Increasingly, Homer lagged behind on walks, left a room if Orson and I were in it, and showed poor name recognition and eye contact, despite hundreds of dollars spent on beef and liver treats. He did not seem—something that only someone who knows and loves a dog well can see—a happy dog.
Could I have trained our way out of this? Sure, especially knowing what I now know. But I didn't then. Orson took too much time; or perhaps I wasn't motivated enough.
Herding was the thing Homer most loved, and there was no more companionable grazing dog. He quivered with excitement whenever we pulled into Raspberry Ridge, the farm where we herded sheep for my friend Carolyn. When I said, "Let's go get the sheep," Homer exploded with glee and rushed to the barnyard fence. We'd walk the 200 sheep down a forested path to the pasture—they knew the way so well a stuffed dog could have moved them—where Homer and I would sit for hours listening to the herd's munching. At times, his instincts were nothing less than heroic. One spring evening a ewe broke off from the herd and ran into the woods—strange behavior. Homer followed her, and when I located them, a newborn lamb was nuzzling the startled Homer and the ewe had taken off to rejoin the flock. It took the better part of an hour to identify the proper ewe and bring her and her baby back into the barn for nursing and warmth. Meanwhile, the lamb had imprinted on Homer and tailed him for weeks. Homer looked unnerved but kept an eye on the little guy.
Away from sheep, however, our troubles persisted.
At some point I'd begun to enter the murky area where the boundary between the human's issues and the dog's troubles blur. I became increasingly annoyed with Homer, his avoidance, his lagging, his sniffing at every bush and tree, and, yes, his rejection.
I found myself scolding him, urging him to hurry up on walks, to pay attention. "C'mon, c'mon," I'd hiss in a voice I never used with any of my other dogs. "Let's go, let's get going."
Many people advised me to stop worrying about Homer. "Look, he's just a dog, and he's living a better life than 99.9 percent of the dogs on the planet. Life doesn't have to be perfect, even for dogs. You do the best you can, and he's fine."
For a number of reasons, that didn't work for me. Does that philosophy really serve the dog, or is it designed to make the human feel better? My duty went deeper than that, I thought. The day I took on this dog, I accepted responsibility for his care. I hadn't done right by him.
Was he happy? I wasn't sure. Was he as happy as he deserved to be? I didn't think so. Was he getting the attention he craved? Did he feel calm and safe? No.
On some level I'd concluded Homer wasn't good enough. He wasn't as adventurous as the other two dogs, nor as resilient. He didn't walk as fast, react as quickly, herd as competently.
Poor guy, I thought. No wonder he slept in another room.