Sunday, February 7, 2010

Two French Dogs

Alanna and I went to France for three months this past fall, where we lived on farms and learned how to make cheese. I e-mailed out dispatches while we were there, but I also planned on more formally recording some of our memories from the trip. This is my first such effort.

Unlike every other dog I have spent any time with, Atos was almost never at ease. It took me weeks to figure out precisely why. Dogs are generally not embarrassed about physical appearances, and he had a wide forehead, a long, full muzzle, a licorice and caramel coat, ears sharp as the corners of an envelope - no external reason for concern. He was a young dog, a lean, muscular dog, his movements infused with an effortless physical grace that was a wonder to watch. When off his leash he would hum along the narrow, terrace-like paths that the cows had walked into the steep alpine hillsides, his lope so efficient that his back barely rose, his paws always magically dodging the fresh manure landmines laid on the trail.

But these times of liberation were few, and when he was chained out back next to the generator or lying on the filthy tile of the kitchen floor, he exuded the sort of bottomless melancholy usually found in a recently dumped fifteen-year-old. Sometimes he would bark for attention, or submissively droop one ear and whimper, but usually he lay silent and motionless save for the intermittent blinking of his moist, unfocused eyes.

After a few weeks I finally realized that the demon who tormented Atos was the other dog, Bonny. With a long black and white coat that looked a drab gray-brown for all the mud and twigs matted through it, Bonny appeared little different than any other Border Collie, and he was extremely friendly. It took so long to identify him as the root of the problem because it was mostly passive on his part - he was relentlessly pleasant, with other dogs and with humans - and because the damage was purely psychological. If it had come to a fight, Atos would certainly have had the advantage. But he loved Bonny, and would bark and whine all night if not allowed to sleep in the same area. The problem was that, as the older dog, as the only other dog Atos knew, as a paragon, Bonny set an impossible standard.

For Bonny possessed the intelligence and instinct of his breed, and while he had never been formally trained, he was adept at herding. If the cows were close Michel could simply stand by the Alpage and direct. Bonny would start towards a cow, but before he began to bother it he would look back and check, and Michel would either shout his assent or tell him to keep going to an animal ruminating a little further out. Once he had permission he would dart in, barking and snapping at the cow’s flanks and otherwise making a nuisance of himself until it started moving. He would repeat this until he had the whole herd trotting in whatever direction he judged best, which was generally towards the barn. (Though once when I was out with him he drove them all into a fence and then up a steep wooded hill before I managed to get the whole enterprise headed back the right way, a task that took me more than an hour. But that’s another story.) He would be a whirlwind, first snapping at the heels of a huge red and white Abondance, then racing across the pasture to wrangle the stocky Herens that had decided to wander off towards the creek. Once he had them all going, he would trot along with the last cow, his tongue out, his tail up.

Bonny’s signature flourish always came at the crook in the driveway where three large water troughs sat in a line. It had been a dry summer in the Alps, and many of the pastures had only shallow, muddy pools or no water at all, so it was imperative that the cows drank all they could when they came in for milking. The whole herd would stop, and Bonny would sit scratching his side until the final cow lifted its dripping muzzle, and then he would once again start yipping and snapping and dodging the irate kicks and butts until he had the herd winding up the driveway and into the barn.

Michel said that you only find a dog like Bonny once in a lifetime. Whether or not he was really so unique was beside the point in the insular world of the Alpage - Michel said it was so, and so it was. The scraps Bonny received generally constituted a fuller dinner than either Bea or Michel ate. At meal times he would lie under the table or put his head in Michel’s lap to be hand fed from his master’s plate, as Atos sulked in the corner.

While Bonny played a largely passive role, doing mostly what any dog would in his place, his jealousy did worsen the situation. Though he did not like to eat bread, if he saw Bea feeding a stale loaf to the horses he would whine and roll on his back and bark and moan until he too had a share which he could gnaw on and eventually vomit up. The few times Atos had something that he did not, Bonny would force him to relinquish it until he had eaten his fill of the leftover soup or tired of gnawing on the discarded bone, and only then would Atos be allowed to pick at the remnants. If Atos wanted sole possession of a treat he had to furtively root it from the compost pile.

Anything truly good went straight to Bonny. Once Michel took a slab of speck - a type of smoked ham - and sawed off a peel of fat half an inch thick, an unctuous ivory pad the size of a small dinner plate. Bonny sat down with this grasped between his greedy paws, and he chewed and choked and wagged his tail until he had somehow scarfed down the thing entirely.

I remember watching Atos throughout this interaction and reading the doleful incomprehension on his face. He understood that the unequal administration of food and affection had something to do with herding - for this was the sole canine activity on the farm - but he did not have the capacity to do it well. Those times he got off his chain while the cows were coming in he would sprint at them, barking and growling, and he would, to all appearances, attempt to bite them. The scared cows would moo and run or turn around and try to gore him, which would only make him more determined in his vicious ‘herding’. I imagine he thought that if he could just be zealous enough, then he too would be asked to jump into Michel’s lap. After panicking the cows for what he judged a suitable time he would trot up, seeming to say, “I’m ten times better than Bonny at harassing these things. Look at them go! Aren’t you impressed?” But the more aggressive he was the harsher he was reprimanded.

The most heartbreaking interaction I had with Atos, the exception in his behavior that proved his ultimate futility, came on a day that Michel and Bea had descended the mountain for one of the parties they routinely attended until the small hours of the morning. Alanna and I were alone with the dogs and the cows, which were spread up about the gentle curve of the ridge. They had mostly dried off, and with snow in the forecast Michel had decided that they should forego their milking that night so that they could stay on the pasture, eating as much as possible before coming in to wait out the storm.

Never had Atos been enterprising enough to decide to herd the cows on his own. Usually he was chained up, and when loose he would not realize what was going on until half way through and only then come loping down to wreak havoc on the orderly column Bonny had created. Michel and Bea had not given us specific instructions to watch him. In short, Alanna had no reason to think that he should be kept inside when she opened the door.

I said before that Atos could run, but this evening he stretched out like a greyhound, bolting through the open door and down along the driveway creased into the hillside. In the failing light he blended with the dirt and gravel of the track, almost invisible until he broke from it and headed uphill without shortening his stride. He breezed by the first cow he reached, the old Taurine that was always on her own because the others all bullied her. He rocketed past a cluster of Abondance who did not even lift their heads from the pasture. Now approaching the top of the ridge which was both the property’s edge and the Swiss border, he came to the furthest cows, the three Herens, built like black fire hydrants, ornery, renowned for their fighting prowess more than their milk production, cows that should have no patience for Atos. From so far away I could not see well enough to gauge their reaction, but I heard brief barking, and I saw Atos turn and begin sprinting back as fast as he had gone out.

Usually the cows took prolonged harassment before they would move. The Herens had been dried off the longest, and were generally the most intractable. There was no way that Atos could actually bring them in when he had never successfully herded anything in his life. And he was already on his way back - he hadn’t even stayed to keep pushing. I tried to convince myself in vain that nothing would come of his efforts even as, like an avalanche, first the furthest, highest cows, and then the next and the next, began rumbling down the slope.

Atos covered the half mile far faster than the herd and arrived panting and wagging and gamboling about in frenetic joy. For once he had barely bothered the cows, and for once he had got them all moving. Unfortunately, for once he also heeded the rebuke I shouted at him as I grabbed a walking stick and went down to turn back the stampede. It was unfortunate because it would have been useful to have Atos charge into the cows’ midst to terrify them into forgetting where they were going. Instead I had to try to stand in their path. They slowed, and for a moment I thought it would work. The hillside was steep, and most of the cows were on the path on which I had made my stand. The leaders stood, looking uncertainly, while the cows bringing up the rear pushed into the back of the herd. After a chorus of moos which to my suspicious ears sounded like a bovine conspiracy to get around me, but which were more likely just the cow way of saying, “keep moving,” one slid down to a lower path and trotted past me. Another climbed up to a higher path. Then all the others followed, splitting onto the thin trails above and below where I stood.

I ran ahead, dodging the galloping bodies to get once again to the front of the pack, and in a last, desperate effort I closed the line where the trail came down and met the crook of the driveway. I had little hope - the thin strand was not electrified, and the cows could simply walk around the far side of the water troughs where Michel and I had taken down the fence a day before. Miraculously, the cows slowed up, sidling towards me and the absurd orange ribbon. Then the first few cows stopped entirely, and at last the whole herd bunched up and halted. I looked at their big eyes, and they looked at me. I waited for an enterprising individual to again circumvent my feeble blockade. But once completely stopped, as if awaking from a collective trance, the cows miraculously lost their interest in getting to the barn, and soon they fanned back out across the slope.

If Atos had previously had a chance, however slight, of becoming a herding dog, I believe this evening ruined it. For once he had actually herded the cows, and I had still punished him. If possible, he was more elated at his actions than usual, and more puzzled and more distressed than ever at my scolding. His dejected confusion was complete, and he went and hid by the generator of his own accord.

Before we left the alps, another night when Michel and Bea were out of the house for a party, I cut a handful of disks from the cheap round of salami that sat in a rubber bin with the other charcuterie on a shelf beneath the meat slicer. I walked out into the cold fall night and found Atos chained up out back. Before I put him into the barn with Bonny for the evening, I fed him the treat, and I scratched between his ears until my hand went numb. And then I turned him in with the dog whose example he would never match.


This is a picture of Bonny getting the cows moving.


  1. What a gorgeous, lyrical, & heartbreaking story. This blog is something special.

  2. I loved reading that story. I hope you write a book about your adventures. I've followed your story in tiny bits and pieces. Alanna and I practiced yoga together, years ago. And Dorothy catches me up when I see her. I'm glad to have found your blog.
    I think it's a wonderful life you've chosen.
    Wishing you the very best,
    Wendy Ford