Written By Barbara O'Brien
I had the privilege of photographing some old dogs yesterday. My friend, Deb, made the long drive from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to our farm in western Wisconsin with her three dogs in tow. She wanted me to do a photo session for her before she lost one of them to old age or disease. She was especially concerned for her almost 15 year old Australian Shepherd, Brady. His condition was progressively getting worse. Day by day, she could see his once sharp mind slipping away.
She arrived and her dogs leaped from the back of her SUV, heads high and eyes bright. It was if they were saying, “Where are we? What are we going to do? What a cool place, Mom!” They spotted the cats first and Dilly, her six year old Mini Aussie, pulled hard on the leash as he tried to say hello to the closet one. Brady sniffed the air and her 12 year old Sheltie, Murphy, stepped forward as if he owned the place. After a few minutes of initial excitement the dogs began to settle down, or at least Brady and Murphy did. It is not in Dilly’s nature (not unlike my own) to be still for very long. There was so much to see and do.
I had my camera in hand so we headed down to the big barn door where a long hallway frames a dog's head nicely with the landscape beyond and tried to get the three dogs into a sit-stay. Being well trained obedience dogs, Dilly and Murphy sat quietly, but Brady couldn’t bear to have Deb out of range for more than a moment and kept breaking his stays to follow her.
Another photographer may have been upset by this, as it was in effect, ruining the shot, but to me it was just another part of telling the story. Brady was losing his vision and hearing and to an intelligent, active dog like him if must have been a new and perhaps frightening experience. No wonder he would get up and try to follow Deb when she left him. The good obedient dog in him wanted to comply, but his confidence had been eroded by his illness and he knew he needed to be by her side.
I told Deb not to worry and had her sit down with all three dogs. She gathered them to her chest and they all grew still, comforted by her presence. Even little Dilly stopped moving for a moment or two. I managed to get several shots of them all together before Dilly broke off to chase the chickens.
He took off after one of my hens. The hen ran as fast as she could, bee lining it towards the safety of the henhouse. Dilly was right behind her, even grabbing a mouthful of feathers as they went behind the barn. We ran after them, positively sure that we were going find a dead hen in Dilly’s mouth. To our surprise, Dilly had chased the hen to the woven wire fence of the goat pen and was making sure the terrified hen did not try to escape as he gently herded her into the corner. Thankful that his herding instinct was stronger than his predator instinct, I rescued the hen and brought a very proud Dilly back to Deb.
Our next shot was in the hay fields where the dogs ran and played, joyful in their newfound freedom as Deb unleashed them and let them run. Dilly zoomed back and forth through the alfalfa and Murphy, ever the gentleman, stayed right at Deb's side. Brady, grinning his doggie grin, ran from new scent to new scent, just happy to be alive. I could see that Brady was slowly leaving us, and that it would only be a matter of time before Deb would lose him forever. He seemed to have moments of clarity and then not be with us at all. I couldn’t help remembering that all animals live in the here and now and don’t know tomorrow. As much as it pained Deb to see him deteriorate all that mattered to Brady at that moment was that he was with his beloved owner and doggie companions. He was running free in green fields, smelling new smells and feeling the warmth of the late afternoon sun upon his head and back.
I still wanted to get a shot of the three dogs together so I took advantage of my son’s rusty old pickup truck that was parked at the edge of the field. We placed all three dogs on the hood and were able to get the group shot we wanted.
We did a few more shots of Deb walking with the dogs down my long winding driveway and then by the wooden fence of the arena. After that, we loaded up the three tired, but happy, dogs into her SUV and Deb headed off for home.
That evening as I was editing the images, I was overwhelmed by the depth of the loyalty, devotion and undying love that shown through each dog’s face when they looked at Deb. I felt blessed that I was able to be a part of their story, even if only for a short while. And in time, when her old dogs leave her, I hope that she will find some consolation in the images and the story her dogs told us on that glorious fall day at the farm.