from A Dog For All Seasons

by Patti Sherlock

My new pup made only one mess in the house. After that, Duncan understood that matters related to personal plumbing needed to occur outside. The housebreaking success came about in part because I was well trained. I had no urgent writing deadlines, so I took him outside often.

But the housebreaking showed me how desperately Duncan wanted to please. Whenever I took him out to pee, I would praise him with an enthusiastic “Good dog!” when he relieved himself. After a couple of days, I noticed that when Duncan squatted, he locked eyes with mine to make sure I was watching. I also noticed that nothing came out. He liked praise so much, he pretended to pee. I was glad I noticed; otherwise I might have taken him inside right away, before we’d fulfilled our mission. As it was, it sometimes took five or six fakes before he actually accomplished anything.

His high sensitivity to criticism showed up early, too. If he jumped up on us, we told him, “No.” If one of us made that “No” abrupt or loud, Duncan would shrink into a black and white ball, ears and tail dejected. I learned to say no in a matter-of-fact tone, and that was plenty of correction. But he really, really wanted to jump on people. He enjoyed greeting people and wanted to be acknowledged by them. His tense body told of his conflict. Welcome a person and get scolded? Follow the rules and miss out on being petted?

He came up with a compromise that allowed him to do both. Instead of jumping on someone, he would only jump near them. To accomplish this, he stood on his hind legs, offering his head at convenient petting height. He avoided putting his paws on the person. It was a credit to his agility that he could hang suspended beside a visitor for a considerable period of time. As a spirit-of-the-law person, I permitted this breech because Duncan really didn’t intrude on visitors’ space or get them dirty.


Duncan was so eager to work, it was hard to postpone trying him on useful chores, yet I didn’t want to ask too much of him when he was only six months old. But one day when I was carrying an armload of hay, the sheep stampeded me and nearly knocked me over. When I got to the mangers, I dumped the hay and watched it splash like rain onto their wool.

Maybe I could try Charlie Kimball’s suggestion about getting Duncan to keep the flock back. If it proved too much for him or if he created terrible chaos, I would delay a second try for a few more months.

Feeling silly, at the next feeding I sat down on the haystack with him, put my arm around him, and did what Kimball had suggested. “I have a problem, Dunc, and I hope you can help me with it.”

He tilted his ears forward.

“It would be better for me and better for the wool if the sheep didn't swarm me.”

His face went solemn.

“Do you think you could shoo them off until I’ve finished putting out hay?”

His mouth fell open in a smile.

“Okay, let’s go try.”

Duncan could go into the sheep pens only with permission. “Come on,” I said, and Duncan flew over the fence. He looked at me. What next?

“Shoo ‘em,” I said.

Maybe it wasn’t the talk I’d had with him. Maybe I conveyed what I wanted psychically, or maybe I told him with body language. Whatever the reason, Duncan, young dog that he was, dashed into the midst of the sheep. Older, big ewes didn’t want to give way to a pup, but he ran at them individually, forcing them to back up.

I wanted to quit there on a successful note, but decided to push on. “Keep them back, Duncan,” I said. Incredibly, he did. Scarcely believing how easy it was, I filled feeders with hay while Duncan ran back and forth, forcing the complaining, blatting sheep to stand back. From that day, Duncan went into the pens with me whenever I fed.

The sheep still managed to toss hay around when they were eating and some of it went into their wool, but feeding had become pleasant. Instead of being mobbed, I calmly deposited portions of hay while Duncan kept ewes behind an imaginary line. I felt sorry for him; it required so much running and concentration to make sure no ewe busted through. But I learned how much he enjoyed his new job when I was talking to a friend on the phone.

“I’ve taught Duncan to ‘shoo’ the sheep,” I said.

Duncan dashed to the back door, ears perked, hopeful look on his face. He moaned to be let out.

We learned the command “Shoo,” could not be used in conversation at risk of disappointing Duncan. If we said “Shoo,” and didn’t intend to do it right away, Duncan became crestfallen; his ears fell and his body slumped. If we were working sheep in the barn and I said, “Should I call Duncan in to shoo the sheep?” he would suddenly materialize and sail over the fence into the midst of them. The word took on a reverence, said twice a day as a command, the rest of the time spelled out, S-H-O-O.

Amazingly, Duncan could distinguish homonyms. He never once thought he was about to go to work when someone said, “I can’t find my other shoe.”


Duncan loved his work in the sheep pens and we regarded him as indispensable. That might seem like fulfillment enough for any individual, but Duncan found a way to express himself artistically, too.

All summer, until early fall, we watered our fields with river water which came to us via a canal system. Matt and Shane carried long sticks of pipe, called hand lines, from one setting to the next, a job which gave them summer wages, flexible hours, and a determination to go to college so they wouldn't have to perform such labor later in life.

Each pipe had three nozzles—one on either end and one in the middle. The nozzles moved 360 degrees, broadcasting a circle of water. We left the water on for 12 hours, then Matt or Shane would move the lines to the next location.

For Duncan, it was love at first sight. The first time he watched water spew out of the nozzles, his ears went to hyper-alert position. He stood transfixed, watching the fountains and listening to the rhythmic chig, chig, chig of water moving in an arc. His body quivered with excitement. Then he streaked away, heading toward an end nozzle.

When he reached it, he leapt into the air, trying to catch a stream of water. He fell back to earth, graceful as a snowflake, then ran to the next nozzle. When he got close to it and its spouting water, he did a grand jete, hung suspended, then let himself float back to earth.

At the next nozzle, he pointed himself at the water, folded his front legs as he sailed upward, arched his neck and bit the water as he floated past. He found dainty feet just as he touched down.

From the start he was a natural, but he became more impressive with practice. I regretted we didn’t have a video camera to record his performances. But Duncan did not dance for show. Like any real artiste, he did it for his own enjoyment. When he was dancing in the water, he was totally consumed, aware of nothing beyond the cascading spray. In most any activity Duncan showed a high level of delight, but when dancing with sprinklers, he was the embodiment of joie de vivre.

Sometimes company arrived at our house and left again without Duncan even noticing them. I wondered that he didn’t get tired. He would travel from one end of the field to the other, then back again, hours at a time. If we really needed Duncan at the house, I could call him away from the sprinklers and he would return. But I didn’t do this often. Art should not suffer interruption.


The artificial rain gave Duncan a wonderful physical workout and hours of enjoyment. But real rain did not deliver the same pleasure. It might have, if real rain hadn’t been accompanied by thunder and lightning. Thunder terrified him, and even distant lightning sent him into hiding. Perhaps his keen ears could hear thunder no matter how far away it was, or maybe he linked lightning streaks to approaching thunder. I suspect his hearing was hypersensitive, because he hated summer fireworks, too.

He disliked the approach of storms as much as he disliked storms themselves. Duncan could prophesy the weather with dead-on accuracy. He became miserable the moment he perceived a storm on the way. Changes in barometric pressure or the ions must have alerted him. Then the happy, confident dog would disappear and a morose, tense creature would replace him. He would slink to the porch, moaning and whimpering, bang his paw against the door, and plead to be admitted.

He got wind of a storm so early, it was easy to dismiss his worries. “Duncan, go away! There’s no storm around.” But I came to see he was infallible. The sky overhead could be a bowl of uninterrupted blue, with no wisp of cloud anywhere, but if Duncan showed up on the porch, head and tail tucked, eyes round with apprehension, it meant a storm was coming, even if six hours away.

This gave me a way to have fun with my town friends. I would tell them, “It looks like the weather is going to change in the next few hours.”

“What are you talking about?” they would say. “It’s a perfect day. The TV weatherman said it will be sunny for the next two days.”

“We farm folks can tell weather changes better than meteorologists. We watch which way the ants are walking and that tells us all we need to know.” Certain as taxes, a few hours later, dark clouds would replace the sunshine and the sky would start to rumble.

But I would have preferred not to have this insider’s look at the weather. It was tough to watch Duncan, full of dread, shaking like a palsied old man.

Our best attempts to reassure him failed. He sought an inside wall as far from windows as he could manage. That was Matt’s closet. Matt would open his closet door for Duncan when he came pleading. Matt’s collection of dirty clothes, magazines, shoes, socks, and assorted papers offered Duncan a place where he could nose under debris to hide from the storm. But that sanctuary didn’t satisfy Duncan for long. Then he would slink to Matt’s bed, trembling. Matt would suspend our rule about dogs staying off furniture and invite Duncan to join him. Arm around Duncan, Matt would continue reading. But Duncan would whine, moan, stand, circle, tremble, jump off the bed, jump back on, and finally slink off to find another hiding place, stealing past windows, ducking under furniture, searching for a place where he would have no reminder of the flashing skies. But no such place existed.

His behavior became most distressing in the middle of the night. Duncan often stayed on the porch or in the garage on summer evenings, but when a thunderstorm was coming, he wanted in. One of us would hear him whine and go admit him.

Duncan sought my side of the bed. He would put his head on my pillow and moan into my ear. When the first streak of lightning came, he would emit an agonized cry. Then he would crawl behind the headboard, running amok of cords connected to lamps, clocks and the radio. A moment later, the black muzzle would be back, an inch from my face. I felt sorry for him and tried to console him for the first 30 minutes. After that, my patience wzore thin.

“Duncan, stop! I want to go to sleep.”

Idaho’s summer thunderstorms often lasted for hours. Particularly at night, the pyrotechnics could be spectacularly beautiful, but not for a person whose dog was yowling an inch from her face. Usually once or twice during a summer, lightning would hit near our house. The noise that accompanied those strikes made everyone dive for cover, but poor Duncan turned inside out with terror.

Often our storms were sound and fury, signifying nothing in the way of helpful moisture. So when the sky got quiet again, it was time to turn on the irrigation pump.

As soon as a storm passed, our quailing canine transformed into his assured, cheerful self. As I walked to the canal, Duncan pranced beside me, ears perked, muzzle sniffing the freshly washed air. He would try to get me to play by charging at me, growling, and dashing away. He suffered no post-traumatic symptoms.

When the pump began to hum, Duncan would turn and gaze toward the sprinklers. The body that had shivered with fear an hour before now quivered with excitement. He’d give me a happy grin over his shoulder and dash away.

A moment later, the black and white dancer would approach the first nozzle. As water sputtered from it, Duncan would pirouette once, twice, dancing after it. When water began to spray with more force, Duncan would do a series of pas de chat--small, graceful jumps. Soon, the pipes filled and the nozzles began to throw out streams of water. Then it was time for Duncan to execute grand jetes. He would launch his agile body heavenward, extend both front and back legs, toss his head toward the font, and sail, sail, sail. It was a celebration of health and life and movement and sunshine–and rain that came to the field in a miraculous way, unaccompanied by dreadful thunder and lightning.