A loyal pup who never forgot Mom


This surprise visitor taught one girl-and future veterinarian-that sorrow and sympathy aren't just human emotions.

Farmer Dave lived on an Angus farm in rural Virginia with his wife and five children. He raised cattle, horses, and goats. Barn cats were also plentiful, and stray and abandoned dogs showed up regularly. Over the years, Farmer Dave owned and cherished many German shepherds, but Hilda stood out. A large, friendly black-and-sable German shepherd, Hilda was the farmer's faithful shadow for many years. Whether he was on foot, horse, or tractor, she was close by.

Memories: (L-R) Farmer Dave and the dependable German shepherd Hilda; Hilda in her doghouse where she kept watch on the farm; and the author, then Melody Olinger, as a girl riding with her dad, Farmer Dave.

Most mornings Hilda was up long before sunrise, waiting eagerly by the door for Farmer Dave to join her so they could begin their work on the farm. Together they worked tirelessly in the sweltering summer heat, the pouring rain, and the bitter cold of winter.

When her master was inaccessible, Hilda played with the children. Her dilapidated old doghouse was near the front door of the farmhouse. Hilda was a loyal companion, a formidable guard dog, and a dependable playmate for kids. Simply put, she was man's best friend.

One rainy spring morning, in the warmth of the old farmhouse, Hilda whelped a large litter. Under his wife's admonition that "we don't need another mouth to feed," Farmer Dave agreed to sell the puppies. One puppy, though, stood out. She was friendly, outgoing, and almost entirely black. The family named her Ebony.

While her littermates napped and romped around the yard, Ebony followed Farmer Dave and Hilda on their daily routine. Often Ebony tagged along attached to Farmer Dave's ankle, her baby teeth clamped onto his coveralls cuff. When the little pup grew tired, Farmer Dave tucked her under his arm and continued his duties.

Not coincidentally, Ebony was the last puppy to be sold, at 5 months of age. She went to a family who lived 16 miles from the farm. Her new owners agreed to keep her given name, and the entire family watched sadly as Ebony was driven away down the long dirt driveway. Farmer Dave and Hilda resumed their work on the farm without their little tagalong.

Years passed, and Hilda's valiant face grayed. Her bark softened and her step slowed. She developed inoperable intestinal cancer.

Hilda struggled bravely to perform her farm chores but often lagged behind. Farmer Dave slowed his pace and altered his daily routine to accommodate her illness. At lunchtime, Hilda was content to lie on the sidelines and watch the children play. She continued to keep watch over the house at night.

One brisk fall morning, Hilda followed her master down the hill to the riverside, but she was too weak to return to the house. Farmer Dave gently lifted her into his arms and carried her to a quiet place beneath a willow tree. He brought her a blanket and some food and water. He sat beside her and stroked her a long time before returning to his work, alone for the first time in years.

A few hours later Farmer Dave was in a pasture gathering soil samples. He paused for a moment to admire the majestic autumn view. Suddenly he felt a warm, familiar body brushing against his leg. Thinking Hilda had regained her strength and joined him, he looked down. His eyes met those of a sleek black German shepherd.

Farmer Dave scanned the field for its owner but saw no one. As he cautiously extended his hand toward the dog, his memory traveled back over the years to the little puppy that used to tag along on his pants leg.

"Ebony?" he asked.

The dog's alert ears lowered. Her tail tapped gently in recognition.

"You traveled a long way by yourself, didn't you, girl? I'm worried about Hilda too. Come on, let's go check on your mother," he urged.

Farmer Dave and Ebony hiked across the rolling hills and down to the riverside. It was too late. Hilda lay motionless beneath the willow tree.

Ebony let out a whimper. The brokenhearted man sank to his knees. The dog had lost her mother; the farmer had lost much more. Ebony licked her mother's face, then turned and nuzzled Farmer Dave's hand. The two sat side by side as the cool wind whipped through the willow branches.

With Ebony at his side, Farmer Dave trudged up the hill to the house and delivered the sad news to his family. Home for the first time since puppyhood, Ebony went from one family member to the next, as if comforting them.

A tag check and a phone call brought Ebony's grateful owners to the farm. She had been missing since the previous afternoon though she had never before left home. Her owners expressed their condolences, and once again the family watched as Ebony was driven away down the long driveway. Farmer Dave didn't eat supper with the family that night. It would be a long time before the bounce in his step returned.

As Farmer Dave tucked his children into bed that night, the sorrow was evident in his deep, weather-beaten brow lines. There was a distant look in his eyes as he read the children their bedtime story. His voice trembled slightly as he led the evening prayer. He said his goodnights, planted a kiss on each child's cheek, and walked slowly toward the bedroom door. Then he paused and turned back. His strong shoulders were slumped; his deep voice was solemn.

"After all these years, it was really amazing how Ebony traveled so many miles to come home and be with her mother today, wasn't it?" he asked.

I thought for a moment before giving my reply.

"Maybe Ebony didn't come home to be with Hilda, Daddy. Maybe she came home to be with you."

Farmer Dave raised an eyebrow. For the first time in that long day, a look of peace settled on his face.

Dr. Melody Heath is an associate at Viewmont Animal Hospital in Hickory, N.C. Send comments or questions to ve@advanstar.com

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