The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Christmas Shepherd

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983-2012

Issue: December, 1983

It was the week of Christmas 14 years ago when the Christmas Shepherd came into my life. There was the usual hustle and bustle of the season but he made that year different and special. I returned one day from a shopping trip to find a small ball of black and tan fur huddled against my door, shivering at the cold winds and looking up at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen. He couldn’t have been a month old. I asked my two girls if they knew who he belonged to and they said the new people two houses up from us were his owners. I thought he had just wondered off and I had my girls take him back home.

A few days later, there he was again, at the back door. I took him home myself this time and saw that he had been sleeping on an old mattress on the back porch that was soaking wet and a little food scraps were in a bowl that included things like potato peelings, and they were molded, for him to eat. I knew the young couple was gone a lot, sometimes for several days at a time, leaving him there by himself but I tried to harden my heart and leave him there because he was theirs.

On Christmas Eve I took my daughters to the Moravian candlelight service. When we returned, you guessed it, there at the front door this time, was the little sad shepherd. He was shivering worse than ever and anyone could tell he was pretty sick. I looked up the street and saw the owner’s house was dark and no car was in the driveway. This time I took him in. I tried to feed him but he was too sick to eat. The day after Christmas I took him to a vet and he told me the poor puppy was suffering from both distemper and malnutrition. Frankly, the doctor didn’t have much hope for him but I couldn’t look in that dog’s eyes without feeling he was putting his hope in me. The vet did everything he could and I took him home and worked as hard as I could to help him. By now we had named him Chuck.

Slowly Chuck recovered. It was weeks before he had the strength to even bark. The first time he barked, the whole family clapped! He never played as normal puppies did and remained too insecure to sit in the middle of a room. He always leaned against the wall.

As he grew and matured, he turned into a beautiful shepherd. He was and still is the most gentle dog I have ever seen. The vet warned me that because of the malnutrition as a puppy, he would probably have trouble because he didn’t get enough calcium to make his bones and teeth as strong as they should have been. A side effect of the distemper also left him blind in one eye but he adjusted well to that and it has never seemed to make any difference in his perception of distances, etc.

He was loyal to my two small daughters as any dog could be. Lassie had nothing on Chuck for faithfulness. They didn’t go anywhere that he didn’t go with them to protect them. At night he would lay in the living room floor and let them lay with their heads on his back as they watched TV. When they went to school, he would bide his time and somehow, he had an inner clock that told him the precise time to wait at the bus stop for them to return.

His male pride kept all other male dogs out of our yard but he was as gentle as can be with our cats, even letting them curl up and sleep on his back. Once when we had a litter of new kittens, he helped the mother cat look after them and kept them clean as much as she did.

When we moved to a farm and had cows, he considered it his sacred duty that they stayed away from the fence. The fence wasn’t in very good shape and we spent a lot of time putting cows back in the field. He always helped herd them by nipping at their heels and making them go the right way.

Chuck is now 14 years old and has rheumatism in his hip joints badly. Cold weather makes it so much worse that sometimes; tears come to my eyes when I see him have to struggle so hard just to stand up. Most of his teeth are gone and he has to eat food that is soft. The little girls that he met at the school bus everyday are grown and gone and I can see he misses this duty. I am afraid that this might very well be his last Christmas. He has been such a true friend and companion all these years, always so happy to see me and never demanding a thing in return. I know soon I will probably have to say goodbye to my old friend but his years of love and loyalty will never be forgotten, especially at Christmas.