I remember the first day I met Meg—black as the northern black bears, square of face and jowl, glistening. Her year-old nut brown Labrador eyes looked right through me. Her wagging tongue looked to be at least a mile long.
It had been a while since Grandma and Grandpa’s previous dog, Honey (with her curling golden locks) had passed, and we as yet had no pets in our house. Meg was eager yet timid, still adjusting to her new home from a previous life with rambunctious small children who weren’t the right environment for a dog at the time.
I remember petting her short, waxy fur—best suited for dipping in and out of the lake or shedding snow like water off a duck’s back—leaving my hand sticky and a little brown. How odd. Now my hand smelled like dog and felt greasy. I went to the sink to wash it off.
Grandpa laughed, “You’ll have to get use to that, I’m afraid.” There were more than a few things to get used to with Meg.
Just as every person has her quirks, so do our beloved dogs. This is true for talents as well. For Meg, her crowning glory was her nose. I’m certain that, with the proper training, she would have been an excellent bomb sniffer, drug detector, or survivor finder. Taking Meg on a walk was an exercise in keeping your arm attached to your body. Rabbit track? Tug!!! Signs of another dog? Pull!!!
Often, that nose got Meg into trouble. No garbage can or sack of groceries was safe—anywhere! Either lock it in another room or put it up high (really high) or you’d be picking it back up more than once. Don’t even leave the pan of brownies near the front edge of the counter…at least not during Meg’s younger and more ambulatory years.
But when that nose of hers found the dead porcupine in the woods…well, that was not a happy day for Meg. Quills in the nose, whimpering, you think she might have learned. But no, that scent beckoned like Bali Hai, and the next morning she returned with more trophy quills and stench of decay. So Grandpa went trundling out to try to find the carcass and move it farther away. But the next day—voila, that nose had found the porcupine again! So we buried the poor thing, may it rest in peace.
And yet, for years, on Grandpa’s morning walks, she would still have to check that spot just in case. You never know when something good and stinky might turn up, when you’re a dog.
Meg was really our first farm dog, and she took her job of monitoring the property seriously. Announcing the arrival and departure of vehicles was one of her specialties, even phantom vehicles. There was also the most important task of monitoring the wild animals too—deer, rabbits, and squirrels in particular. She would sit for hours under the trees in the farmyard, holding the scolding red pine squirrels to their positions, dodging the occasional hurled pine cone. Perhaps Meg in all her supreme blackness thought this was a siege, and surely someday she would win.
“Come down you rascals and fight like a dog!”
In true Labrador style, Meg also loved the water. A little creek runs through the farm, which is a tributary to the nearby Hay Creek that eventually connects to the Chippewa Flowage. By mid summer, unless there have been recent rain, there isn’t much to see but marshland. But in springtime the water rushes and gushes under (and occasionally over) a culvert in the road. Meg knew exactly where the banks of the lane sloped down by the culvert to the creek.
Summer can be incredibly hot for a black dog. It just really isn’t fair. And that water called and beckoned like a Greek Siren. And a few hours later, here would come Meg, as slippery as a newly minted coin, dripping and shaking and smelling like lakebottom and weeds. “No coming into the house!” was Grandma’s high command, “Until someone gives that dog a bath!” What, more water? As far as Meg was concerned, there was no problem with this sentence.
The first fences on our farm weren’t for the rabbits, or the deer. They were for Meg. Everything was worth a good grab, especially if it felt anything close to tug-of-war for her big, slobbery mouth. Randomly ambling by one of the spreading maples in the lawn, without missing a step Meg would bite off a hunk of bark the size of a fist and chew it up, leaving the bits to trail out the sides of her mouth as she went. Mmmm, doggie dental floss with a daily dose of insoluble fiber.
Ah, but the garden was too tempting. Sweet corn was ever so fun to grab and rip from the earth. Those were easy, especially when the soil was damp. But tomato plants were even more fun because that was a real tussle! But the humans caught on to this game and put up a fence around their horticultural labors, and that was the end of pulling out the garden for fun. Bummer. Well, long grass could do in a pinch, as well.
Meg, of course, was fond of attention. Not in the style of being dressed up, no, that held sour memories of her life before our family. But she loved being petted. As far as Meg was concerned, you could forget the chores or the garden or anything else and pet her all day! But the more you petted, the farther she would inch away from you. First she’d lean a bit. Then she’d shuffle her feet over or lay down.
“Meh-eh-eg,” Grandpa would scold. “My arm doesn’t reach that far.” Meg would look back at him longingly, then with an internal “oh yeah, that’s right,” skooch back closer for a while before slowly leaning and moving away again. Maybe it was one of her many games with us on the farm. Or maybe she thought that one of these days we’d grow stretchy arms, just to be able to pet her better.
Meg passed this morning on her big doggie pillow, still black and shiny, in a position of rest and peace at the age of 15. We will miss her very much but we remember her fondly and with a few good laughs as our first farm dog. This week, take some time to share your memories of favorite canines past. They touch our lives and leave behind footprints on our hearts. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com