As winter approaches, I find myself contemplating the impending death of my Great Pyrenees dog, Jesse — as magnificent an animal as I’ve known. Jesse’s 14 now, elderly for a dog of his size, with ragged, thinning fur. He’s hard of hearing, finding it difficult to get to his feet at times, but still charismatic in his quiet way, still fearless, still on the job.
A rambunctious young retriever tried to jump up to give my wife a kiss in a city park a while back. Shaky legs and all, Jesse put him on the ground. It wasn’t a fierce attack; he understood that the offender was a big puppy. But the Labrador also needed to learn some manners.
No harm, no foul.
Another time, he saved Diane from a charging cow in my neighbor’s pasture. We’d inadvertently walked between a mother and her 2-day-old calf, stashed in a thicket while she grazed with her girlfriends. Without warning, the mama cow lowered her head and charged.
Probably it was a bluff. These were pretty tame cattle, accustomed to having people around, although I owned at least one peevish animal that would have flat run you over. Anyway, we never did find out, because Jesse charged her back. Even with her baby in peril, that cow wanted no part of him. It was all over before I even realized what had happened.
You see, the whole time we’d been lollygagging along, bird-watching and admiring the spring foliage, Jesse had been on the job, alert to danger, guarding his charges.
We’d adopted him at roughly 15 months from a dog rescue specializing in large breeds. I’d learned about Great Pyrenees from an old friend in Montana, who used them on his ranch near the Crazy Mountains. As Basque herdsmen have done for centuries, they put the dogs out with the sheep as puppies, and they never leave them.
When the sheep come up to the barn, the Pyrenees come with them; when the herd heads back out to pasture, the dogs follow. They’re friendly enough toward humans in their aloof way, but they live for the herd. Indeed, I read a recent New York Times article explaining this age-old phenomenon by one of the new breed of academic psychologists who study canine behavior.
(Where was I when scams like the Duke University Canine Cognition Center came into being? Oh, yeah, pondering the mysteries of Jonathan Swift’s sex life. I’d have been a natural. Professors are writing books and getting tenured jobs arguing about whether humans adopted dogs or dogs adopted humans — a conundrum which, like the Swift puzzle, can’t be solved.
(There’s even a guy at Emory University who runs his own dog through an MRI scanner to figure out what the poor beast is thinking. That’s one question I can answer: “For God’s sake, let me out of here and feed me.”
(For that matter, I’m pretty sure how it all started was clever (or injured) wolves getting into human trash: many times in many different places.)
Anyway, young Jesse leaned hard into my leg there at the rescue place, and the woman explained that’s what Great Pyrenees do. For whatever reason, he’d chosen me. I couldn’t say no.
For the next 10 years, Jesse was head of security at our farm outside Little Rock. Cows don’t need a lot of guarding, and neither do horses. But he and his companion Maggie, a Great Pyrenees/Anatolian mix, kept cow-chasing dogs and coyotes completely off the place. Realistically, I suppose, they mainly protected cats. Even today, if I’m looking for his old friend Albert the cat, I walk Jesse down the street until Albert finds us.
One day, I saw him and Maggie burst through the electric fence at warp speed chasing a cougar that had come wandering down the bayou. Another time, Jesse pitched into a pair of coyotes who had one of my neighbor’s goat kids on the ground. He grabbed one and threw it. The other escaped lickety-split. Then he picked up the baby goat and carried it unharmed back to its mother. Nobody taught Jesse to do that; it was centuries of selective breeding in action.
I did wonder how he’d adjust to city life, but he’s done fine. Some months ago, he ran off a would-be burglar at 2 a.m. Six houses on our street got broken into, but not ours. Jesse appears not to think I need protecting, but anybody who tried to harm Diane would have to come through him, and even in his old age, no unarmed man could do it.
As I say, it’s hard to imagine Jesse’s got another winter in him. But his eyes still shine when it’s time for his walk, and he’s eating heartily, so perhaps my fears for him are premature.
It’s always been deeply reassuring having the big dog around.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org