In praise of dogs, our oldest companions

Oddball, the maremma that saved a penguin colony, captured the hearts of the nation.
Oddball, the maremma that saved a penguin colony, captured the hearts of the nation.
Even Labor leader Bill Shorten put out a press release when Oddball died this week.

Even Labor leader Bill Shorten put out a press release when Oddball died this week.

Levi Miller (Mick) and the young kelpie in <i>Red Dog: True Blue</i>. Photo: ROADSHOW FILMS

Levi Miller (Mick) and the young kelpie in Red Dog: True Blue. Photo: ROADSHOW FILMS

The original: 2011's <i>Red Dog</i>

The original: 2011's Red Dog

The red dog came to us worn down. His coat was dull. His ribs showed. He looked at you sideways and showed the whites of his eyes.

My father, who had always owned border collies, black and white and burning with energy, had seen something in the red dog.

The animal, a kelpie, had been treated cruelly. Around his neck beneath the fur was a noose of wire. It had been there so long it had worked its way into the skin.

My dad bound the red dog's snapping jaws and cut the wire free, cursing. He mixed up a salve and slathered it on the wound, unbound the dog's jaws and tossed the starving creature a meal of mutton.

"Where'd you get him?" I wanted to know.

It was a long time before I learned there had been hard words at the saleyards, a local clod who had been kicking and whipping his dog had been sat on his behind in the dust and my father had walked off with the kelpie. It was a serious business to take another man's dog. None of the blokes at the saleyards had intervened.

"You can tell a bit about a man from the way he treats his dog," my old man offered much later.

It took a while for the kelpie to learn confidence and trust.

My father was patient with him; gentle. Month after month.

Eventually, he took to trailing Dad's heels wherever he went, tongue hanging out and ears pricked for the murmured command.

We named him Dan.

My dad had several dogs named Dan during his long life. The name was reserved only for the best of them; those who'd run all day around a mob of sheep or a herd of cattle, who'd hypnotise a beast with a fix of the eye, who'd balance on the backs of sheep in a yard.

We took a caravanning holiday and Dan came along – something that seemed incomprehensible. Dogs in our family were for working, not holidaying. Dan was ordered by my father at no-dogs-allowed caravan parks to lie flat and stay silent when the manager came sniffing around. It was love, my Mum whispered.

Years later, when old Dan was dragging his hind legs, couldn't round up a lamb and the light was going out of his eyes, Dad couldn't bring himself to take him to the back paddock with the rifle as he did with his other dogs. He called the vet and we couldn't get a word out of him for days.

We celebrate and memorialise and yes, mourn our dogs, privately and publicly.

Most of Australia's news services ran the story this week of the death of Oddball, the maremma on which the film of the dog that saved Warrnambool's penguin colony was based. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten even put out a media release about Oddball's passing.

Two popular movies – Red Dog and Red Dog: True Blue – have been made about a kelpie-cattle dog cross that roamed the Pilbara in Western Australia, and Louis de Bernières (famed for Captain Corelli's Mandolin) wrote a novel about him.

Dogs slink through literature and song – Old Yeller, Elvis' Old Shep, Chekhov's The Lady With the Dog, Henry Lawson's The Loaded Dog, Bill Sikes' Bulls-Eye in Dickens' Oliver Twist.

My father would likely have approved of Oddball because she was a working dog (the real Oddball was a female), protecting whatever flock was put in her care: chooks and then penguins.

Down the track from Warrnambool at Portland, other Maremmas were used to guard Australia's only mainland colony of gannets. Right now, conservationists are using such dogs in western Victoria to protect eastern barred bandicoots, bringing them back from the edge of extinction.

Free-range chicken farmers everywhere use them to keep foxes away. These are, after all, dogs bred originally to kill wolves that harass sheep in the hills of Italy.

My father professed to have no time for dogs that did not make their living by working.

What, then, might he have made of the little schnoodle that leapt on my bed this morning, fixing me with shining eyes. Or the chocolate labrador that has kept my youngest daughter company for years, from England to Australia? Or the golden retrievers that weaved through the life of our family as the children grew?

Having moved from the bush to the city, and currently finding myself in a suburb that appears to have almost as many dogs as people, I'm pretty sure my old Dad could have been persuaded to change his mind.

Just about all dogs, one way or another, are working animals.

Those poodles and terriers, pugs and bulldogs, spaniels and retrievers and all the rest straining against leashes and bounding around parks are working all the time.

Their jobs? They're keeping their owners physically healthy by getting them walking, mentally healthy by keeping them company and driving away loneliness by just being dogs.

My father, in rescuing that red dog from a brute all those years ago, wasn't, in truth, looking for a working animal.

Humans have had dogs as domesticated companions longer than any other animal – for 15,000 years at the least.

He was helping out one our oldest friends.

You can tell a bit about a person by the way they treat dogs.

This story In praise of dogs, our oldest companions first appeared on The Age.