cougar, cows, David Kitz, dog, farm, Saskatchewan
A true story by David Kitz *
“Do you think this one will make it?”
“No.” My sister Edith shook her head in glum resignation.
As we gazed down at this shivering, whimpering, pup, the prospects for his survival beyond a year were anything but promising. You see, in the space of five years we had gone through a string of canine disasters.
Five years earlier, our dog Collie—yes, he was a collie—had passed on after a long life of service on the farm. All future dogs were inevitably compared with Collie. For the Kitz family, he represented the gold standard in dogs.
The next dog was Pubby, a fiercely loyal black spaniel that met his grim fate when he was hit by a car.
Next on the list, Topsy, an excellent cow-herder, was in a terrible accident with a snowplow.
A young lab, Sandy, though lovable, turned out to be completely useless as a farm dog—dumb as a stump.
Our last dog, Buddy, proved to be even worse than Sandy. He chased chickens, and when he caught them, he killed them. Naturally, my mother would have none of this. Buddy’s term as a farm dog was abruptly cut short.
Now, all six Kitz children were staring at a scrawny brown pup of uncertain pedigree. After these five disasters, we were almost afraid to become attached—hesitant to open ourselves to love yet another dog and face more disappointment.
But a whimpering pup has a way of tugging at your heart strings. He spent much of his first week curled up on an old towel in a cardboard box in the basement. One by one, each of the six Kitz children ventured downstairs to comfort this timid, whining, puppy.
My memory is that during this time, I adopted him and he became my dog. Dale, my younger brother, disputes this. In retrospect, I guess that, despite our initial misgivings, we all claimed him as our own. Or he claimed us.
We named him Champ. I believe I was the one to come up with that name, but this too is open to dispute. It was a rather bold name
for a dog that didn’t look much like a champion. Even when he reached adult size, he was still scrawny, fine-boned, and barely knee-high. Did he weigh twenty-five pounds? Possibly not.
His hair and ears were a silky brown, lovely for stroking, but the rest of his short body fur had an odd grizzled appearance, a mix of various shades of brown, black and white.
What breed was he? I have no idea. I have never since seen a dog like him. Some odd mix, I guess. The Champ breed.
On the Kitz farm, every animal needed to prove its worth and that included dogs.
Farms in Saskatchewan are big, and at 1,120 acres, our farm was no exception. In addition to fields of wheat, barley, and oats, my dad had eighty head of cattle. We had a dairy herd and a beef herd on separate pastures about a mile apart. The dairy cows would be brought to the barn for milking twice daily.
Nothing is more frustrating than having to tramp across 160 acres after an ornery cow. Believe me, I know, having done it more than a few times. A good cattle dog will do this chore for you and save you much time and trouble.
Champ took to cow herding like a duck to water. He loved instilling the fear of God into thousand-pound steers. He would get behind them and then bark and nip at their hocks (ankles) to get them to move. Doing this just right requires a good deal of precision and agility. Precision, because ideally the dog bite should be hard enough to cause pain, but insufficient to pierce the skin. Agility, because the startled bovine kicks back reflexively and the dog needs to move fast and in the right direction. I’ve seen a kick from a cow send a slow-moving dog flying through the air.
Champ seemed to instinctively know what to do. With lightning speed, he applied just enough jaw pressure to get the desired result, and then he got out of the way. In a matter of seconds, he could turn a cantankerous ton of live beef into a spectacle of meek compliance. He demanded respect, and knew exactly how to get it.
Cows aren’t dumb creatures. Usually, it took only one encounter with Champ to establish who was boss. After that, the mere sight of the dog brought obedient submission.
With Champ as helper, rounding up the herd and moving it to a new location became much easier. A single command from one of the Kitz children— “Sic’um!”—and Champ did all the work.
Champ seemed to have an innate intelligence—much more than the average dog. But he had two other strong character traits as well.
First, he was incredibly eager to please his human masters. In fact, nothing delighted him more. If we were happy with him, his tail wagged with such enthusiasm that his entire hindquarters joined in the rhythm. A simple pat on the head after a job well done was enough to send him into spasms of pure joy.
Second, he hated being reprimanded. When a voice was raised in correction, he was totally crushed. His head would drop. He would tuck his tail tightly between his legs and slink away with the most mournful look on his honest face. With quick, baleful glances, his eyes would plead, “I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry! So sorry!” With his intelligence, his eagerness to please, and his strong desire to avoid a mistake, learning and obedience training was a cinch.
Furthermore, Champ was a dog with a conscience. If he transgressed some established rule, like coming onto the porch without permission, he would skitter away in a state of cowering humility. Not once did he find himself on the receiving end of any form of corporal punishment from me. It wasn’t needed. He learned to watch your eyes and the expression on your face. If you were happy, he was beyond happy. In my later life as a teacher, when a student was caught red-handed in some infraction, I would long to see half the contrition shown by my dog Champ.
At command, Champ showed his aggressive side when herding cattle, but in truth he was a soft-hearted mush pot. Nothing brought out this characteristic more fully than the birth of a farm animal. When my dad rose in the early morning to check on the cattle, he’d know immediately if a calf had been born during the night. As Dad stepped out the door of the house, Champ would greet him in a state of total ecstasy. He’d hustle dad over to the barn where he would stand over the newborn with a doggish grin as if to say, “Look, what happened here! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Champ took it upon himself to be the guardian of any newborn animals. The cows, for the most part, understood his intentions and put up with his hovering enthusiasm. But Champ was equally enthused about newborn piglets, kittens, or chicks, and his guardian instinct would immediately kick in.
However, despite valiant efforts on his part, Champ’s intentions were sometimes misunderstood. This led to a farmyard standoff I’ll never forget. One afternoon, our bantam hen sauntered over to the house to display her clutch of freshly hatched chicks. When he saw this brood of fluffballs, Champ went into paroxysms of ecstasy. He ran in circles, wagging his tail, and barked his joyous greeting for all to hear.
The poor hen had no idea what to make of this crazy dog. Sensing a threat, she hastily gathered her chicks under her wings.
Champ reacted in shock. Clearly, this hen had swallowed these chicks whole. This could only mean one thing. He had to rescue them. He lowered his head and barked angrily at the hen.
This only confirmed the hen’s worst fears and she went into a full defensive posture. No chick would escape from beneath her wings while this vicious beast was about.
Meanwhile, the humans on the scene were doubled over in laughter.
Eventually, someone restrained Champ and the hen allowed the chicks to resume their roaming.
In due time, the dog and hen arrived at peace terms. There was plenty of skepticism on both sides, but from that day on, an uneasy truce prevailed.
Little did I suspect that one day I would be in need of Champ’s watchful protection.
During our summer vacations, my younger brother Dale and I loved to tramp about the wooded pasture land that surrounded our farm home. The summer I was eleven, we found a secluded spot in the far corner of the pasture, where we chopped down a few saplings and set up a makeshift tent. Champ always tagged along on these excursions.
One day, while Dale and I were relaxing by our tent, Champ began barking frantically. He ran in tight circles around us. Every hair on his back stood erect. To us, he seemed totally panicked.
We looked about to see what had set the dog into such an astonishing frenzy, but could see nothing. But his urgent alarm grew even more intense. The dog was completely beside himself with fear, running in circles around us. Each frantic bark seemed to urge us to get out of there.
I picked up the axe, and together the three of us ran for our lives. What we were running from Dale and I could only guess. Was it some large wild animal? A malicious human intruder? I had never seen my dog react this way to anything or anyone before.
We reported this event to our parents, who listened with interest, but could offer no further insight except to say that we were wise to heed Champ’s warning and leave.
We were spooked by this, and for two weeks we didn’t return to our favorite spot.
Finally, we took courage, and on a sunny summer afternoon, we set out for our secluded campsite once again. Of course Champ tagged along with us.
All went well until we were near our destination. As we emerged into an open grassy area, Champ suddenly went ballistic. But this time we clearly saw the cause of his alarm.
A short distance ahead of us, a huge tawny cat—a cougar—reared up and bounded off into the woods with Champ in hot pursuit! Dale and I froze in our tracks, shaken to the core.
Wisely, Champ’s pursuit was brief. He returned after the cougar dashed into the woods. But now we knew what was out there. On the earlier occasion, only our faithful dog stood between us and that powerful predator. Without Champ’s fierce protection, two prairie boys may well have become a meal for a hungry cougar.
A week later, after the morning milking, Champ and I were leading the cows back to the pasture when I spotted the waist-high cougar standing on the driveway leading to the machine shed. Completely fearless, Champ was off like a shot! Again, the cougar fled—and this time it didn’t return.
For me, these three cougar encounters became the stuff of legend. You see, up to this point, no one in recent years had ever reported seeing a cougar in Saskatchewan. During my childhood, cougars were commonly called mountain lions, because their range had been reduced to the Rocky Mountains. When I spoke of this experience to friends at school, they scoffed at me in disbelief.
Even my parents were doubtful. They never saw the big cat, although my dad saw Champ’s reaction to the second sighting from a distance.
After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut about this matter. But I knew what I had witnessed.
Twenty years later, a cougar was hit and killed on a roadway about thirty miles from our farm. After that news report, I spoke openly about my childhood experience with the cougar. The evidence of the big cat’s presence was now irrefutable.
Unfortunately, in recent years, cougar attacks on humans have become increasingly common. Each time I hear of such reports, I think of Champ.
I owe fifty plus years of my life to that skinny, whimpering pup in a cardboard box.
As for me, I grew up and moved to Edmonton for university. I married and settled there.
My younger brother took over the farm. Every time I returned home, my dear four-legged friend would greet me. He’d rest his head on my knee and I would stroke his silky head.
Of course, each year he was getting older. On one of those summer trips it was clear his health was failing. He knew it. We all knew it. It was so hard to leave that last time.
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 NET).
The first one to demonstrate that kind of friendship—that kind of love for me was a champion—a fearless, four-legged Champ.
* An earlier version of this story was published in Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon.