Photo of Duke, taken this spring.
I moved to my current home, Spirit Creek Farm, in April of 1999. A few days after I moved here, my German Shepherd Nuke died unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon. I was grief stricken over the loss, so it was strange that the very next morning during the commute to work, the urge to check at the local humane shelter for another dog aggressively interrupted my thoughts. There was simply no room in my heart for another dog and I was annoyed at myself for even considering a replacement not even a day after saying goodbye to one good dog.
Over the next few days, at any still moment, when my thinking was not actively engaged, the idea of the shelter crowded into my thoughts. I wondered what was wrong with me. It was far out of character for me to consider another pet immediately after losing one. It normally takes a year or two before I am ready. Sometimes a higher authority intervenes in our lives. I simply could not ignore the clear and insistent message to go to the shelter to look at the dogs. On Friday afternoon I succumbed - obeyed - caved - and went to the shelter.
One glance into the puppy pen, and a fat butterball German Shepherd mix puppy caught my eye. He was sleeping while the other puppies were excitedly jumping and yapping. Instinctively, I felt he was ill but when he roused and came to the front of the pen, he was as vital as the others, so I dismissed it. I carefully and individually looked at every puppy and dog available. I did not miss one animal. But it was that little fat guy I asked to see in person. His face was so fat that it seemed as if the flesh folded vertically above and below his eyes, giving him the appearance of a clown. His paws were huge. I wanted my son to help choose, so I did not take the puppy then, but I knew he was the one.
First thing that next morning we went to the shelter. I pointed out the fat puppy right away, but my son wanted to look around. His first choice was a gangly hound/lab mix. Once my son had a chance to play with the fat puppy though, he was wavering. In reality, I do not think either of us had a choice. I filled out the paperwork, still wondering what the heck was wrong with me. As we exited the busy waiting room, there was a collective happy murmuring over the sight of an 11 year old boy with the wriggling puppy in his arms, going home together.
On the way back to the farm, my son named the puppy Duke. Even though I tried to talk him out of it, he stood his ground and "Duke" it was. Within a few days, the puppy developed a terrible case of diarrhea and I immediately returned him to the vet. The diagnosis was bad: parvo. The vet's advice was to exchange him at the shelter for a different puppy. The shelter would euthanize Duke at their expense. This simply was not acceptable. My son losing two dogs in less than two weeks? No way! I had to take out an unsecured loan that very day in order to give the vet $350 up front before he would treat Duke. I visited the next morning but Duke was one sick little guy. I did not know if he was going to make it over the weekend.
On Monday morning, I called the minute they were open and the news was good. Duke was on the upswing. Another day or two later Duke came home to Spirit Creek Farm for good.
Duke was guardian and constant companion to my formerly city dwelling son as he explored the timbered creek and hills of his new rural home. Duke learned to snow disc down the steep hill behind our house whether he wanted to or not. He traveled many miles up and down the creek, through all seasons with my son and his buddies. He stood guard when coyotes howling and strange rustling in the dark scared the boys shivering in their tent on the hill behind the house.
Duke loved my son, and is still overjoyed to see him when he comes home from college. But I think it was for me that Duke survived the parvo.
He lives a dog's life outdoors. He is not tied up, fenced in, nor restrained in any way, but knows where the property boundaries are. He does not chase cars or cattle or the horses, but loves to chase rabbits. I do not think he has ever caught a single rabbit in his life. He leaves the rest of the wildlife alone - the squirrels, birds, turkeys, deer. He barks to warn off coyotes and varmits I can never see. If a car stops at the top of my driveway, he has a particular bark and I know someone is coming onto the property.
He and my first horse are friends. He can walk under her belly and lays in the shade of her shadow. The second horse is younger and loves to chase him around. He irritates them too, with his constant insistence to be right in the middle of things at all times. If the horses are cranky, they will swing their hind ends around in warning, but jolly ol' Duke doesn't perceive the threat. To my knowledge they have never actually tried to kick him. But I fully understand their irritation.
When he was a young dog, if he could manage to get a opossum into his mouth, he just carried it around. The opossums did not like that friendly ride at all and learned to stay away. He loves to dig into the prairie for the voles. If he catches them, I have never seen it. All his life he has loved to dig frantically after them and snuffle into the hole. He did go after a pack rat displaced when my brother and I were moving hay bales. Like the magnificent predator a dog truly is, he dispatched that rat with a powerful shake and trotted off to chew on it in privacy. I looked at my brother and said "Wow! Duke is a warrior!" I had never seen him kill a single living thing before.
There are times when my knees ache and are so stiff I can hardly walk. Duke and I have worn a path to the barn looking after the horses. When my knees are bad, he goes ahead of me on the path, always. If he gets too far ahead, he will stop and wait for me to catch up. If we happen to scare a rabbit out of the tall grass, I'm on my own, because ol' Duke tears out after that rabbit like a true hound dog. Before long he returns to "help" me tend to the horses. He never misses escorting me back to the house. In fact, if I'm already on the path back toward the house, he comes tearing up behind me so he can walk in front and scout the way.
It is all typical dog stuff. Just about anyone can tell about the same behavior in their dog. But it is the true magic and life's purpose of Duke the good dog I want to write about. Often I perform ceremony and prayers on behalf of the plants and animals that are under such threat from our human activities. It is my gift to the earth. Instead of his usual insistence to be underfoot and in the way, Duke always, without fail, sits off to the side in alert but respectful silence when I am praying. He simply knows that something requiring his solemn witness is taking place.
Over and above that, I often wonder if he is my former dog Nuke reincarnated in the puppy's body. A day or so after the death of our German Shepherd, my son came in the front door, pale and disbelieving. He had clearly seen Nuke standing behind him in the reflection on the glass of the front door. I was immediately and constantly urged to go to the humane shelter. The more time ticked away, the more insistent that message was. My heart was NOT ready for another dog whatsoever. Then, I unknowingly chose a puppy that was most likely doomed to be euthanized as soon as the parvo infection became apparent. Duke does not act exactly like Nuke, but he does something that of all the dogs in my life, only Nuke would do. Whenever I came home, Nuke in a sheer overload of joy, would stand next to me and spring straight into the air, over and over again, making a joyful growling whine in his throat until stopped by a big sneezing fit. Duke, the good dog, does this exact same thing. That is, he did this until the years began slowing him down.
Anyone who has ever loved a good dog knows their dog brings unconditional love and loyalty, gifts from the Creator. Duke is the guardian of Spirit Creek Farm, a role he chose for himself and he executes those duties with a mighty heart.