You can sing praises to the barn cats that catch their weight in small vermin or that sit quivering in eager anticipation as the cow is being milked—hoping for a squirt of warm creaminess aimed their way. You can compliment the watchful (if noisome) guinea fowl that patrol the edge of the barnyard, praying on ticks. Or you can enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the pigs root up next year’s garden patch for you, weeding as they go. But a farm is just not fully a farm without its ever-true farm dog.
There is a black-and-white photograph of our homestead’s original farm dog (or at least the one everybody remembers), back in the days when the Fullingtons were still carving the fields out of the forest. King was a large, wooly beast of a dog that knew every inch of the territory and loved his people dearly. That parka of a coat kept King warm even in the harshest of winters, when a week would go by with temperatures hovering around 50 below, when the wind blew driving ice from the north and the snow piled up higher than cars. Even in weather like this, the cows still have to be milked and the horses fed and watered.
When we moved to the farm, admittedly our first dog was (and still is) not of the typical farm stock. This is because we brought our little Bichon Frise named Sophie with us from our condominium in Madison, where dog sizes had been restricted. But despite her diminutive size and white, curly coat, Sophie has been determined to live up to farm standards, even if this proves demanding at times. She takes watching for visitors very seriously, falls nose-over-tail in love with the lambs each spring, and is always there to comfort anyone who is feeling under the weather or injured—including the five little orphaned piglets living in our walk-out basement right now. Everyone needs love, and that is Sophie’s specialty.
Still, there are just some tasks that are too big for a Bichon, however ambitious. As Kara’s flock of sheep continued to grow, it became apparent that having an extra set of hands—or paws—would be a great asset. Farm dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and types, so finding just the right match for our farm became an adventure all of its own. Border Collies are, or course, the most common choice for moving and managing sheep, but these black-and-white workaholics flourish best out in the open range or in the show-ring. For them, some of the day-to-day of farm life can grow boring, resulting in unappreciated behaviors as the dogs try to occupy their busy minds and bodies.
There are other kinds of shepherding dogs, however, including the Australian Shepherd, which is taller, stocking, woollier (perhaps King was an Ausie) and originally bred to work cattle. But what caught Kara’s fancy the most was an even older and rarer breed known as the English Shepherd. While these multi-purpose dogs were once the breed of choice on farms across America, their popularity died away as more specialized dogs became common. English Shepherds herd well, control vermin, guard (at least to some degree) and have an uncanny knowledge of where each group of livestock should be at any given time. There are stories of English Shepherds discovering that their flock or herd has found a break in the fence-line. After herding all the animals back through the hole, the dog will sit there, maintaining order, until the farmer comes to fix the fence. Keeping the routine and everything orderly is their mission.
Today, most English Shepherds find occupations on cattle farms. Breeders are very protective of their puppies and make certain that they are placed on working farms, where they will be able to apply themselves in the environment they were meant to inhabit, instead of cooped up in apartments. Kara had to complete a rigorous paperwork and interview process in order to bring home our little English Shepherd, picked especially for us because of her petite size and soft mouth—traits deemed better for managing sheep than cattle. In fact, she was so much smaller than her boisterous littermates that the breeder’s daughter named her Thumbelina.
Now, when you’re trying to snag the attention of our working farm dog across the expanse of the pasture, hollering “Thumbelina!” is not the most efficient. That and shortening the name to Thumba projects poorly and sounds a bit like “come,” so we opted for calling her Lena. A tri-color (black, white, and brown), Lena is sleek, fast, and eager to please. As she matured, Lena delighted in learning her duties alongside us, which she deemed to also include picking raspberries and digging potatoes (claws and teeth work just find when you aren’t equipped with hands), as well as following the sheep back to the barn and hunting voles in the garden.
Lena’s propensity for maintaining order and organization on the farm manifests in frantic barking when a pig gets loose (those pigs still do not know how to be herded, despite valiant canine efforts), bumping the meat chickens with her nose when they fail to walk briskly as we move the chicken tractors, and a particular incident last autumn with turkeys. Now, to Lena, it seems that a turkey is a turkey is a turkey. We were relaxing in our living room, which overlooks the garden and parts of the barnyard. At that time of year, my heritage turkeys live in a coop to the west, where they have their own run (yard) to stretch their legs and catch bugs amongst the grass. But with the series of mild winters the area has been experiencing, wild turkeys have become more common to sight pecking along roadways and trundling through the edge of the woods. On this day, a group of about five were trotting down our lane.
At the sight of movement, Lena perked up, began quivering, then commenced barking and jumping up and down.
“Lena!” I chided. “Those are wild turkeys. They’re not hurting anybody.”
But that didn’t matter. Turkeys are turkeys are turkeys, and they go in the coop to the west, not out by the garden! Lena barked some more, franticly pacing from window to glass door. Wild or not, turkeys needed to go IN THE COOP, and this crew was headed the WRONG WAY! Oh my goodness, was it a commotion…until finally those silly turkeys disappeared amidst the trees to the east.
That evening, during chores, Lena still had to check the spot where she had seen them and check the Jersey Buffs back at the coop to make certain that everyone was still in their proper place. It did not matter that the domestic turkeys were cinnamon colored, while the wild ones were almost black—turkeys had to stay where turkeys were supposed to be!
Yet above all the animals in her care, Lena loves her people. Once we opened Farmstead Creamery & Café, Lena accepted this space as her territory as well. While she cannot come inside, Lena is happy to relax by the porch, watching our celebrity chickens Wooster and Clementine and enjoying the curious children (and adults) who come to pet her. She also takes it as her special duty to announce the arrival of each morning’s first clients and keep track of all the comings and goings.
From companion to watch dog, from herder to greeter, Lena is part of a lineage of forever true farm dogs that shows just how special the human-animal working relationship can be. Maybe you’ve already met Lena or have your own special memories of farm dogs past and present, but she’ll probably announce your arrival or give you a tail-swirling escort if we see you down at the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com