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Niko the outdoor dog

| 02 Sep 2021 | 12:42

It’s been two decades since I last had a dog, and I return to the relationship with fresh eyes, wide with a sense of my unworthiness. Dogs demand so little, give so much, never grumble about how good Bear from up the street has it, but content themselves with patrolling the perimeter and gnawing a soccer ball, living for the moment you set foot in the yard.

Did I mention that our new puppy lives outside? It felt hardhearted to me at first, to banish a pack animal from the family circle, but it was a non-negotiable for husband Joe. Maybe because he didn’t grow up with a dog, Joe appears to be immune to those puppydog eyes. He’s unwavering in his people-inside-animals-outside rule; his conviction that everyone on the farmstead works. It’s not enough to be adorable and loving. What we needed was a watchdog – for the chickens, and for the kids.

Rewind to last summer. We’d just moved our whole homestead to 14 acres in Pennsylvania, when a four-foot rattlesnake, disturbed by an errant ball, emerged from a woodpile and came after Joe’s friends. How aggressive the snake really was, and whether it was to some degree a boys’ weekend fish story, I’ll never know. I wasn’t there. Suffice to say they were grown men capable of handling the situation. But the kids run around in the yard naked all the time... What if? We cleaned up the area, and crossed our fingers that the rattler had been a bachelor. Ha, ha.

Though we haven’t actually laid eyes on a rattlesnake, every now and then when I least expect it, my heart leaps into my throat and I let out a squeal while my feet tapdance in place – an absurd spectacle that brings the kids running. I’ve come across another snakeskin of diabolical length, snagged on the trunk of an old maple or waving from the stone chimney. Even when it’s one I’ve seen before, I inevitably forget, and am doomed to repeat my histrionics until I work up the nerve to pluck up the quivering talisman and toss it into the woods or the compost.

I’ve always had a thing about snakes. Joe does, too. What to do? Keep the grass mowed, know the way to the hospital. Get a dog?

A year later, we hadn’t gotten further than some internet searches – dogs that can kill snakes, dogs that can live outside – when one Saturday, our neighbors pulled into our driveway, popping the trunk to reveal nine fluffy five-week-old puppies. They wanted to give us one. They were Great Pyrenees, no less, natural guard dogs with double-thick coats so lofty they really could live outside year-round. I was home alone. It took all my self-restraint to ask them to come back the next day.

When I told Joe about the visit, hardly daring to hope, he revealed that he’d been planning a surprise. We were weeks away from getting a black lab – the breed of my adored childhood dog. Joe had been plotting how to get down to Maryland to pick up the puppy from his friend without our knowing. Bestill my heart: he was onboard. Why not, then, take the dog that was already here? Another family would snatch up the lab puppy, and fight over whose bed she would sleep on, like my brother and I used to.

Our neighbors returned the next evening with two puppies. The kids called to them, and one ambled over: the dog that would grow up with them. Dion, 2, proposed the name Spanakopita, inspired by the flaky spinach-and-cheese triangle he was eating. Niko, for short.

Niko is part of the family now – an outdoor part. After three agonizing nights of howling, she seems okay with that. When we’re outside, she’s over the moon, unable to contain her ecstatic nipping and jumping (we’re working on it). All she wants is to be where your next foot is about to land. When we’re on the trampoline, she’s under there, her head pressed up against the mesh so that it accidentally gets jumped on with some regularity.

When we’re not outside, she’s taken to hanging out by the goats and chickens, which makes me happy. She has her own life. It’s not like she’s locked in an apartment or chained up all day. When a goat kid slips its enclosure, Niko gives chase, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth in glee. The kid appears to have decided the extra forage is not worth the fright, and usually opts to stay put. Score one for Niko.

Having Niko around feels right on every level, from emotional to physical. Not only is Niko turning into a majestic creature before our eyes, posture erect and fur white as snow, but she’s already proven herself as a watchdog. Early the other morning, I woke to barking at the front door, opening it to see a bizarre animal hunched in the yard, frozen in its tracks. I’m ashamed to admit I have no idea what it was: a mash-up of a beaver and a wolverine? Niko barked again, and it shuffled back to the woods. Whatever the heck it was, it had been headed for the chickens. Score two for Niko.