When Birdy asked me if I could share a story of my bond with an animal I was incredibly humbled but also a little lost. Obviously, it should be a dog right? Everyone who knows me knows how much dogs mean to me, but how can I choose just one? Maybe I should share the story of my Longhorn cattle and everything they mean to me? But then there's my chooks and how they teach about the complexities and the simplicity of planned breeding or even my magpies and crows that share with me their lessons of classical conditioning? Perhaps it should be Peggy Hell, maybe it might interest people to know about the tough but crazy Appaloosa mare that does my head in, but reminds me that very subtle pressure can make a huge impact? It was a tough choice.
The special bond that we create with an animal (fortunately for me) transcends species, and I'd like to think that every single animal I interact with has something to teach me. So for the last two weeks, I've thrown around plenty of ideas in my head. Most have been about the magic of a bond I've shared and how I've been such a strong and gracious partner in the story. But sometimes life isn't like that. Sometimes animals still love us despite how much we wrong them.
With that in mind, I chose to share the story of my beloved old dog Kaiser, a dog that was my loyal and faithful friend for 17 years, one who I failed terribly and the one who, long after he has gone pushes me to learn to be a better dog trainer and a better person.
In the early 90's my old boss had a litter of pig dog pups. They were out of a Wolfhound x Boxer bitch called "Socks" by "Springer", a Greyhound x Bull Terrier. I was in town and went round to have a look at them because Socks was killing her pups. I ended up heading home with the 6 survivors to hand raise. I was living on "Springton" an isolated cattle property in the desert uplands of Central Western Qld. I lived by myself out there, on 40,000 acres just over an hour and a half from town.
The pups thrived and were good company for me. They spent their time in the front of the cruiser, rattling around the paddocks while I worked, tumbling around on the floor while I read a book at night and in the box beside the bed while I slept.
I had no intention of keeping any of these pups, but while I was raising them my main dog Cheyenne was killed by Dingoes and my young bitch Reeka picked up a 1080 bait. I wasn't quite dogless but I must have felt close to it because when I took those pups back to Blackall, I asked if I could keep the brindle and white dog with the blue eye.
To give some perspective - at this time in my life, I was a teenager, full of anger and bluff and vinegar that often comes with that stage of life. This was exacerbated by the hell I'd survived as a child. I knew a little about a fair bit, imagined I knew a lot about a whole lot and embodied the phrase "A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing".
I'd worked with a few good dogmen and had trained and sold a few handy dogs. I'd read books I mail ordered from catalogues or hassled the local library to get in for me. By the time Kaiser had found his way into my life, I thought I knew what I was doing. I trained him formally, just like the experts in the books said, in a way I'd never trained a dog before - with a rigid plan and a collar and a lead. I piled a lot of repetitive obedience in, I was super strict, unforgiving, left no room for mistakes and in hindsight, lots of pressure but no real release for him.
I ended up with a dog who was obedient without question but tucked his tail and flinched at each command, and often at the slightest hand movement or gesture that he knew led to a command. He would struggle to recover from corrections at times, even when they were just verbal. He was constantly on edge, waiting to be corrected. He lived in a place of dread. He was never a problem to have around, and he was always trying to please but he had almost lost the ability to function independently. It was no way for a dog to live. The way I'd trained him had destroyed him rather than honoured him.
Through all of this, he was an incredibly kind young dog. He would catch pigs but curl up with Tadpole, my pet pig. He was gentle with kittens, sheep, calves, never started a dogfight and never chased or looked at anything he shouldn't have. He was always forgiving of me and no matter how hard I drove him he would always come back and push his nose under my arm looking for a pat or a scratch on the ear.
I didn't know if there was a way back for my broken dog. I tried a few different things without much success. When I stopped trying to do things to him and just did things with him that's when the healing began. I made everything an adventure. No more long obedience sessions. I just let him be a dog who came with me, understood some boundaries and experienced life.
I didn't really have a family to support me so it was Kaiser who was with me when I took the plunge to go back and finish high school at 19. He sat with me when I worked late at night on assignments when I went to work at 4 o'clock every morning and trotted beside me when I exercised horses. He comforted me when I was devastated over an admin mistake that cost me my uni entry. All the good and bad that happens in life he was there for it.
Around the time he was two years old, I took on his littermate. Patch was savage and a real handful but an exceptional pig dog that just wasn't going to make old bones with his bite history. They were a great pair that just meshed. Kaiser's ability as a hunting dog improved, his confidence soared and he slowly chipped away that fearfulness I had created. Patch calmed down somewhat, although he always was a dog who liked to bite, he could be around people and (mostly) ignore them. Where Kaiser was respectful and sweet, Patch was nasty and cold. Together we had a whole lot of fun. (Patch ended up living with my best friend on a remote property, she was looking for a dog and he fitted the bill. He was very much loved and got to see old age after all.)
The most defining moment in our relationship came when I got bogged on my way to a shearing shed where I working as a cook. I thought I would make it out there before the rain set in but no such luck. Nobody knew where I was and it would be days before anyone could get through. I reckoned the best idea was to walk to the next property so I set off with Kaiser, Patch and a Bandog pup called Sonic. I reckoned it would be around 10km or less. It was raining, cold and windy when we set off on foot.
I misjudged the distance, it was well over a 20km walk. It was just on dark when I made it. I could see the lights on in the house, but in between was a creek that was running hard, 1.2 m over the bridge. No one could hear me calling out over the rushing water.
I didn't think I had it in me to walk all that way back, and I wasn't up for a night sleeping in the rain and cold so I reckoned my only choice was to try and make it across. I wrapped a hand in my pup's collar, let Kaiser and Patch swim and tried to walk my way across, holding onto the rail. A branch came through in the water and pushed me off the bridge. I can't swim and thought that was the end of the road for me.
I was washing against trees and couldn't get a proper grab on anything. My jacket was pulling me down and so was my pup. Kaiser came after me and I was able to grab him while he swam and pulled me back to the bank. Unfortunately, we were back on the same side we'd started. My pup was not in a good way and I was vomiting up water, totally soaked, had lost my shoes, was beaten up and exhausted. None of that really mattered though - I'd survived.I lay there and sooked for a bit, walked back to the crossing and yelled out, but that wasn't going to fix anything. I knew I couldn't stay where I was, so I made the choice to start back, there was another property about 9km from where I left my car with no major crossings in the way. That night it was cold. Stupidly cold. The blood had crusted up on my head, legs and arms, my feet were cut up and bruised and I had a crook pup slung over my shoulders. I wasn't doing really well.
Every time I'd stop and sit down Kaiser would wrap himself around me, he'd push me with his nose if I went to sleep and whine and lick my face, and off we'd go again on the slowest trip ever. If it wasn't for him though it would have been a trip I would never have been able to make. I've no doubt I would have drowned, or I would have died beside the road before someone found me.
Just on daylight I made it back to my ute, changed clothes and set off in another direction. I was still pretty slow, it was cold and muddy but no rain at least. We made it to the "Alamay" house that afternoon. I had worked there before, and knew the family who owned the property. It was a huge surprise to them to have someone walk in after the rain that had fallen! I was able to put my dogs in a pen and get them fed. And very gratefully got a shower, some dinner, and a soft bed for myself.
Kaiser was the constant with me over the next years as I travelled from one side of Australia to the other, (except for a few bits and pieces in boarding kennels or with my best friend when I was at remote mining camps and a time in the NT). He rode in the dozer with me so we could chase the pigs that were flushed out. He slept in the wool room while I worked in the sheds. He came mustering and worked rough cattle. He trotted beside horse or bike tirelessly. He rode in the sleeper of a truck. He camped under the bar of rowdy pubs. He laid outside the door of camp kitchens while I cooked. He travelled with me when I drove from Townsville to Kalgoorlie when I was heavily pregnant and couldn’t fly. He found his way to the hospital when I was having my first baby, camped in a hole he dug in the garden and waited. I don't think I've ever had anyone that put in so much effort just to be there for me.
When my kids were born my life changed. Kaiser adapted to the change, to life in the city and then back in the bush and to the small people with their grabby hands and constantly dropping food. He went to obedience classes, became a therapy dog visiting hospitals and schools, and was one of my demo dogs when I worked for a dog trainer. He babysat puppies and played with kids. He was a blood donor for vet surgeries. We still got out and chased the odd pig too. All in all, he seemed pretty content.
As he reached his twilight years he was still in quite good health. He was slow, didn't think a lot of cold mornings and was a little hard of hearing but wasn't ever sick. One mid-winter morning in his 17th year I woke up to find him labouring to breathe. I took him to the vets, he was suffering from heart failure. He was given pain relief and I took time off work. The next two days were just spent being with him at home. On the last day, we sat in the sun together and I said my goodbyes. I lifted him on the back of the ute and we made the final journey to town, his nose in the breeze, enjoying the wind on his face. I held him in my arms and pressed his vein as the needle went in. Tears rolled down my face as he left this world.
Kaiser taught me that sometimes just making an effort to be there is the best thing you can do for someone. He impressed on me the beauty and power of kindness and how we shouldn't let the harsh blows life can sometimes deliver, crush that in us. He showed me that no matter how little you think of yourself there is someone out there who thinks you hang the moon. He made me understand that no matter how tough things are, no matter how hurt or tired or injured or beaten you think you are, there is always more in the tank. He made me value loyalty and to be loyal. He reminds me to always look for a better way to live with animals and to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
I will miss him until the day I die. I'm forever grateful the little brindle and white pup with one blue eye stayed with me. I was very fortunate to have a dog like him in my life.
About the Author:
Katrina lives on a property in Central Queensland and keeps busy being a mum to 5 awesome children and a farmer. She is passionate about regenerative agriculture and improving every step of the process for her animals from paddock to plate. She also works with her talented teams across a couple of businesses - Zero Harm Safety and Training in Emerald and Mackay (a people training business), The Outback Club Bar and Grill in Blackall, Dirt, Diesel and Dust based in Central Queensland and she has recently started a new venture - Fat Lamb Catering. She occasionally breeds Bandogs as Southern Cross Kennels and is a member of the MiniBull Project. She also produces Texas Longhorn Cattle as 6JHeart Texas Longhorn Stud. In her spare time she trains dogs, learns better ways to train dogs and hunt with dogs. She is proudly a life member of the Australian Pig Hunters and Doggers Association.