December 5, 2008

The Awesome Dog

Posted in Livestock tagged at 1:51 pm by yjohn

I owned a couple of dogs growing up, but own none currently. Nevertheless, I occasionally have an opportunity to observe these beasts in their native state.

On Tuesday I had just stepped outside to harvest some carrots when I saw a black streak out of the corner of my right eye. It was a 40-50lb black dog making a straight line for my chicken yard.

Now, my chicken yard is attached to an enclosed coop; and the entrance is set up in such a way that chickens can get in and out with minimal difficulty but large predators — such as dogs, foxes and coyotes — would be effectively excluded. Small predators are excluded via other means. But the whole idea is that if the chickens perceive a threat while I’m not there, they should be able to retreat to relative safety.

The dog had other plans. The chickens didn’t even see him coming until he was right outside the fence, at which point, even though their heads were firmly attached, they acted as though they weren’t by running into each other like a Three Stooges skit, flying into the netting and so forth.

The dog’s technique was beautiful: rush the fence, and scare the birds into flying over it where they would be easily vulnerable. If it weren’t for the fact I keep a net over the fence, she would have nailed about half the birds right off the bat.

Only about a third of the birds made it into the coop because the dog kept constantly moving — and approaching the birds seemingly from all directions. They were so scared they forgot all about the coop.

About this time I drove off the dog momentarily and got into the chicken yard so I could get the rest of the chickens into the coop. I followed the chickens into the coop just to make sure that none had injured themselves. And it was from that vantage point that I observed something truly magnificent,

The dog returned. In a state of constant motion, it probed every potential vulnerability, even attempting to come through the floor. It tested the strength of the walls, and attempted to bypass the fence in several different ways. Meanwhile, it kept the chickens in a near-constant state of panic.

The dog wandered off, so I locked up the chickens in case it returned and went down to the house to take care of some business. When I got off the phone maybe 15 minutes later, I noticed that the dog had managed to get into the chicken yard and was busy laying siege to the door of the coop. But, she had also managed to trap herself in the chicken yard.

Being as she was trapped, I called the local constabulary, who were aware that a new neighbor was missing the dog. They called the neighbor to come get her, and the local animal control officer just in case there was trouble.

Around where I live, if a dog gets loose and starts harassing livestock, I, as a farmer, have an undisputed right to kill the dog if I believe it is necessary. In this case, thankfully, it wasn’t. And, also, the dog owners would be responsible to replace the value of any livestock killed. In this case, thankfully, none. Either way, my new neighbors showed up post-haste because they knew a dog harassing livestock in my town could become a dead-dog any minute without recourse.

So they came and collared the pooch — and drug her back home where she will hopefully be better restrained in the future.

But here is where I noticed something that we all take for granted. The dog, to humans, was happy and playful and posed no risk whatsoever that I could ascertain. Just a standard black pooch with lots of licking and tail-wagging.

But when you remove the human element, the dog reverts to an efficient, wily, deadly and persistent predator. It’s basically a wolf.

Genetically, in spite of 10,000 years of divergent evolution caused by human eugenics practices and selective breeding, it is still capable of interbreeding with its wolf relatives. Unlike wolves, in the presence of humans it adopts a sort of happy adolescent attitude. But when the humans go away and the dog has free reign, her inner wolf spirit remains and soars.

That these two natures have been successfully integrated into a single creature is a triumph of humanity. The results have given us everything from travel companions to guards to assistance for the blind.

Dogs are awesome.