Over the years my family had many dogs on the farm. Each in their unique way performed the duties that were expected of a working animal. A farm dog’s responsibilities included fetching the cows, guarding the chickens, killing rats and defending the house. If a dog could not handle those duties it was replaced. There was no forgiveness for mistakes, a dog that attacked chickens or stole their eggs cost money or at the very least stole food off our plates. Life on a small Dakota farm didn’t allow for tolerance.
That did not mean we didn’t love our dogs and treat them with reverence and respect. A good canine was a companion and friend. They possessed a spirit and seemed to have the ability to read minds and carry out unspoken commands. A good dog took the place of two men in the pasture and could easily maintain control of the herd as we drove them to a meadow for grazing. While the cows fed on the sweet June grass the dog would keep a wary look out as he sat with us on those lazy summer days.
Farmers knew each other’s dogs. They recognized which had special skills as herders, hunters or guard dogs and spoke almost reverently of their talents. They were able to identify a dog on sight and recite which farm they worked on.
When I was young we had a collie named Lassie. She was a smart dog and who did her best to keep me out of trouble. She loved to go with me to the pasture, where she could run and chase the pheasants she’d flush out of the weeds. If she came across a hay bale, she would wait patiently for me to turn it over, exposing the mice nests that were always underneath.
But Lassie lived to round up cattle, as we approached the herd she would quiver with excitement, waiting for the command to “sic-em” whenever a young heifer dared to separate from the herd. The older milk cows would just roll their eyes at the foolishness or the yearlings. They would watch, while lazily chewing their cuds, as Lassie nipped at the hooves of the insolent bovines. However in the back of my mind, I always suspected it was all an act, put on for our family’s consumption. We truly believed when we weren’t around, it was a good bet that the heifers and Lassie were out playing together.
My final year of farming was when I was 10. By that time I had learned to drive the truck and most of the tractors. I could successfully drive a tractor, while towing a wagon to a field to pick rocks. While straw bales were no challenge to throw around, alfalfa bales (at 70-80lbs) were still a little too heavy to throw. (Although I could pick them up by one end and slide them around.) I could sack grain and run the auger; in short I left one year before becoming an official field hand. But by far the hardest thing was saying goodbye to that dog.
We took Lassie over to our Uncle’s farm and left him there. As he had eight children at home, Lassie’s last few years were filled with joy. The last glimpse of her was as she took over her new brood of kids, waiting for one of them to say “Sic-em”.