The first pet I remember back on the farm was a gentle, whip-smart collie named Trixie.
My recollection is that she was a border collie, black and white, with lively eyes that seemed to read your mind. The story goes that a circus pulled through Reliance, and a day or two after it headed on down the highway, Trixie showed up at our place. She knew a handful of tricks, she could bring the milk cow up from the north pasture by herself and she had such a strong streak of loyalty she seemed to carry out orders before a person put them into words. She barked quite a lot, I recall, but I read somewhere that border collies have a lot to say. Besides, she was outside patrolling the spread most of the time and our nearest neighbors were two miles away,
These days, I suppose, we’d snap a picture of her with our phones, post a “Anybody Missing This Sweetheart’’ notice on social media platforms and wait for an owner to claim her. Back then, we just fed her, kept a water bowl full and let her romp around, inside and out. Over time she had a couple of litters of pups, although I have no idea where she found a mate.
I don’t have any memory of when or how she died. In those days, though, sometimes a pet just wandered off and didn’t come back. We felt bad about it for a while, but kids on farms and ranches in those days – maybe these days, too, I haven’t been around a farm for a long while – learned early about birth and death. That didn’t make us indifferent to it, I don’t think. We appreciated life. We saw how our parents worked to save the life of a single, undersized calf born far off in the pasture in a snowstorm. I think that gave us a respect for the worth of any life, even as we accepted the inevitable.
In Trixie’s case, she wasn’t really ours, anyway. She just came and hung out with us for a while. Then she went somewhere else. I used to imagine that she found another family whose life she could light up, and I didn’t begrudge them their great fortune in having such a dog around.
Trixie came to mind recently when I learned that one of the granddaughters had pleaded with her folks to get a rescue dog while they were isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently a fair number of people have been doing that. I can understand the urge, I guess. A dog can be a comfort and a calming influence in a time of stress and uncertainty.
And that got me to thinking about the other dogs my family had. I never thought of Trixie as part of the family. None of the farm dogs that followed her were what you’d call family members, either. They were great, but they came and went, even the black lab, Nipper, who ran head-first into a cottonwood tree chasing a jackrabbit and who burrowed behind the living room couch and moaned like a spook during thunderstorms. He had character, but he was a pet.
Our younger son talked us into bringing home the first dog that actually became like a family member. Andy was 8 or so when we acquired a cocker spaniel he named Dodger. Our farm dogs lived outside mostly. If they wanted a walk, they took it. Dodger was our first dog who really lived indoors, walked on a leash and slept in our son’s bedroom. A pooch like that squeezes its way into your home and your heart in a way those live-outside farm dogs never quite did.
Perhaps because I was so many years away from the farm, or perhaps because of the indoor relationship with this dog, when Dodger grew old, suffered a stroke and stopped taking food or water, he wasn’t just a pet. As Nancy and I sat with the vet on our kitchen floor stroking Dodger’s gray old head and listening to his last breaths, he was family.
It was easier when they were pets.