Few farm and ranch residents do not own a dog. My neighbors who raise livestock usually own one or more farm dogs.
I’m pretty sure “own” isn’t the right word, because most dogs would prefer to be thought of as family members and many people treat their dogs like family.
We always had cattle dogs during the years I farmed; most were excellent help. Sometimes they stayed inside our house but generally outside.
Our American Eskimo, Sachi, wasn’t bred to be a livestock dog, but she guarded open gateways and herded cattle the best.
Sachi’s all-white fur became saturated with dirt while sorting cattle or when following my tractor in the fields, but over the noon break while I ate dinner–we don’t call it lunch on our farm–she cleaned herself spotlessly. She accompanied the kids and me everywhere on foot or on the 4-wheeler.
All dogs trace genetically to wolves. Evidence of their domestication dates back about 30,000 years; dogs were discovered in Neanderthal burial sites in Europe and Asia.
Anthropologists speculate that orphaned wolf pups were adopted by human clans. Likely, the pups’ wolf kin were familiar with people because they hung around campsites to scavenge food.
As animals that lived in packs with a dominance hierarchy, wolf pups with the most docile temperaments adapted readily to respecting humans as their adopted leaders. Gradually, ever tamer animals were selected over successive generations until they preferred to live with humans, rather than their nearer genetic relatives, and became dogs.
Humans benefitted from the protection dogs provided, as well as from their help hunting wild game, carrying or pulling packs when communities changed their abodes, as providers of skins for clothing and as an emergency food source.
Dogs accompanied the earliest modern humans when they migrated from Europe and Asia to the Americas, Australia and to almost every other settlement.
Dogs were used to herd and protect livestock when ancient Mesopotamians domesticated sheep and goats some 10,000 years ago. Two strains of livestock dogs developed: dogs that herded any livestock and dogs that guarded sheep and goats.
Herders have erect ears, like border collies and Corgis. Their predatory instincts incline them to carefully surround and chase livestock but these herding dogs do not prey on livestock, taking their cues from human masters.
Guard dogs, like Great Pyrenees, protect sheep and goats from predators and are accepted by these ungulates. Guard dogs with droopy ears don’t trigger the alertness erect ears trigger in most livestock that fear predatory coyotes and mountain lions.
Guard dogs usually are sequestered shortly after birth with sheep or goats, becoming imprinted on them as family. These dogs become natural protectors of the flock/herd as they reach adulthood.
Most farm dogs are both pets and working animals. Hunter/retrievers, military and service dogs, to name but a few, also perform more functions than offering companionship.
When properly trained, dogs hunt truffles–the underground fungi that impart wonderful flavor to foods, detect cancers, keep watch over people with disabilities and hear or sniff termites chewing wood, among other tasks.
Lassie, a stray Australian Shepherd my childhood family adopted, automatically protected Larry, my eight-year younger brother with disabilities due to Down syndrome, on his roves around our farmstead. When Larry did not respond to our calls to come home, Lassie barked to signal where they were exploring.
Murphy, a yellow Lab who was our last family dog other than our son’s hunting Labs, figured out more than Marilyn and I wished. When we were away, Murphy brought our mail from the roadside mailbox to our house and usually “read it” before we had the opportunity.
Arriving home, we found pieces of chewed letters and newspapers scattered across our entryway and lawn, including bills. Distributing the bills was thoughtful, until we received dunning notices from creditors!
We offered Murphy to a friend and her three-year-old daughter; they came to inspect Murphy. After their arrival one rainy April day, I asked the little girl if she wanted to see a newborn calf.
As we plodded to the barn Murphy dashed ahead into the calving pen, barking and scaring the baby calf. The calf scrambled out the open-fronted barn and became entrapped in suctioning mud in a far corner of the pen.
I scurried to salvage the stuck calf while the mother cow charged at Murphy, who sought safety behind me. Both Murphy and I became covered with wet mud, but eventually I was able to carry the calf into the shed and to shut the frightened baby and its mother behind the barn gate.
Then Murphy jumped onto our three-year-old visitor as if to say, “I did a good job, huh?” and smeared her with mud from head to foot. Needless to say, Murphy did not acquire a new home.
Yes, Murphy wanted only to help, but all I could say was “Murphy, Murphy, Murphy, what are we going to do with you?”
Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist who lives on the farm he shares with his wife. Share your thoughts with Dr. Rosmann at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.