My vet doesn’t do dogs. He knows all about dogs after seven years at the vet college and a brief stint interning in an urban clinic, but when he opened a large animal practice up here in farm country he made it known he was leaving the dog and cat business to others.
So when my collie dog got hit on the road by the neighbor’s and was limping, I was surprised when Jason offered to take a look at him. I asked why he would make an exception in my case and he said: “Because he’s a farm dog. And you’re not an idiot.”
I took that as a great compliment. Over time, I learned that Jason doesn’t mind doing anything for farmers because they have a completely different mindset than almost all other people who own animals.
“When animals have a clear commercial purpose and are not your pets, it’s easier to form an emotional cocoon and make practical decisions,” he says. He calls this ‘farmer thinking’ and we trade examples of it whenever we visit. It was Jason who inspired the title I gave to this column seven years ago when I started writing for this paper.
When I was a kid in Mono Township, we had a dog catcher named Ernie Dods who believed that farm dogs should be tax exempt. He had three questions that established eligibility: “Did you pay for that dog? Does the dog go in the house? Has he ever been to town?” If you answered ‘no’ to all three questions, he would bid you “G’day” and drive on.
Those were the days. The dog tax in Clearview Twp is now $30 a snout and the program brings in more revenue than the development tax on new houses.
A farm dog used to be more of a type than a breed, a type often referred to as a borderline collie.
He was a fat, cheerful dog with fleas and a way of curling his lip in a toothy grin that would make visitors get back in the car. When you drove up the lane he would say woof! about four times and flop back down in the flowerbed that the missus had pretty much given up on since he was a pup. If you patted him you were careful just to pat the top of his head because if you touched him anywhere else your hand would smell bad.
He went to the barn twice a day and, if he was exceptional, he might bring the cows in. The rest of the time he sat by the house chewing on a dead groundhog and snapping at flies.
He lived on table scraps and sour milk and slept in the wood shed. On the coldest days of the year he might be allowed in the summer kitchen, but he was never, ever allowed to cross the threshold into the main house. He never got into town and he wasn’t interested anyway.
Everything he was interested in was within eyesight of the veranda. He got nothing for his health but a rabies shot every spring, administered by his owner, and usually lived to the age of fourteen without once receiving the undivided attention of a vet.
Then one day, his back legs would seize up and he’d stop eating and his owner would take him for a slow walk back to the bush, a walk from which only one would return. A noticeable silence would hang over the farmstead for a few weeks and then a new puppy would appear on the veranda.
The first dog that came to this farm was a little Jack Russell terrier my wife brought when we were married. Andy had been born in the drawer of a bedroom dresser, one of five puppies that roamed the farm like a motorcycle gang, fought ruthlessly under the dinner table and sang “Edelweiss” on the couch whenever Father picked up his accordion.
He had a vocabulary of over a hundred words, mostly profanity he had picked up from me. I dragged him out of countless scrapes with other dogs and he had more scratches and dents on him than a farm truck. He was wonderful with babies and small children. He was terrible with chickens. He was also a plain damn nuisance.
He’s been gone 25 years now but if you look at the ancient wool blanket my wife throws over us on a cold night you can still find a stray hair from that little brown dog. He sleeps with us still.
Dan Needles is the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca