Guardians At Work

It is a rare treat to be able to take a family walk in the mid-day, along with my husband Anil, my son Keiran, and our whole pack of farm dogs: little Max, our adorable Border Terrier, who melts every heart with his whiskery face but is also a ferocious rat-battler; weathered Donegal, aka “Donnie-boy,” a livestock guardian dog and our eldest Great Pyrenees, wary of strangers but fiercely loyal to his pack; and playful Kali and gorgeous Durga, our 6 month-old Pyrenees sisters, who abound in love for all but are still awakening to their guardian role

It is a beautiful day, and the fresh air renews everyone’s energy. The dogs run ahead down the path, following invisible scent trails into the brush then circling back to check in with us. It is a joy to watch their enthusiastic explorations, and it dispels some of our busy-season fatigue.

As we reach the trail junction, the calm air is split by an unearthly cry, then another and another and another. “Is that a porcupine?” I ask Anil, the sound unrecognizable to me. Then all is motion and noise in a swirling flash of reaction. “They’re killing Max,” Anil yells, “The coyotes are killing Max,” and he plunges straight into the forest, shouting, with Keiran at his heels. A blur of fur, and I see Donnie leaping ahead of them, disappearing into the undergrowth, barking as he runs. 

Standing alone on the path, I follow their progress by the bursts of shouting and barking until all is quiet. The puppies had jumped into the first frenzied chase but soon return, unsure of the commotion, touching their noses to my hand in reassurance. In the stillness, I think to call Max, to guide him home in case he has escaped. “Max, Max, Max, here Max,” I shout into the empty woods then pause, waiting and looking and trying again, my voice fishing for a small brown dog out there in the woods. 

Too many unanswered calls, too much time passes, but then a distant flash, a rustle, and a rush of overwhelming relief as Max runs out of the woods, collapsing at my feet. He is shivering, his tail tucked tightly beneath him, but he licks my hand in greeting. Quickly I snap on his leash, tethering him to my safety. 

I shout for Anil, trying to recall him, to let him know that Max is safe, my voice reaching out into the woods, then dying. An explosion of distant barking echoes down to me, and I hear Anil calling to Keiran. I shout to them, steering them back to me, to Max, and to safety.  I hear them crashing through the woods then pushing out of the brush, wild-eyed.  

“Where’s Donnie?” Anil demands, “where’s Donnie? He saved Max’s life,” and I wonder if we have sacrificed one dog for another. The barking is fainter now, and we run up the trail, listening. Now it is Donnie we call, our faithful guardian, hoping our voices will reach him, hoping he is not outnumbered, hoping… until all goes quiet.

“Shh!” Keiran says, “There!”, but I hear nothing, and then, “There,” he repeats, and Anil says, “Good boy!”  Finally, I see the shaggy head pushing out to us. He comes quickly to smell Max, his sides heaving, then lifts his head to us, his jaws dripping with foam and slaver. He takes our praise quietly, but his body is still alert, and he escorts us down the trail until we reach the wooden bridge. 

He wades into the brook, bowing his head to drink over and over, his sides still heaving. Normally a reluctant swimmer, he kneels as if to lie down, his long belly fur slick against his sides. I look at him in wonder, this humble dog who has risen to the moment, who has followed our lead and then taken the lead to stand off danger in protection of his friend. 

Back at home, we will find the puncture wounds on Max’s abdomen, and later the vet will confirm that this is the typical bite of a coyote and tell us that Max is lucky to be alive, lucky to have Donnie at his side. But in that moment, watching Donnie belly deep in the rushing water, I am amazed and humbled by this dog who had risen to the moment, who has followed instinct and training and love to guard his friend. For Max, the little snack-size brown dog, still wiggles his whiskery way into our laps thanks to the vigilance and courage of our guardian dog. 

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