His muzzle is quite silver now, a sign of dignity, I like to say. And getting up isn’t quite as easy as it once was. But he’s still out there every day doing his morning rounds, still takes care of his family and his duties around the ranch just fine. Only a little slower now than he used to be.
(Bob scratches his graying beard and asks me if I’m writing about him. No, I tell him, this is about Alan, our family dog. I can’t say I think Bob is slowing down yet, though I’ll admit, that beard is getting quite dignified.)
His days of keeping up with us effortlessly on a 30 mile day horseback ride are past, but last summer he managed the 6 milers we regularly do to get to our camp pretty well. And this year, I’m sure he’ll do the same. He knows it beats being left home. Like all dogs worth their weight in gold, as so many are, being with us always outweighs being left behind. No matter how hard on the old joints.
My first adopted Shepherd came to me from the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. He was probably 7 years old at the time and had a rough life. He had been severely beaten, and after 12 days in the shelter on medication and treatments, the kind folks who worked there were losing hope that the right sucker would find him. But I did. His “resume” claimed he was not house broken, he ran away, he could not be trusted off leash, etc.
I stepped into his caged cell and he looked at me with his one eye (the other lost in his days of abuse), sat down, and gave me a paw. Yes, love at first site. He came home with me that day. Home was a 1966 Volkswagen Microvan. The first night “home” I sat on the steps of the van with Zorg on leash. No one was around. I unhooked his leash and instantly, wouldn’t you know, the dog took off at run, clear to the other side of the parking lot he ran, and then… stopped. And turned around. And walked back to me. And that’s pretty much how it was for the next 7 years of Zorg’s life. Where I was, he was, or very close behind. And when he was too old to keep up with me, he’d sit in the middle of the hill between my cabin, the barn and the office, and watch me all day with that one good eye, up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill…
When I lost him, I was a wreck. I thought I’d “get over it.” But after a month I was still crying every day. I know you can not replace a loved one, but you can fill the empty space in your day, if not in your heart. And so I contacted the German Shepherd Rescue Society to find me that filler. Now here’s a funny twist. I lived on a big, beautiful ranch and have a life whereby I can be with my dog by my side just about 24/7. I rarely go to town or take vacation or any such things were my canine companion can not be with me. Pretty good life for a dog, you’d think. But the Rescue Society said that without the requirements of a fenced yard, they could not allow me to adopt. Hmmm…
And here’s the strange but pretty neat part: A few days later, I received a phone call from a taxi driver in Los Angeles. That was about 11 or 12 hours from the ranch I was living at. He said he was a foster parent, and had just the dog for me. Someone from the German Shepherd Rescue had passed on my name and number. He said this was the one, the dog needed me, he’d be perfect in my life, and told me the dog’s name was Alan. His one request was that I keep the name. No problem.
Sometimes, you just have to not ask questions, but believe. I believed. And made arrangements to have the probably four year old dog that had been abandoned on the streets of LA delivered up to Doggie Paradise.
Ha! Paradise found for that dog, but lost for me. From the minute he walked into my home, he bit one of our cats who rubbed up against him thinking it was her old Zorg. The next day I had to stop him from chasing our foals all over the pasture. I could go on, but you get the picture. It wasn’t pretty.
So, on a leash I kept that dog for an entire month. On leash as we brought in the milk cow and he had to learn to sit beside me as I milked. On a leash as we herded in the sheep at night or let out the chickens in the morning. On a leash even in the house so that he couldn’t chase the cats.
Somewhere I have a photo of this dog, Alan Shepherd, one month after arriving to our ranch. He’s sitting on the sofa, no leash, and one of the cats in on the sofa near him. Yes, he learned. It was a bummer of a month, but it was worth it. He learned to put up with a couple of cats, to work with horses and cattle, to help heard in the sheep and goats, to calmly walk into the chicken coop and inspect for predators, and not to jump onto the kitchen counter to eat Forrest’s birthday cake or any food not offered to him, for that matter.
That was I suppose nine years ago. He’s an old hand with ranch work now. I bet he’s glad I don’t make him herd the cows any more. Last time he tried to do that the old cow with the big horns tossed him into the air like a foot ball, and he landed with a big OOOOOFF! as the air got knocked out of him.
He’s not Zorg. He’s his own dog. His job extends farther than looking after me. He has the boys to take care of, and the ranch to oversee. So he often would rather stay home on the front porch than follow me on a ride or snowshoe. Unless all three of us go, of course, and then he acts like a puppy, gets all frisky, and can’t wait to hit the trail. I let him make up his own mind. He chose his job, does it well, and I respect him for it.
Now, joining us on the trails is not so much him watching out for us, though we don’t tell him that. More often than not, we have to look out for him, both horseback and in the snow. The deep white winters are tough on him, but we know how to help him out, and he accepts our help. This means he now walks behind us and lets us pack the trail for him. It’s his position of honor. I hope he feels that way.
Yesterday the snow conditions, always changing, always different, were such that Bob and I stayed atop well enough with our snowshoes, but Alan post holed in with each step, down about 18 inches, and had to fight to not only stay on top, but to advance. We stopped and debated turning back. This was too hard on the old dog. But Bob reached into his pocket and pulled out a handy dandy walkie talkie (our version of a cell phone) and called Forrest. Forrest to the rescue – he came on snowmobile, packed a track for us, and Alan was one mighty grateful dog.
Growing old has it’s ups and downs, but we have to help each other out. I’m pretty sure Alan doesn’t mind the receiving, and we sure don’t mind the giving. Another up and down is going deaf, as Alan now is. It’s harder to keep up with his job, but easier to get in a good nap.