Sam The Dog

Our parents got Sam because my mother worried about the children loose in the yard and around the farm. Dad worked in town in one of the labs, but we lived out in the county on my grandparent's farm. Their house was at one end, and ours was at the other. So, the children were all over the place all the time. A dog would be a good companion and alert my mother if something was really wrong. Plus, they're fun and furry.

Sam was a solid black English Shepherd. Its a relatively rare breed, gaining popularity now as agility-competition dogs (ie frisbee dogs). There seems to be more than one breeding line. One line is "smart" and the other is "scary-smart". Imagine a really pretty Golden Retriever. Now imagine him solid blue-black. Now imagine him smarter that you ever thought possible, and with that intelligence an inherent desire to protect what he loves. Plus, I swear that dog had a sense of humor!

Sam was the first dog I remember when I was young. There are myriad "Sam" stories, because he was without doubt the smartest loyalest quickest prettiest bravest dog in the world. This was not just our thinking, but the thinking of every one of the "meter readers" from the Utilities. They maced him once when he young. It did not deter him from "protecting" us. In fact, it seemed to confirm his suspicion that they were evil and needed to die. After that, we were the only people in the county who had an appointment with the utilities-guy.

The only time he actually bit anyone was the Shriner. We were always late for everything. It only complicated things if you stopped to buy a paper from the Shriners on their fund-raising-newspaper-sale Sunday morning. They'd stand at the intersection by the Courthouse and for any donation they'd give you a newspaper about Shriner-news. My father just KNEW that my mother would be running late that Sunday, because she was running late EVERY Sunday. He had a plan. He just donated to the Shriner he worked with on Friday. Then, he could zip through the intersection with only a slight wave and nod. Of course, it being a small town, everyone knew my mother and understood. This went on for a few years. Then, the Shriners felt guilty. Robert was giving money but NOT getting the paper-brochure. One of them who lived further out than we did volunteered to drop one off at our house on his way home. He drove up to the house. He hopped out in spite of the barking dog. He ignored the increasing frenzy of the dog as he neared the house. He put his hand on the doorknob. The dog bit him, and then gently but firmly escorted him back to the car. It wasn't a mauling. More of a corrective measure. Training the Shriner NOT to touch the doorknob. I think the "gentle" part freaked out the Shriner as much as the "firm" part.

Protection was the name of the game. If my father went to the window and tapped it twice, Sam would start perimeter checks. He was never trained to do it. He just knew. First he checked the immediate edge of the house, then the yard, then the edge of the yard, then the wooded area, then the house again. Ever growing concentric circles.

And it made Sam nuts if we tried to play on opposite sides of the house! He couldn't see both groups at the same time. He prefered it if we'd play on adjoining sides so he could sit at the corner and watch everyone at once. It was eery to watch him try to "herd" us. He was rather determined about it.

He was the most ferocious dog I've ever seen. When he was agitated, a full-overweight adult couldn't effectively body-pin him. My mother tried occassionally when he got a little cranky about visitors he didn't previously know. But, he never ever went after children. Even stranger-children were ok. (Once Connie age-8 bonked him on the head with a rake because she was scared. He only barked at her, but it was serious barking. )

And, he was the gentlest dog I've ever seen. Children could pet and pull and wallow and he just wagged his tail. That was his glory. He didn't even kill the cats at my grandmothers because we liked to play with them. He lived to sneak up and catch them. He'd start crawling toward the cats about 100 yards away, trying to slip up unnoticed. He was so intent! After he caught them, he'd let them go. He wanted to "win", but he didn't want us to be upset.

He was so full of energy and life. He wrestled and jumped and ran full tilt. But when my grandfather was in the early stages of Alzheimers, Sam would shadow him every time he left the house with his cane. No running and jumping. He'd walk quietly beside my grandfather the whole time. Keeping his head near my grandfathers free hand, but never bumping or jostling the fragile balance. When my grandfather stopped to rest frequently, Sam did too. Just sitting there like a statue. It was SO obvious he was taking care of my grandfather. We would never have believed it, but my grandmother would watch from the windows.

You could tell when he was in warning-mode versus seriously-meaning-business-mode. He only barked warnings, he made no sound at all when he was stalking a threat to our safety. He thought lots of things were threats to our safety. Squirrels. Snakes. Groundhogs especially. I don't know WHAT he thought the groundhogs were going to do to us! Maybe the silence was why we didn't hear the fight.

When I was about 12, there was a drought. It was pretty severe up in the mountains, but our farm had plenty of water. Lots of farmers in the valleys were having problems with wildlife coming down out of the mountains (national park) looking for easy food and water. As far as we can tell, Sam found a mountain lion on the farm. Now, a mountain lion is a serious threat to people. I'm sure he knew that, the same way he knew he had to kill that animal at ALL costs. And it cost him plenty.

My mother started worrying about 3:00am. Sam stayed out late sometimes, but he was never gone THAT late. She was concerned enough she got my father up. He's a sweet-natured practical fella who got dressed and took a flashlight and a gun out to look. He found Sam in the woods near the edge of the yard. Sam had managed to drag himself that far before he passed out. I remember it being very dark and my father being very calm but very fast. He took a sheet and my mother into the woods. They managed to get Sam onto the sheet and use it as a gurney. At first, they thought he was dead. Then, my father realized he was still bleeding. He was alive! Straight to the vet. My dad took off with the dog, and my mother called the vet to meet him at the clinic. I'm not sure which shocked the vet more: the fact it was a dog, or the fact it was my father (aka Mr. Practical).

Back then, in rural farming communities, animals were commodities (not "friends"). Vets were reserved for animals with income potential like horses and bulls. No one took a DOG to the vet.

My father left Sam and came home for breakfast. It was a Saturday. The vet called. My mother was at the grocery store. The vet talked to my father. He went and sat at the kitchen table and looked at me. My little brother was standing behind him to the left. "Sam needs surgery, and one of his back legs is gone. The vet says he's lost so much blood and is so weak and old that he won't live through the surgery. We have to decide what to do. Surgery is very expensive, and he'll die anyway."

I remember knowing how much it hurt my father to say those words. He wanted more than anything in the world to tell us that everything was fine, but that would be lieing. He knew there was little choice, but he didn't want to be the Dad that killed his child's dog. Oddly enough, that was almost as hard as losing the dog, knowing that I was causing Dad even more pain because he knew he couldn't protect us from the harsh realities of life. I could hear myself saying "He's our dog and its our decision, not yours. I want him put down. " Quietly, not a tear. Calmly. My brother just sobbing, but it being our choice. It was us taking care of him instead of causing more pain and grief. Both Sam and my Dad. There was a watercolor of a basket of apples on the wall to the right. Memory captures the oddest details.

When my mother came home, she cried a lot. My mother is a "crier". We all got ready and went to the clinic to say good-bye. Sam was on the table with some bandages. He was SO happy to see us. Looking back, I wonder if he was calm/sad/despondent because he thought Dad had abandoned him there to die. Sam perked up so much, that the vet took Dad aside and said he thought it might be possible that Sam had a slight chance of surviving the surgery. A one in a million chance, but still ... the fact he had lived through the night was impossible, so why not shoot for the moon?

We went home and waited. The surgery went well. Dad made the vet swear he'd never reveal that my father spent that much on a dog. Sam came home with only three legs, but at least he came home. It was weeks before he was strong enough to move. Within a couple of months, Sam was as strong as ever. Squirrels lived in fear. Groundhogs didn't live at all. Cows were continually alarmed as he jumped into the water (on purpose) while they were drinking. He could clear a live-stock fence in a single bound, even with only one back leg. Sam lived four years after that, dieing of old-age peacefully in his sleep.

He was the smartest loyalest quickest prettiest bravest dog in the world.

Waves a cinder in my eye or allergies or something.

King of Fools | 04/21/2004 - 08:32 PM

Gotta have faith. I'd never lead you down the path to a dead dog :)

But, I had to set up the next post which is about my favorite childhood memory. Its a "Sam" moment!

Lucy | 04/22/2004 - 04:00 AM

Nice blog, just wanted to say I found you through Google

Steph | 11/07/2004 - 09:27 AM

Hi Lucy,

That was a wondeful story about Sam. Thanks so much for remembering it and for posting it. I have English Shepherds too and I believe every word you said as I see it and live it every day. Do you know what lines Sam was from or where he came from? It would be neat to include his story in our English Shepherd history project.

best to you,
Kyt Eubanks
Secretary - English Shepherd Club

Kyt Eubanks | 10/25/2007 - 05:32 AM
Make Waves

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