Coming to this tiny Northwest town from Los Angeles, where the only thing anyone wants from a neighbor is anonymity, it hadn’t occurred to me I might attract much attention.
My neighbors still referred to my property as the “Old Johnson Place,” although I didn’t buy it from the Johnson’s and there was not one person named Johnson on any of the farms bordering mine. No mind — nearly everyone nearby was related in some way, not only to Old Johnson but also to each other. That was more than a bit disconcerting, and there were terrible flashes of dueling banjos playing in my head, but most of them seemed nice enough and their children looked normal.
My farm sits on five acres on long road that has historically been its own community. Settled by Scandinavian immigrants around the end of the 19th Century, it is dotted by family farms handed down through the generations. New people are warmly welcomed but are also the subject of much curiosity and even more gossip.
It’s been said, “love is blind, but not your neighbors.” Apparently, they aren’t deaf, either.
It was Barney that helped me first cross the social gap from newcomer to, well, village idiot, a position in the community I would hold until someone finally did something dumber than I could conjure up on my own.
Barney, the tough looking Shepherd/Rottweiller cross I had adopted in L.A. had every reason to mistrust and dislike people. He was found wandering in a part of L.A. known for gang wars and dog fighting. He had cigarette burn scars on his body, places where chains had rubbed his coat away, and the crooked reminder that someone had broken his back legs.
The name on the “Needs A Good Home” poster at my vet’s office was “Blazer,” and I remember thinking: what a dumb name for a dog.
My wonderful shelter rescue Bailey had died six months earlier, and Rupert, my Jack Russell, and I felt like we were missing a limb. Together, we went to visit Blazer, who had been in a large metal crate for several weeks, and seemed a most docile though, understandingly, emotionally disconnected dog. I’ve always had luck with the “used” dogs I’ve adopted, so I signed all the papers while watching Rupert trying to entice a bewildered Blazer to play by barking at him in the “down dog” play position and then scurrying around him to tug on his bushy tail. Blazer displayed no hint of canine social skills, and, although never aggressive toward other dogs, he lacked any real curiosity about them.
On the way home, the re-christened “Barney” rode shotgun in the small backseat of my pickup, complete with an enormous, plastic cone collar due to his neuter surgery and a full bladder that emptied between the vet’s office and my house. Not a glorious beginning.
This poor dog had never been inside a house, which, of course, meant he wasn’t housebroken. Or leash trained. Or voice trained. Why on earth would he have any reason to come to me when I didn’t know his “birth” name? Maybe the mean people who’d had him didn’t call him anything but “Ashtray.”
What I did know about him was that he was scared of making a mistake, and the thing he wanted more than anything – more than food, more than to be chased wildly through the deer paths of the canyon on what could loosely be called a “walk” — was to be stroked by a hand that wasn’t violent. Barney would be the dog to teach me about patience and the time it takes to heal from wounds of the psyche, and how trust can be mended as well as spirit. Everything else – name recognition, housebreaking, sitting, coming, staying – would work itself out with some time.
And it did, or at least enough of it did. Still, despite the fact that he learned to sit and “give me five” for a cookie in fifteen minutes, Barney was and would remain unusual. He was his own dog.
Once we moved to the farm, he had five acres to freely patrol, and I watched with trepidation as he developed his pattern — out the back door, down the dirt path toward the back pasture, once around the fence line of pasture, then around the backside of the pond, along the side yard, through the front garden, across the property entrance and back to the inner garden to the back door. Include stopping, sniffing and marking dozens of times, and Barney’s routine lasted anywhere from a full hour to over two.
For the first month or so, I was nervous that he would enlarge his circuit, wander into the road and get hit by a car, so I called him home incessantly. He’d look up at the sound of my voice, his tail would perk up and off he’d continue on his route, almost as if he was taunting me: You don’t know my secret name!!
In fact, because I was new to the road, it wasn’t until the first potluck dinner gathering some months later that I realized my neighbors knew more about Barney than they did about me. I also learned how far my voice carried. The conversation went like this:
Neighbor: Oh, you’re the new owner of the Old Johnson Place, aren’t you? Where’s your husband?
Me: Um, well, my husband died.
Neighbor, now with a horrified look on her face: Oh, no! I’m so sorry; we didn’t hear he had died. We would have come over, I feel so bad.
Me: No, no — it’s okay. My husband died in 1991.
Neighbor (with quizzical look on face, like the ones dogs get when they hear other dogs barking on TV): Oh. Well, then, who is Barney?
Me (laughing): Barney is my DOG!
Neighbor (now also laughing): Oh, God, we thought Barney was your husband! We always felt so sorry for him, the way you were always yelling at him to come in for dinner or come back to the house.
For the first few years we lived on the farm, it was a standing joke that I was married to a dog.
I figured I’d dated worse.