Opie the Ranch Dog 

Dogs come in all varieties of breeds (and, of course, inter-breeds), and they play a wide variety of roles in human companionship: there are lap dogs, watch dogs, hunting dogs, assistance dogs (for disabled people), and on and on. Late this summer, we had the good fortune to run across a new one for us—a ranch dog.


Pagosa Springs, in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, is less that three hours from Santa Fe, so it's easy for us to zip up there for short vacations. One time this year, we stayed on the San Juan River at a horse ranch that has cabins for rent. Their lake, in one of the pastures, is a haven for ducks and Canada geese, and their half-mile of private river is full of trout. It's picturesque, relaxing, and close enough to town to be convenient.


When we arrived, we were greeted by Opie, a young Golden Retriever whose life appears to revolve around functioning as a sort of concierge for the guests. While he's not very good at giving directions to area attractions or making dinner reservations in town, he's quite adept at showing people around the ranch, all the while picking up sticks for you to wrestle away from him and then throw for him to fetch. Definitely not a house dog, he's nonetheless quite friendly and even affectionate, and he somehow stays remarkably clean for a long-haired dog whose favorite hobby (after rooting for mice in the pasture) is rolling around in, um, goose droppings.


Perhaps he's clean because he likes to help the guests fish. He lies down in the river, waits for something to drift by, and snaps after it. We didn't see him catch anything, but it wouldn't have surprised us if he had. Or perhaps it's because he likes to go for a swim in the lake on occasion—so much so, we were told, that he taught the horses to enjoy swimming, and it became impossible to continue to use the lake as a fence: the horses were ending up in the neighbor's pasture all the time.


Or perhaps it's because of all the interesting stuff across the river.


While we were there, it rained. Hard. For a longer time than we would have liked. It rained so much that the river rose to a nine-year high. We managed to work in a day of hiking, up to the falls on Four Mile Creek, only to get snowed on for our trouble.


When the river finally went down a bit, we went fishing, and Opie came with us. It's not surprising that his attention span is a little shorter than ours (he's young, after all), so when he got bored with the slow fishing, he went exploring.


How he ended up across the river wasn't entirely clear—it was still running much too high for us to want to wade it—but there he was, on the other side, rooting around for mice. Well, we figured, he lives here and can take care of himself.


And take care of himself he did. After a time, we saw him strutting around over there with a strange, Z-shaped stick—he'd found a special one for us to throw, it looked like. But then he obviously wanted to come back across. He wandered the far bank, looking for a likely crossing point, and finally he just plunged in, crooked stick and all. Paddling furiously, head held high above the torrent, he made it with ease, or at least with more ease than either of us would have. And then he pranced off toward the house with his new stick, head still held high, proud of his find, obviously going to show Mom and Dad the prize.


But he didn't get that far. Walking back, we found him off in the underbrush, gnawing on his new stick. The one with the hoof at one end and the ball joint at the other—an entire hind leg from a deer carcass.


It made us feel better about not giving him treats—he'd clearly learned that guests are easy marks, but we'd been resisting. And it made us glad that he wasn't the face-licking sort of lap dog that some people have.


Breath mint, anyone?


Back to Essays index