It’s been a long, cold winter. I know. … After all these years of living in Minnesota and North Dakota, I should be used to it by now. In fact, I freely admit to having sneered with derision at those overmatched out-of-towners who complained all the way to the airport, upon spending a few moderately cool days here for Super Bowl weekend.
We’re supposed to be tough. But when you reach your mid-60s, the cold just seems colder and the snow a bit snowier. Maybe that’s why so many of us, while never acknowledging it to those shivering visitors, privately dream of warm weather destinations as we shovel our driveways for the 15th time.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no intention of leaving. At least not permanently. There are reasons why my two states recently finished 1-2 in “Quality of Life,” based on a study from the U.S. News and World Report. But isn’t complaining also a rite of passage for loyal Midwesterners, particularly when March rolls around and it still looks and feels like January?
While it can often prove therapeutic, let’s face it. Nobody likes a whiner. Which brings me to my, if you’ll pardon the pun, “bone of contention.” When you’re down and out and you just need someone to be a good listener, seek satisfaction from your shetland sheep dog.
For me, it all started in the summer of 1987. Only married a couple of weeks and already short on cash after buying a new house, my wife’s birthday was coming up. Ever the romantic, I pondered my options. Jewelry was out…we were still paying for those engagement rings. Flowers seemed frivolous. So I chose to go high-tech instead, surprising Laurie with something new and exciting: a compact disc player with speakers included.
Maybe I had some visual of Friday nights in Fargo with wine, woman and song. So much for romance. Less than a month later, we were trading in that CD player for Laurie’s real desire … a new puppy.
Little did we know, but three dogs and 31 years later, we’d still be smitten by shelties. In fact, one is snuggled up next to me now as I compose this piece.
To this day, I have no idea why we chose this particular breed. Both of us grew up with poodles as house pets and had generally good experiences with those sometimes skittish, but intelligent and lovable animals. But after a bit of searching, we stumbled upon a sheltie breeder not far from home and the rest is history.
I’m sure other families have similar tales to tell about their pets. I can only speak for our three boys — Cole, Star and Chase. While each has had a uniquely different personality, the love and affection they’ve provided us is what helps get us through good times and bad.
Cole was there when our twins were born, a constant companion as they played in the backyard. While he only lived nine years, due to heart complications, he was famous for barking at airplanes and providing companionship after hard days at the pharmacy or television station. When he died, Ashley and Pat placed a paper airplane in his little box, which we had buried on a friend’s farm.
Star was the heart and soul of the family, giving us 15 wonderful years as our children became adults. He was the snuggler of the bunch, smart and so easy to train. Gentle, well-mannered and understanding but didn’t care much for the loud sounds of fireworks or motorcycles. As other pet owners will attest, the day we had to say goodbye to Star will always be remembered as a bittersweet moment. Filled with sadness, yet so grateful for the unconditional love he’d given us.
Now, it’s Chase’s turn to capture our hearts. Befitting his name, this guy is the most athletic and energetic of the three, adept at catching balls and Frisbees, while almost never barking. That is, unless he thinks you’re in the mood for playing, while shoveling some of that snow I’ve been complaining about. Chase will be seven years old this summer.
What we’ve learned about this breed is that it’s crucial to socialize them early in your training. All three of our dogs have been wonderful around children, but it means working a bit to make them comfortable around other dogs and other people.
Because they’re so smart, shelties savor “mental exercise,” such as advanced obedience and agility training, making them good candidates for competition. But their soft and sweet temperament is what has captured our attention.
In Chase’s case, we continue to marvel at his uncanny knack for knowing when something is wrong. He will stare directly at you, put his nose up close or find the most central location to observe family members in the midst of a serious discussion. He’s also capable of clearly distinguishing the meanings of various words and is quick to learn tricks that will earn him treats if performed correctly.
In short, our shelties have hopefully made us better people. No matter how long the winter nor how difficult the day, that wagging tail and enthusiastic squeal upon arrival home is the best medicine for occasional whiners like me.
I think our dogs remind us that people are generally about as happy as they want to be. In fact, they almost make you feel guilty about grousing over silly things like predictably cold and long winters in Minnesota. Almost.