You would think that with three herding dogs who need exceptional amounts of exercise to keep them sane, we would have enough dog chores without adding more. However, for the past week or so, I have been walking my neighbor’s mixed-breed dog. The family has recently suffered a great loss, and as neighbors in this part of the country are known to do, a few of us are pitching in to cover their chores for a couple of weeks. I volunteered to fill in when another helper left for the Thanksgiving holiday, so I’ve been walking Rusty, a medium-sized rust-colored dog who is blind in one eye.
Like many rural dogs, Rusty runs the fields around his home, so the idea of “walking the dog” isn’t quite what you might think — there is no leash or street involved. The idea is the same, however: get Rusty good and tired twice a day, morning and evening, so he causes less chaos when inside the house. It sounds pretty simple — but then again, so do most things around here, and they somehow end up not.
When I arrive at my neighbor’s, I spill a few cups of dry cat food for the barn cats and make sure the horse has hay and water. Then I head to the house to get Rusty. I do it in this order because Rusty likes to “play” with cats if he isn’t too tired. This can be unfortunately fatal to the cat, so I try to keep them apart — much like keeping Lisa away from our own farm cats. The difference is that our cats know Lisa will kill them, so we’ve developed a no-man’s-land between the barn and fields (where the cats live and roam) and the house and lawn (where the dogs are free to wander). The dogs and cats at our place do not mingle, keeping the cats safe; but at my neighbor’s, they have access to each other — and that creates a bit of a challenge for dog walking. The last thing I want is to have to tell the family that Rusty has killed one of their kittens on my watch, so I feed the cats inside the barn and then go get Rusty. I hope to have Rusty tired out before the kittens come out to play. But it usually doesn’t work that way.
Rusty isn’t usually ready to play with his ball right away. He knows I come from afar; he can smell it. Okay, so across the street isn’t really afar, but to him, it sure seems to be. He spends the first few minutes sniffing me all over. I’m sure that the scent of our three dogs, two barn cats, eleven chickens, four llamas, and sixty sheep permeates my clothing, and he obviously needs to check all of that out before he begins to play — or even do his business. Eventually he’ll signal that our games can begin by sitting and staring at me expectantly, a sign that I can finally throw the first pitch. All the while I keep an eye on the cat door of the barn and hope that none of the cats decide to come and see us.
Like our own three dogs, Rusty is obsessed with retrieving the thrown ball. Unlike our dogs, it doesn’t need to be a complete ball. If he loses the tennis ball we start with, he comes back with half of a tennis ball — or a quarter, or whatever small bits or pieces he can find! After years of farm life and ball play with my own dogs, my throwing arm has become fairly arthritic, so no big wind-up for me. Therefore, when I throw one of these small ball bits, it only sails about ten feet — but Rusty doesn’t mind at all! He runs after it like it’s a race to the finish, skidding in the wet grass and tumbling down the hillside. All while I continue to keep a close eye on the cat door!
Eventually — because their cats are not nearly as feral as ours — one of the kittens always comes out to look for me as I continue to throw the bits of ball in the opposite direction, hoping that Rusty won’t see her or won’t care. When the kitten finally reaches my side, she claws her way up my jeans and onto my jacket. And when she finally finds the soft skin of my neck, she cuddles in against the wind and cold and begins to purr. Even though I continue to bend and pick up Rusty’s toy of choice, she holds on for dear life. I pray that Rusty doesn’t decide to make a lunge for the cat at my throat — it’s a fragile truce between dog, cat, and human that could be broken at any moment.
Rusty finally tires of the running and retrieving and sits down about twenty feet from me as if to say, “Okay, that’s enough already!” No matter what I do with the ball (pieces) at this point, he isn’t interested; he’s ready to return home. All I need to say is “inside,” and he is off towards the door of the house, ready to return to its warmth.
After he’s safely inside, the kitten must be returned to the barn; otherwise she will come too close to my car as I pull away towards home. If I drop her inside the barn with another few bits of food, she will stay there just long enough for me to start the engine and begin to roll towards home. As I drive away, I can always see her in my rear-view mirror, standing in the cat door of the barn. She is obviously calculating the hours before my return, when I will once again “walk” Rusty while keeping her safe and warm.