The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

Schmitt: Thinking Out Loud – Childhood Friends

1-24-2012 column

Animals come and animals go. That is the circle of life on a farm. Many are just a jumbled blur of black and white markings with nothing specific to recall, but a few special ones are burnt into our memories for life.

During my 4-H career, I probably had over 70 market steers. I only recall two of them, “Crusher” and “BJ”. Their big ears caught my deepest thoughts, their soft eyes offered me comfort and I knew my childhood secrets were safe with them.

Mark’s favorite 4-H project animal was “Lightening”. Just walking past “her stall” in the barn will trigger Mark’s memories of his special animal. Most 4-H kids have a special project animal, but ALL farm kids, regardless of their age, remember the farm dog.

The idyllic image of a farm would vary from people to people, but one constant image is a dog waiting on the back step of the house. A farm without a dog is like a barn without cattle, quiet, empty and lonely. Dogs are the good will ambassador of the farm, announcing your arrival and welcoming you to the yard as they sniff around your vehicle. Once the tires are properly marked, you’re welcomed to venture to the house and see the rest of the family.

A farm dog’s name is known as well as the names of the children. There is Ghost, Angie, Reba, Red, Lucky, Bruuuce and Vixie to name a few in the neighborhood. They are as happy to see you as their families when you stop by for a visit. Farm dogs can be hyper or calm; loud or quiet; friendly or shy, but regardless of their personality they are a natural part of the family.

Dad picked up a Border collie pup the year I was born. While Mom trained me, Dad trained Pawhoo. She was a great cattle dog as long as Dad was standing between her and the charging cattle. But if anyone ever took a swing at Dad, Pawhoo would launch into attack mode to project him. She also protected us kids as we travelled up and down the creeks on our adventures. She was a great dog. I found her the day she died and we buried her up on the bluff behind the cattle lot. We’ve had other dogs on the farm, but Pawhoo was my model of the perfect farm dog.

When Mark and I became engaged, we picked up a white German Sheppard puppy from the neighbor to be our farm dog. He was such a butter ball of a puppy. We kept him at the main farm for most of his life since that was where we were too. He learned the ways of the farm from the old German Sheppard named “Champ”. I don’t know if Champ really liked the fact there was a puppy always pestering him, but the young pup put a spring in the old dog’s step for the next couple of years.

Chipper’s closest companion was Mark’s mom. Mary Lou would tie a rope around Chipper’s neck and they would take off on a walk along the main road. Chipper offered Mary Lou a sense of protection and companionship as they walked against the traffic. Eventually the rope was left at home and the two would head out on their daily walks together. It was such a strange sight to see Chipper walking between the farms. Here was a dog by himself, walking on the right side of the road against the traffic. I think that is one reason he was never hit by a car.

As Chipper aged and the children grew, we knew we needed to get another farm dog. Remembering my family farm dog Pawhoo, I knew I wanted another Border collie. We picked up Vixie 11 years ago this spring. Eventually Chipper moved in with us and Vixie at the other farm. Between the energy of the small children and a new puppy, a spring returned to Chipper’s step and he played with all of them in the yard. He kept watch over the kids as they went off on adventures in the pine trees. Eventually age and time caught up with Chipper. The kids can still tell you where Chipper is buried, even though the row of pine trees are gone and the fire pit is filled in. Through memories they can still “see” Chipper standing guard next to the firepit as scary ghost stories were told long, long ago.

As I came into the house this morning from chores, I realized Vixie’s time is close at hand. I was concerned that this was going to be a hard winter on her. Many were predicting a typical Minnesota winter with weeks of freezing temperatures and mountains of snow. The mild weather and our new garage have made the winter more bearable for her. She stays in the garage most days lying on her blankets with food and water nearby. She ventures outside when the sun is shining and warms up on the south steps leading to the house. She doesn’t hear very well and barks at memories of past intruders. Her hips are full of arthritis as she hobbles across the yard to help move switch cows.

Through her age has come tolerance and acceptance. Over the years Vixie has barely tolerated the farm cats, but time has changed her view of them. She actually has a favorite cat that she will let snuggle up with her. I don’t think a puppy is going to put a spring back in her step, but Peanut Butter Jelly does offer her some comfort. (The cat was named by our 4 year old neighbor Sophia.)

Farm dogs are a constant fixture. They are always nearby and sometimes as close as a memory.


As their 4 children pursue dairy careers off the farm, Natalie and Mark are starting a new adventure of milking registered Holsteins just because they like good cows on their Minnesota farm. Natalie grew up in Stronghurst, the daughter of Becky and the late Larry Dowell.