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Hank, the non-cow dog

Essay by Joe Barnhart

Wildlife – March 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

A story in my local Montana paper, the Missoulian, described the growing problem of family pets harassing wildlife and livestock. It seems that the expansion of urban life into the wild is taking its toll on deer, elk, cattle and all kinds of burrowing creatures. The story really hit home as my dog Hank, aka “Where the heck did the dog run off to now?” is breaking us in.

Hank is named after the Hank the Cow Dog children’s book series. My wife thought the stories were cute, and so was Hank, though our Hank lives not on a ranch but on the sagebrush-covered bluffs that rise to the east of Dillon, Mont. We’re on the fringe of the great outdoors, with plenty of wildlife, including fox, deer and a variety of rabbits.

Hank’s cuteness vanished sometime this winter as the morning winds turned chilly, and he turned a year and a half old and became an out-of-control teenager, hell-bent on taking advantage of his misguided husky and border collie pedigree. The husky wanted to run and the border collie lived to chase. Throw in a dashing herd of antelope, and no matter what commands I screamed, threats I made, or sailor’s language I used, Hank was gone.

I know you’re thinking that his lack of discipline was an owner problem. Well, I agree. So I’ve been training Hank, and he’s slowly turning into a well-behaved dog. Regardless of his steadily improving manners, I was still concerned about the neighbors’ canines, and decided to investigate if there were any out-of-control mongrels housed near me.

Hank knew the territory, so I employed his well-honed sleuthing skills to uncover any roving hounds. Reaching the driveway’s end, Hank quickly focused his tracking nose on checking every carbon-based plant form to see if it had been “marked.” This, as you might imagine, takes a lot of time, but we were determined to uncover potential marauders.

First stop was Penny, a lovable border collie with a hair-trigger bladder who lives across the road. You touch her — she pees. If Hank’s missing, he’s over at her house stealing something — bones, rawhide chews and a really nice socket set that I keep meaning to return.

Down the road there’s Pinky, an ADHD beagle mix that likes romping with Hank in her fenced yard. Across the road, the area’s senior citizens Gus and Woodrow will love you to death if they find the energy to waddle up and greet you. Heading down the hill, Pepper and her cohorts are all Hank’s friends and well-cared-for homebodies. Then there’s Cody, acting like a college student on spring break. He’s a handful, but his owners seem to have mastered the art of control.

Hank, feeling a keen sense of duty and possibly the scent of chuker quail, picks up the pace as I feebly attempt to keep up. Hank is desperately trying to figure out if “heel” and “get your butt over here” are the same command. Then, through a miracle of modern dog training, he’s actually running alongside me. I stumble along as my legs beg for rest. My lung sensors detect a low oxygen level, and my brain defers action until my heart checks in. Hank, sensing my dilemma, cocks his head and licks my hand as if to say, “If you die, can I go back to chasing rabbits?” I love that dog.

Our little subdivision closely represents the nation’s 80 million U.S. dog owners, as almost every house here has at least one shaggy critter. Hank was determined to interrogate them all — even the mutt called Caesar who had a falling out with Hank a while back. Completing the rounds, I wipe my sweaty face as Hank confides that there aren’t any dogs in his territory posing a threat to wildlife or livestock. They’re just supervised, well cared for canines whose owners are friendly, responsible adults — paying taxes and flossing regularly.

Pet owners should be held accountable for their pet’s behavior, and it shouldn’t fall to game wardens or ranchers, who are often saddled with having to shoot offending animals. I asked Hank what he thought about the irresponsible folks who let their pets roam the rural countryside. He started to lift his leg. I said, “Easy boy, let’s be sensible here. Maybe a friendly reminder would be a good start: Keep your dogs at home.”

Joe Barnhart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Dillon, Montana.