Dog Farm
James Westhoff


We didn’t love our dogs, we just loved having them. We cleaned out every pound and shelter in the county. People brought by strays; we took them all. My father was a veterinarian. He gave them their shots and took care of health problems—new arrivals almost always had health problems. We never spayed or neutered. We wanted as many dogs and puppies as we could get our hands on.

We took donations from the slaughterhouse, which meant we almost never had problems keeping them all fed. And we had two-hundred acres behind the house, so room was never a problem either. At one point, my father estimated we had over six hundred dogs.

Why?

We never talked about why. We usually just talked about how we could get more dogs. It was this thing in my family, our mission. Every morning at breakfast each went over his or her plan for that day. Here’s how I’m going to get some dogs.

We never stole dogs from people. We never refused to return a dog to an owner who came looking. We also never paid for dogs. We didn’t need to. There were always enough unwanted dogs out there to keep us busy. As time went on, we had to drive farther and farther from the house to find new dogs. But none of us minded the driving. Every afternoon, one by one, the five family cars would pull up the driveway. Some were packed with dogs, others, sometimes, totally empty. There was an understanding in our family; if you came home without a dog, that was okay. Everyone knew you had done your best. My parents figured that if we ever felt pressure to come home with a dog then one of us might resort to stealing somebody’s dog, or worse, buying one.

We supported ourselves by allowing people to pay to hang out in our yard. Five dollars a head. Of course we made people sign papers so we weren’t liable for anything that happened. It was a good business, and easy to run too. For a while we were even getting tour busses. There are a lot of dog lovers out there. People would wander around the yard for hours, just looking at all the dogs and petting them and chasing them. And for little girls, there were always tons of puppies. That’s the first and only thing little girls would do, they’d go straight for the puppies and pick one up and carry it around until it was time to go. Occasionally, if the family was nice, we’d let the girl keep the puppy.

Sometimes if I didn’t feel like driving around the county looking for dogs, I’d hang around in the yard and answer people’s questions. People all wanted to know the same thing, why? Why so many dogs? Surely you must love dogs, they all said. And I’d tell them no, we didn’t. I told them my sister, Clara, actually hated dogs. In fact, I would tell the people, Clara was more of a cat person. She was never allowed to have cats. This always made people laugh. It’s strange, but whenever I talked to people out in the yard, it was very easy to make them laugh. I’m not sure why. Maybe being around all those dogs lifted their spirits.

Most people just didn’t understand when I told them we, as a family, just liked having lots and lots of dogs. There was something satisfying to us, as a family, to have all these dogs running around in our yard. The people always left confused. Were we breeders? No. Did we do it for the tourist income? No. Was it an experiment of some kind? No.

The most peculiar aspect of our dog farm was the number of volunteers that would show up at our door looking for some kind of job they could do at our house. Did we need help with feeding? With birthing? Fence maintenance? I had to turn them all away. We got it covered, I would tell them, but thanks for your interest.

Dog lovers. We even had to start selling a season pass, for people who wanted to come out to our dog farm two or three times a week. They’d show their pass and just disappear back into the property. I don’t know what they did. All kinds of people. People bringing easels, tripods, and video cameras. Others brought picnic baskets and blankets. We let people spend the night if they wanted to. We didn’t really have any rules. Just no guns and no dogs. That was the ironic thing, the no dogs policy. We had a big sign by the entrance gate that said, “No Dogs Allowed!” People always laughed, but they understood.

Unfortunately, we sometimes got bad people out on the property. People who shot some dogs, others who put out poisoned meat. You can’t account for these people. Dogs died, our numbers waned, but that just encouraged us to get out there and find more dogs, to bring those numbers back up.

Dog death was certainly an issue. We lost a lot of dogs. At least one a week. Some weeks many more. We would cremate them. That’s when we’d name them. People always asked if the dogs had names and I would tell them we only gave them names when they died. People always thought that was nice. They didn’t really understand it and neither did I, but they were right, it was nice in a way. We wrote the names in a book. It was easier to keep track of numbers at the death-end, because there were so many puppies being born on-site without us knowing, that to keep track of only the dogs we brought home would only give us half the story. There were several ways for a dog to arrive on our property, but there was only one way it could leave.

Well, some puppies were eaten and we couldn’t tally those. We also missed a few dogs that died in hiding. But all in all, basing our figures on cremations was the best way we’d found to keep records.

What I liked to do, when I wasn’t out looking for dogs or in the yard talking to visitors, was to climb up this great big dead cottonwood tree and look down on all the dogs. I’d look at how some of them were running while others were walking. Some were sniffing at logs, others were sleeping. This was especially nice at night, when for some reason I could hear the dogs better—not the barking, but the more subtle dog noises—the sneezing, the panting, the scratching.

I said that we didn’t love dogs, we just loved having them, but I guess on those nights when I was all alone up in the tree looking down on our dog farm I did actually love dogs. Me personally. It’s hard to say. That feeling of love still might have just been that I loved having the dogs. I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter. I only think about it when people ask. And now that we don’t have the dog farm anymore, they never ask me about dogs.

They ask me about cats. They ask me if I love cats. And I tell them no, I’m just here helping my sister out.



James Westhoff is the author of the novel Smoke Monkey International. He also runs the travel and humor blog, thebavard.com. He currently teaches eighth grade English in a large public school district. He and his wife are expecting their first child.