Herding dogs often don’t belong at the chute. General farm dogs need to be well behaved and housedogs need to stay home. Yes, there are exceptions, but if you’re favorite canine is not doing his job, put him in the feed room, lock him in the gooseneck or take him back to obedience school.
Rebel ruled the roost for ten years. His big feet became arthritic, his hearing failed, and on a rainy January night during the county livestock show Rebel didn’t hear the truck and gooseneck full of show calves as he wandered on to the highway by our cattle guard. My brother-in law moved him before we came home. People still bring his descendants to the practice and I’m sure rumors of his legend still circulate in the raccoon nation.