Farm dogs’ role has changed over the years

Introduction of commercial dog food and the publication of Lassie in the 1940s changed how pets were viewed

SASKATOON — Today, almost every farm has a dog. Their loyalty and intelligence make them a valuable resource as companion, security guard and farm labourer.

In pioneer days, a dog was a luxury because many farmers lacked extra food to feed it, but by the 1940s almost every farm had at least one dog.

With the country just recovering from Great Depression and in the throes of the Second World War, the farm dog received little care. It was fed table scraps and if that wasn’t available, porridge. Even in the 1950s, I remember my mother cooking a pot of porridge occasionally after supper for the dog.

Grooming and shelter in those days were minimal. If given shelter, the dog often preferred the front step, the closest they could get to their family, and this was our dog Spike’s normal place.

Spike was gold with white markings and it seemed to me that he was old his whole life, but maybe his massive size and gentle personality gave that impression.

Spike’s thick coat of under-fur, topped with an outer layer of long, course hair, served him well in winter and he never suffered from frozen ears or toes even though he slept on the front step in all weather.

Spike, like many farm dogs, proved his versatility. They might patiently allow a child to dress them in a baby bonnet one minute and then give ferocious chase to coyotes shortly after.

Two significant events caused many dog owners to change how they viewed their pets and helped them realize a need for better care: the production of commercial dog food and publication of Lassie. Both occurred in the 1940s.

I remember the novelty of canned, store-bought dog food, and the revulsion at the terrible smell. It took some changes in our thinking to get accustomed to this new innovation. One day when one of us kids fed the dog and left the spoon on the counter, Mom came along, picked it up and put it in her mouth to clean it off. She turned a light shade of green when we told her it was dog food.

The story of Lassie first appeared as a short story in 1939 in the Saturday Evening Post, written by Eric Knight. Knight was sent to England to report on that country’s desperate situation during the Second World War. He was so moved by the terrible state of the people, having to sell their beloved dogs to keep going, that when he returned to the United States he wrote the story based on his own collie. It received so much response in the Post that he was asked to flesh it out into a novel. When the book became a best-seller, MGM bought it for a movie.

The story of the now famous farm dog moved farmers to take on a new appreciation of their own animals at home.

I remember the day in the 1950s when Mom and Dad decided to give our new puppy, of course named Lassie, her own house. Taking the roof from the old outhouse (no longer needed because of the new running water), he raised it up on scrap lumber.

Our Lassie never used it, except in winter, still preferring the mat on the front step. In fall, Dad piled straw bales on it and loose straw inside. Being low to the ground, the snow heaped up around it created a cozy den. Occasionally as a kid, I’d go inside just to know her experience. It was dark except for the small open doorway, smelled of the straw bed and was almost quiet. I thought she would feel quite safe, but that wasn’t her logic. Perhaps Lassie preferred the open air and the smooth mat at the door instead of the prickly straw.

As a child, I was aware of my dad’s view of dogs in the house. The place for a dog, he said, was outside where it could be useful and not track dirt in the house. His horror and disgust when visiting someone and being met at the door by the hosts’ dog never changed and gave us kids something to giggle about. Today, I look at my dog curled up next to me on his own personal chair and I can only imagine Dad’s reaction. My dog’s breed, the Shih Tzu, originated in China, strictly to stay indoors in the royal palace. This one doesn’t live in a royal palace, but he’s not a farm dog either and I don’t kid myself; a watchdog he is not. There are days when I’m sure his only use is to be a nuisance but the comedy of watching a floppy-eared Shih Tzu try to be dignified provides daily entertainment.

In the 1960s, a toy or small dog breed in a farm home was an anomaly. In later years, small dogs did begin appearing in some rural homes. Of course, they’re not there to be useful except as a companion.

Today, there are instances where veterinarian and dog food costs have been allowed as a farm expense on income tax returns. However, the need for the dog must be demonstrated, and it must be a breed that lives and works outside. Regardless of their form or productivity, we love our farm dogs and many farms could not function without one.

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