'Old Shep': Yesterday's Dog

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning,
but Anyone can start today and make a new ending." Maria Robinson

Ben Kozar and Chico

The Flint Hills stretch sinuously along the eastern Kansas border, seasonally dressed in spring and summer green, autumn gold, or winter white. I grew up in those rolling, tree covered hills during the late thirties and early forties, one farm kid among many. We had no near neighbors, nor rural electrification, no blaring television sets full of "talking heads", no telephones, and no paved roads except the highway that led to town. Although by current, more material standards we had very little, our country life offered so much.

...............We had the sighing of sycamore; the metronome of red--headed woodpeckers kept life's rhythm; summer songs of crystal streams guided silver fish across the rock of the hills; home-made berry jams and freshly churned butter graced our table; Kansas skies presented starry nights as vast as the one painted by Van Gogh; the pleasures of eating sour wild plums, the pucker-your-mouth-pain of gooseberries and the perfume of the wild prairie rose invited farm kids to share the land's bounty. Families were home at night, talking with one another, playing guitars, singing, or reading books aloud in the bright circle of an Aladdin Lamp. At the heart of every farm was Shep, a dog without equal.

...............Our Sheps were old time shepherd's dogs. I did not know their origin then, nor do I today. They were there and that was enough. Their color was not important, but they were mostly golden-shading-to-brown- with white or black markings around the neck or chest area. Some sheps had a lot of grey. Some were black and white.

Their coats would probably be called medium length. We did not have them for their looks: We had them for performance and function. They were smart, loyal, sturdy, wash-and-wear, healthy dogs with common sense and a sense of fun. They helped with everything they could, and they always stayed between us and trouble. If there was no job for them, they went along, anyway, keeping a watchful eye on the farm, the animals, and the kids they owned. Not a one of them had been OFA tested, thyroid tested, DNA tested or even temperament tested.

...............Our sheps were tested though. They were tested by all kinds of situations in which they had to use their brains, common sense, and bodies. They were tested by snakes, by cows which objected to anything near their calves, by playful colts which wanted to chase something on cool mornings, by kids who needed them, by an absence of vet care, by farmers and their wives if they dared bother cattle, chickens, or clothes on the line.

...............We never had a leash, never obedience trained a single shep. If we wanted our dog we called, "Here, Shep, " and he came running. We never taught a shep to heel. He stayed close, so there was no need to tell him to heel. If one of my brothers bellowed, "Shep, lie down," he hit the ground. I never saw anyone train him for that. Sheps just seemed to be born knowing some basic things. They were born healthy, also.

...............Progress of a sort came to the Flint Hills in the form of battery radios, so on Saturday nights we listened to WSM out of Nashville, Tennessee. Country singers poured out the woes of the big, outside world, warning us of the dangers of playing cards, drinking wine, and consorting with strangers. They sang of mothers who died while prison "gates swung wide apart" as they got their "baby out of jail." None of these sad songs wailed by untaught singers made me cry, though. The one named "Old Shep" did.

..............."Old Shep" told of a boy and his dog who grew up together and wandered the hills and meadows. As all Sheps diid, "At last he grew old." One day the doctor looked at him and said, "I can't do no more for him, Jim". I knew what was coming. By the time Jim tried to shoot his suffering Old Shep, I was crying enough to drown the chickens we had on our farm. Each time I heard that song, I cried. I still do today. When I hear Red Foley's music and words, my mind and emotions return to my childhood in the hills, the closeness of family ties, and all the good times with our Old Shep. Although all the sheps have now "Gone where the good doggies go," I remember them well.

C 1925

...............Old Shep was in integral part of everything we knew and loved. He helped with whatever needed done, if he could. Shep helped to locate and he semi--herded the squawking, flopping, flapping chickens into the hen house when thunderstorms roared across the Flint Hills. Shep never bit nor touched the chickens, but he barked and jumped at them to get their attention. (Chickens, by the way, are not smart survivors. They are literally too dumb to come in out of the rain.) Shep kept predators of all kinds away from not only the stupid chickens, but also from our house, barn and corral. He often smelled of skunk or raccoon, but no one ever gave Shep a bath. He was an outside dog and would occassionally take a dip in the pond, which usually just intensified the smell of skunk. Shep brought in the Jersey milk cows morning and evening. Incidentally, the colors of the Jersey cows were close to his own colors. Sometimes the cows saw Shep coming and began to meander in before he got there. He sat patiently in the barn, waiting for the milking to be over so he could drink his ration of milk. My brothers liked to liven up milking time by trying to hit the mouths of Shep and the cats, so he got pretty good at opening his mouth at the right time. No "balanced" dog foods were available to us, so Shep ate table scraps, milk, and eggs, mostly.

Shep helped us chase stubborn riding horses into a corner of the pasture to be caught, bridled, and saddled. Once we were on the horses, Shep followed and investigated whatever was behind us or scouted in front of us. Shep chased rabbits but his legs were too short ever to catch many. Still, he gave it the Old Shep try when he came across one. Shep was neither a pointer nor a retriever, but he liked to go along when my brothers hunted. He lay in the shade of a tree on the creek bank when we fished.

...............Shep barked at bulls, pigs, snakes, predators, anything, to keep them away and to warn us of their presence. Once when my sisters and I were in the pasture, the neighbors' mean bull got out of his pasture and into ours. Shep saw him coming and began to bark. Terror was in our hearts as my older sister and I dragged my younger sister toward the fence at top speed. Shep barked and ran in front of the bull, keeping ahead, but keeping the bull's interest. Only when we were through the fence, tearing our clothes and losing our little sister's shoe, did Shep run for the fence himself.


...............Shep kept a watchful eye for snakes and lizards, barking fiercely. When we had to feed the pigs, Shep was there. Having heard dire stories of what could happen to unwary farm kids around pigs, I was brave enough to feed the pigs only when Shep's shaggy body was close. Shep was forbidden by Mother to touch a chicken, but when the hens resented our taking their eggs, Shep's barking provided a diversion for their mean pecking. When cows or calves got out and needed to be put back in the pasture, Shep knew more than we kids did so he helped put them back in. We taught him neither voice or hand signal, but he did not need them. He knew what to do. We did not teach Shep to guard, either, but at night he was always on sentry duty, taking care of whatever was amiss.

...........Besides all the jobs he did, Shep was lots of fun. We hugged him, kissed him, petted him, teased him, and sneaked bits of our food to him. He wagged his tail and kissed our face. Shep was always there, accepting us and playing, even when we had done things we shouldn't have and Mother was out of humor. When we came home from school at night, Shep was waiting. We ran in circles, chasing one another until we all collapsed in a heap. He was a big wooly dog who was always ready to play or work. If he was cowlicked in a heap. He was a big wooly dog who was always ready to play or work. If he was cow hocked or had an under-shot jaw, I never noticed. Shep was a dog for all seasons. I thought there would always be Shep. He was as eternal as the hills hung with blue haze that bordered our existence.

 Ah, but he wasn't.

.......Farming and farm families changed. Small farms became bigger and bigger, trying to survive. The owners of those farms began to call themselves "agri-business men". The size of the families went the opposite way, becoming smaller and smaller. Kids got jobs in towns and some families moved to cities. They began buying their eggs in little paper coffins, their milk in glass bottles, and their fruits and vegetables in a store. Farmers were driving "johnny pops" (John Deere tractors) and "riding the range in a Ford V-8 pick-up. Didn't need Shep any more to help with the stupid chickens, bring in the cows, or help catch and saddle the "johnny pop" or the Ford V-8.

Kaye (Thaxton) Dunagan and Midgie

December 1951

..............Besides, we farm families had joined the "Cult of the Pedigree", as nearly everyone else had done. Uptown Breeders (Note the capitol B) had convinced us that Shep was a dirty, cow hocked, old mongrel. Who wanted to breed a dog without a pedigree a mile long? We farmers began to buy dogs whose names we could hardly pronounce. Breeders, who like to call themselves "the fancy", pointed out that Shep did not have the "correct" conformation of Baron Von Whosit. We began to judge a dog by the length of his nose or by his artificially angled rear end, not by his performance. (The first time I heard the word conformation coupled with canine, I assumed that the dog had passed his catechism classes and would be joining the church. Smart as he was, I knew that Shep was never going to pass his conformation classes.) Gradually, sheps went "where the good doggies go" and there were no more old sheps with which to roam. We abandoned a smart, brave, working farm dog for a myth and a pedigree. About the dogs whose names were listed on the piece of paper, we knew nothing.

...............I want Shep back. It may be late, but I want him back. I want to roam with Shep. I want a dog with common sense who stays home. I want a dog who goes with me to make night checks of calving cows in the barn. I want a dog to lie in the corral gate to keep some cattle in while I go let other cattle out. I want a dog who barks at snakes, whether they are slithering on the ground or trying to sell me siding. I want a dog who could help put in the stupid chickens if I had any. I want a dog who will help pen loose cattle. I want a dog who will watch over my grandkids if I ever have any. I want a dog to warm me with his welcome wagging when I come home tired after a long day away from the farm. I want a dog to lie on my feet or lick my hand as I sit on the porch at dusk. I want Shep back.


Excerpt from Old Shep by Pril Zahorsky and used by permission.


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