When I say I live on a farm where I’m not allowed to have a dog, the response is almost always, but it’s a farm, right? Bodhi, a female Belgian Tervuren, and I live in a small rental unit above what used to be the bunk house for cowboys who long ago ran cattle from one end of Malibu to the other. She’s not allowed to be here, and if we got caught, it could end life as we know it for both of us. I call her the Anne Frank of Malibu.
There are two worlds in Malibu: Whole Foods Malibu and Ralph’s Malibu. Or as the mate of Malibu’s Mayor said to me: The Property Rights Club and the Liberty Rights Brigade. The former makes the rules for the latter. In Malibu, renters have absolutely no leverage in any kind of quarrel. My landlords, descendants of Gilded Age industrialists who migrated west for the climate with a boxcar full of money, are an especially venal and rigid crew. So, I’m not likely to negotiate an exception to the no-pets rule.
Every morning I pack a breakfast for Bodhi, load her in the Jeep, and we drive to the park, her feet barely touching the ground. Relieved, she has breakfast; I have coffee, read the paper at our usual spot. A proper coffee spot is the great leveler in a town of security gates and private roads. In Malibu, we have one: dog-friendly, strong coffee, and hella kitchen. Bodhi has become a celebrity there. Most people know her name; few know mine. I introduce myself as Bodhi’s Driver.
If you didn’t know, you’d think Bodhi is a cross between German Shepherd and Collie. But no, she’s a full-blooded Belgian Tervuren from champion lines. Bred from continental herding dogs, Tervurens are the kind of clever achievers that will manage sheep but stout enough to run off a wolf. Willful, curious, courageous dogs. Most of all, high-energy dogs, which means they’re gonna beat you to the open gate fairly often and tear off into the chaparral to run with the coyotes. Dog people all agree that if you’re not able to give a Terv a life that includes challenge and activity, then the breed is not for you.
The Tervuren line goes back to the last decade of the 19th Century. So-and-so begat who’s-he-what’s-it. But I prefer a story I read that, although likely apocryphal, speaks to the distinction of the breed. By the end of WWI, the German Army had killed pretty much every bit of livestock in Belgium. Only one family of Tervurens survived, and from that the breed recovered to flourish as four varieties: Groenendale, Laekenois, Malinois, and Tervuren. Today they are companion dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, military working dogs and police dogs as well as herding dogs. They do it all. The dog on the mission to kill bin Laden was a Belgian Malinois. They let her drive the helicopter home from the mission.
Bodhi was the runt of the litter. We chose her in the hope that she would not challenge our old male Tervuren Buddha Bear in his decline. She grew up in the shadow of Buddha Bear, even learned to lift her leg to pee like him. She doted on her half-brother, watched, waited for her turn. Of course, time came to see if she’d be inclined to herd sheep. We drove up to a high-desert ranch where herding is taught. Never having seen sheep before that day, Bodhi got out of the car and went right to work, instinctively moving the sheep, gathering strays, driving them toward the handler. I was in tears; my baby girl, the goofy puppy that lay on the couch next to me was a world class athlete.
If the goal of dog handling is to find your companion’s true nature and help her embrace it, then that day in that dusty paddock, I buried the ball in the net. Bodhi took to herding with a passion that earned her the admiration of other dog handlers in that coldly competitive community. In a world dominated by Border Collies that glide like Svengalis around the sheep, tossing eye-spells over shoulders, Bodhi was an utter anomaly. Barking, charging, even nipping (gripping they call it) when the sheep weren’t adequately terrified of her. I am Bodhi; hear me roar.
Her new-found role as sheep boss grew into a confidence and surety that was evident in everything we did together. One morning, at our accustomed coffee spot, a busy morning, a young boy was running amuck, arms flailing, out of control. He made the mistake of brushing past me. Bodhi popped up, though on a short leash, and gave the child a nip on his rump. He never saw it coming. He froze in his tracks. No blood, no break in the skin. Just a little correction from a working dog.
When a dog and a human come into contact, for any reason, and things go awry, it is always the dog’s fault. Of course, I was contrite and assured the parents that Bodhi was current on her shots, etc. Whereas before they couldn’t be bothered to keep their child under control, now they had plenty of bandwidth to bring the law down on Bodhi. I gave them my contact info and retreated to the farm with my head full of things like litigation, confiscation, quarantine, and worse.
Later that day, I heard someone at the gate and looked out the window to see an Animal Control truck idling. They’ve found us, I thought. I snapped a leash on Bodhi, kicked on a pair of shoes, and headed for coyote country. We ran into the chaparral and hid beneath a small bridge over a dry creek bed. Huddling in the thistles with my best girl, I remembered this passage:
"...but she loves me, and I love her, and she growls for me, and I growl for her, and wherever I go she goes, and I am never desolate or forsaken."
D. Paul Yeuell is a writer living in California.