It was a late night in Boone County, Arkansas when me and my newly married wife attended a party not far from our home in Lead Hill. The ol’ boy that invited us had built a fire and we were all sitting around, drinking and telling stories, feeding the fire and enjoying the camaraderie, when his granddaughter walked out with a small blue heeler puppy. She walked up (I still say this was all planned) to my wife, gently handed it to her (what woman won’t accept a child or a small, defenseless animal?) and said ‘His name’s Rolly. What’s his name now?’
So I purchased this dog after the first look from my wife, giving thirty dollars for this small, adorable ball of blue-tinged fur. Now, I will say that my grandfather and great-grandfather were heeler people, and I grew up with dogs, but I had never personally owned a heeler, myself.
Now I know I am not the first Southern boy to try to put into writing what a dog means, nor the importance (in my opinion) of having one to raise, not only for yourself but also for your children, but I feel I have to write of this experience. Nearly every boy around my home had dogs, and we all know the love you feel for them and the heartbreak when one is lost. It is an essential part of growing up and understanding the world, in my own opinion.
So we take this small dog home and I begin to recall how we raised dogs. Feeding and caring for them until they get big enough to be placed outside in their own doghouse (I don’t do the inside dog thing; just can’t do it, too much old time preaching to me growing up). Since I attended college in North Carolina, I adapted ‘Rolly’ into ‘Raleigh’ and he became our first project as a married couple.
He soon made himself into what I termed ‘the Blue Nuisance’ as he barked and went after anything that moved. He had a special hatred for all birds, often running full speed through grown fields, barking insanely at a bird that had to be two miles away, at the closest.
He soon proved to be ‘my’ dog, though my wife was definitely the more compassionate caretaker. He began following me, and was soon always with me, riding in the truck or following the four wheelers as we ran around and attended business around the farm.
Now, I will never be one to elevate a dog to the status of a child. I take offense to those that do so, and take pity on them, really. We began having children after a year or so of marriage, and it was here that Raleigh’s natural place in the family really began to shine.
Due to him being so high energy, I always feared him nipping at the children, or possibly scaring or hurting them. However, I was amazed that the children and he became best of friends. They honestly complemented each other. As the years passed, the kids both adopted one dog as ‘theirs’ each and would refer to them as ‘mine.’ By this time, we had acquired a tall, lanky mixed breed dog from my sister in law, who grew to be the most gentle dog we had likely ever had. I wanted to call him ‘Roscoe’ but my wife liked ‘Dixon,’ so we compromised and named him ‘Roscoe Dixon’, though we ended up just referring to him as ‘Dixon.’ Does a married man ever win??
As the years rolled by, we had many good times. I began to take the dogs for granted, always caring for them, but just expecting their appearance as I arrived home, meeting me at the truck and doing their best to knock me down as I made my way inside (okay, they weren’t THAT bad). If I went down somewhere on the farm, they would ride in the truck, without question. They followed me anywhere and everywhere. I watched them both grow up (Raleigh was around a month old when we got him, Dixon not much older than that), and the girls do the same alongside them.
I was seeing the natural progression of life, just as my father and grandfather had before, watching me with my own dogs, growing up and forming a bond with them.
Once when our eldest was very little, she undertook the task of walking to her grandparents, who lived just down the hill from us. When they heard a faint knocking on the door, they opened it to find her standing there, with the dogs flanking her. They had not left her side as soon as she left the yard. I shall never forget that.
The days we spent lazing around the farm, me reading a book with my feet in the creek whilst Raleigh and Dixon laid nearby, are now precious memories. Raleigh was forever the first to meet and greet me, and always followed me when I made a move. Many summer nights he would sleep outside our bedroom window, so he could be close to us. I would get up and move around the house sometimes, and I could often hear him following on the catwalk outside. He was truly a dog to be remembered.
The lesson that I learned from Raleigh and Dixon is this: don’t ever take a good dog (or dogs) for granted. In my opinion, they are family, though not in that soul-less ‘these are my kids’ way that urbanites often portray. They are members of the family, though. They work, watch, and are there with you as you grow. They are there for you and look after your children when you are absent. They are the natural guardians of a home and family. I can’t remember a single family growing up that didn’t have dogs. It was as natural as life in the Ozarks itself.
My advice to you is this: never take for granted these halcyon days. Those dogs will not be there forever, for sure, but they are there now. Reach out, pet them and appreciate them. I spent many a day on the bank of the creek, rubbing Raleigh’s ears and telling them both that I appreciated the company. They helped me through many a stressful day, always being there to greet and be excited to see me.
A good dog is an essential part of growing up in the tradition our ancestors enjoyed. Enjoy and spoil them when you can. This summer will not last forever. One day you will gaze out the window and think back on them, as one does any lost family member. They are a gift from God, given to us.