Celebrate Country Canines

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If dogs were people, I figure country canines would be the Huck Finns of that world.

Remember how Tom Sawyer envied Huck’s lack of adult supervision? That’s probably how a town dog would feel about a country dog’s freedom to chase rabbits through the woods, dig for gophers in the alfalfa field or take a swim in a farm pond. Like Huck, country dogs mostly live outdoors, sleep when they want, supplement their diets with a tasty gopher now and then, and seldom suffer the indignity of being taken to the groomer for a bath and a trim. And don’t even think about asking a country dog to walk on a leash.

Country dogs tend to be brave, loyal, eager to please, and they are generally friendly once they’ve met you. And even though some country dogs may appear to spend their days sleeping, never make the mistake of assuming a country dog asleep under a shade tree is a lazy good-for-nothing mutt. That’s just a disguise. The truth is, most country dogs hold down multiple jobs, providing around-the-clock security for the house and grounds, helping to herd livestock and often serving as babysitters for the smallest members of the family.

When you live in the country, an outdoor dog is probably the best investment in security you’ll ever make. A barking dog lets you know the minute a salesman, stranger or neighbor pulls into your driveway. And when you’re fast asleep at night, a country dog is your first line of defense against tractor rustlers, cows on the loose, teenagers in your watermelon patch or raccoons in the sweet corn. Country dogs believe they have an exclusive contract to provide security for your home and family. If I was in charge of Homeland Security, I’d issue every country dog in the nation a badge and a paycheck.

If you keep livestock, a country dog can be your best hired hand – especially if she has some Corgi or Aussie blood in her veins. When I was a youngster, we had a mixed-breed shepherd named Bobby who delighted in bringing the cows in from the pasture for the evening milking. He helped round up steers in the feedlot, kept a watchful eye on the spring calves and even kept the bull in line. The only time Bobby’s natural herding instinct proved to be less of an asset was when he spent his idle hours rounding up the chickens.

While a country dog should be of a certain size and temperament, just about any purebred or mixed-breed dog can apply for the job. Some folks prefer Labs, German Shepherds, retrievers, or hounds of one kind or another. Personally, I like mixed-breed dogs with some Australian Shepherd or Border Collie blood. The so-called “purse dog” breeds such as Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus and Toy Poodles are seldom cut out to be outdoor dogs. A brave Chihuahua did make the news last year for defending the family toddler from a rattlesnake, but there’s a good chance any dog weighing less than a hen turkey could wind up on the menu if coyotes or bobcats are in the area.

Country dogs generally like youngsters and tolerate having their tails and ears pulled, will submit to being hitched to a little red wagon and will happily participate in a game of tag. Although they might be embarrassed by the experience, they’ll probably even put up with children dressing them in old clothes. My mother tells me I used to feed dirt clods to my first dog, Tippy, when I was 3 or 4 years old. To my knowledge, Tippy tolerated the indignity without complaint.

Country dogs often have names like Rex or Max or Hank, and they should never be confused with a show dog whose pedigree name includes such titles as “Viceroy,” “Countess” or “Prince.” Compared to show dogs, they are uncultured, uncouth and unconcerned with their appearance.

Like Huck Finn, country dogs are not keen advocates of personal hygiene. They tend to be attracted to ripe odors, and they think the most wonderful aroma in the world comes from a muskrat or possum carcass that’s been baking by the side of the road for a week or longer. Make the mistake of giving a country dog a shampoo, and there’s a good chance he will assert his independence by rolling in a fresh pile of cow manure at the earliest opportunity.

Country dogs will eat almost anything. Some thrive on a diet of dry dog food, while others do fine on table scraps. If they’re hungry for a change of diet, gophers, mice and moles are always available. They rarely expect to sleep in the house and are happy with a bed of straw in the barn, an old blanket in the machine shed or pile of seed-corn sacks in the granary.

Country dogs love pickup trucks the way auto enthusiasts love Porsches and BMWs. Some prefer to ride in the back, standing upright with their front paws propped against the cab while they inhale the wonderful aromas of cows and horses, new-mown alfalfa, dandelion patches and sun-warmed earth. Others prefer the comfort of the front seat, ears flapping in the breeze as they stick their heads as far out the window as possible. Still others are lovers and prefer to lean their heads on the boss’s shoulder, looking for all the world like a teenager’s prom date. Raise your hand if you’ve ever driven past a pickup with a tall redhead sitting close beside the driver, only to discover the redhead was an Irish Setter.

Most country dogs love to hunt, and they will eagerly spend hours chasing rabbits or squirrels, even if they’ve never actually caught one. If you’re a bird hunter, country dogs just assume they’re invited to participate. Unless your dog instinctively knows how to point and retrieve, however, there’s a good chance he’ll flush out the pheasants or quail long before you’re within shotgun range. A few country dogs are sensitive enough to head for home (or the safety of the pickup) when the first shots are fired – but they’ll be first in line to come along next time you head to the field.

Country dogs will bravely mix it up with snakes, coyotes and big cats. But sometimes their curiosity can get the best of them. More than once, our dog Bobby came home with a muzzle full of porcupine quills, reeking of skunk or with his nose scratched up after a midnight encounter with a raccoon. But despite his misadventures, I don’t think Bobby would have traded his rural life for one in town for all the kibble in the county.

Mark Twain wrote that Huck came and went at his own free will, could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him. He didn’t have to go to school or church, never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes. In a word, wrote Twain, “everything that goes to make life precious.”

Folks, that pretty well sums up the life of a country dog.

Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet who lives in Parkville, Missouri.

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