Growing up in town, I had a better dog than I deserved. My parents got me a beautiful black lab and Irish setter mixed breed dog when I was in fourth grade as a way of teaching me responsibility. It didn’t take- so my dog (Brigadoon) went to live with my grandparents on the farm.
It broke my heart to not be able to have my dog with me all the time, but Brigadoon loved the farm. He roamed free between my uncle’s house and my grandparents’. He would accompany my uncle Gary on his daily chores feeding the hogs- running after his blue Ford pickup with the five-gallon buckets of corn in the back. He would walk in the woods with me. He kept my grandfather company on lazy summer days. He was a great dog and a fair farm dog.
When my wife and I were first thinking about homesteading, there was one thing we knew we wanted for sure, and it was a dog- but not just any dog, a farm dog. We weren’t looking for a strictly working dog. Livestock guardians are amazing animals, but they are a little aloof for our tastes. Collies are wonderful dogs but can be a little neurotic and a little bit nippy. We wanted a dog that would meld with our family first, but also one that could be thrust into duty when needed. We wanted a dog that wouldn’t chase chickens. We also wanted a dog that was affable and friendly.
I had been looking for dogs for months (even before our house was done). One night, I saw an ad for a Bernese Mountain Dog and knew that I had found our dog. I knew they were a really friendly breed, had seen them used to work sheep, and knew that they had been bred to live on farms. I contacted the breeder and was told that she had one dog left, an unusual dog- with blue eyes and the most outgoing personality she had ever seen. I said we’d take her and we named her Zuzu.
Zuzu was only 4 weeks old at the time, and it would be several weeks before she could come live with us. We were excited and nervous. We knew in theory that she would be a good and nice dog, but would she be right for the farm? At the time, we were just moving into the house, we didn’t have any livestock outside of a couple of beehives- but knew that we wanted chickens at the very least. How would Zuzu react to chickens?
We brought Zuzu home on New Year’s Day. It had snowed the night before, and the snowbanks along the paths were over her head. All winter long, Zuzu would go out on walks in the woods with us, ‘help’ bring in fire wood, and her favorite- help shovel snow. This generally involved her sitting on the blade of the shovel, and being a nuisance. Despite the extra work that came along with her, we loved her. She was an absolutely terrible help, however. She oddly enough never really barked either, which was nice, but we weren’t sure what kind of guardian she would be.
Winter gave way to spring, and we would take Zuzu to help collect the sap from the galvanized buckets lining our maple grove. We would pull a sled behind us as Zuzu would careen back and forth between the trees, occasionally knocking over a bucket of freshly collected sap and thwarting our efforts, and wasting the valuable liquid. She was really turning into a terrible farm dog, but still, we loved her.
We got chickens in the spring, and we were worried that Zuzu would chase them like she does the cat. For the first few weeks of the chickens’ lives, they lived inside under a heat lamp. Zuzu would watch them intently and salivate. Not a great sign.
We moved the chickens outside. The egg layers went to the coop and the broilers to the chicken tractor in the orchard. Zuzu chased the layers a couple of times and then settled down. She hasn’t chased them since. Occasionally a broiler will get out of the tractor, and Zuzu gives chase, but never harms it. Not bad if you ask me, but not anywhere near the good farm dog we were looking for.
A couple of weeks ago, the coyotes came to the orchard. They were yipping and woke us up. You could tell that they were closing in on the chicken tractor. Zuzu, at this point no longer a little puppy started barking in the deepest voice she could muster. Our silent dog found her voice. The Coyotes retreated from the orchard. We still hear them on occasion, however, they are further away, and a little bark from Zuzu is enough to quiet them.
Zuzu still has a long way to go as a farm dog. Maybe one day she can be a good one. Right now, she’s fair to middling, and honestly, that’s good enough for me.