By: Stephen Jackson, MD
Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven. My wife is the actual farmer. This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned. Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.
Driving the Tahoe back toward the house, I glance at my passenger. Her head is in its usual position – out the window. In the side mirror I see her tongue lolling out of her mouth, blown by the wind toward her ear. We’re only going a quarter mile down the driveway, but her enthusiasm is as high as the kids’ headed to Disney. I don’t mind being alone carrying out a farm task. I just prefer having my farm dog Panda around.
When we moved to the farm four years ago, we had two dogs and two cats. Both canines were prone to running off if not on the leash or in an enclosure. Our felines preferred the creature comforts of the indoors, lounging on couch or counter-top, knocking over anything within reach.
Shortly after our arrival, whenever my wife would check the mail, she noticed a brindle dog of indistinct breed approaching her. The mutt was friendly enough. Her ribs were visible through her fur and this set the hook, she would be fed. She bore no tags and didn’t otherwise carry any identification. Since our mailbox is located right on a busy, high-speed country road, my wife began to worry the dog might get hit by a car or truck. At first, food was left near the mailbox so there was some source of nutrition.
One evening my wife mentioned her mailbox buddy to me. She told me of her plan to gradually bring the food closer and closer to the house, ostensibly to get the dog away from the road (our driveway is nearly half a mile long). I reluctantly agreed. I didn’t want any harm coming to the poor stray. However, I didn’t want another animal in our house. My wife assured me that was not her intention. True to form, two days later there were brand new food and water bowls on the front porch and our adopted pet sported a new collar, complete with a shiny tag with our address and her new name, Panda, given to her by my older daughter, Big H. I should have known better.
Over the course of our marriage I’ve learned my wife often couches these things in terms my brain will find more acceptable. For example, I got a call one day while I was at work during which my wife asked me what I thought about her and my older daughter going into the SPCA to see the dogs. Assurances were given that this was a just-look situation and that my daughter understood the rules walking into the place. Translation: Big H has already picked out a puppy from the SPCA. Not long after, I received another call (this one I expected) that Big H had picked out no less than two pups that were sister beagles that had been found together and were inseparable. The question was: would I be on-board if we got both? My predictable answer was that we would only ever take one dog – this was a time when we were taking none. We had recently lost Daisy, a six-year-old mutt, to an unknown disease and my wife insisted that the family needed at least one of the dogs and that at least one of the two needed us. Of course, my answer was the phone equivalent of a barely perceptible affirmative nod. I felt a modicum of satisfaction in putting my foot down that we would only get one of the two sisters. Translation: one of the dogs had been dubbed for adoption by someone else. The other one, now known as Lila, was already in our car headed toward a new life in the Jackson household.
After Panda spent only a short time living outside on our front porch, I came home to find her lounging on her own new pillow near the sofa. Just like that we had canine number three living in our house. Panda turned out to be an amazing addition to our family and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the dogs we’ve ever had. Whenever we’re outside working, she’s right there with us, ever faithful and companionate. She’s also set good examples for our other dogs. If either our beagle or retriever takes off on a countryside hike without our permission, Panda easily finds them and escorts them back. Our retriever, once a terror and source of quick death to our chickens, now hardly bothers to notice the chickens at all.
We also have cats. There isn’t much to say about the farm version of them. My wife had the idea that we should get barn cats. The only thing I knew about them at the time was to stay away. They should be considered miniature, angry cougars that were not pets. We adopted two kittens that had never lived inside. One of them, Sparkles (named by my younger daughter, little H) quietly stole away one night, never to be seen again. Little H still asks about her. There has even been one alleged sighting that remains unconfirmed. The other cat, aptly named Ginger by big H due to her coloring, remained in the barn for a while. The first cold night came and the six imploring eyes of the three animal-loving females in my life bought Ginger an instant upgrade to indoor-cat status. To this day Ginger will scratch me for no good reason. Little H can pick her up by her ears and the cat purrs happily while swinging back and forth in little H’s grasp as she’s carried to whatever make-believe destination my daughter has in store.
I’ve never been to a farm where there wasn’t at least one dog, a central figure to the family. No matter the setting, they can serve many purposes. They are protectors, companions, weird friends who have all types of mostly-lovable quirks. But, put a dog on a farm and a whole new level opens up for them. If their goal is to please, a farm is the best of all places for them to ply their trade. I can speak from both types of experiences, the dog in a city and the dog on a farm. Having a dog in the city is like having a Ferrari that can be driven only on the driveway. A farm dog is like having the Ferrari and your own private autobahn.
I’m glad my daughters have the experience of dogs. The furry creatures become a part of the family that we know one day will have to go. I vividly remember the night I held Nora, my dog of 15 years, as the vet injected her with the medication that would put her out of her misery. I can barely think about, much less write about the events that led up to the moment I felt her heart stop beating. Being there in that moment was an impossibility. Yet, she’d been there, unquestioningly, for 15 years of my life. There was no question that I’d be there in that scariest of moments for her. I don’t regret a second of time with her. My daughters will know the loss. What I want them to understand is that the loss is part of the bargain. We get our dogs in our lives for what amounts to a little while and give them the best life possible. We are fortunate to have them and they’re fortunate to have us. The appreciation of that limited time, the memories made, the shared experiences, is what I want my daughters to have because it can be applied to nearly every other area of life.