All dogs great and small
There's a western myth out there that needs to be set right: the myth of the western mountain dog, the notion that to be a great canine companion in the rough and tumble American West, a dog must be robust, daring, unpampered, as comfortable in the rugged backcountry as it is on the couch. A real western mountain dog, goes the myth, has paws big enough to strangle an angry rattler, a bark so fierce it sends bears, baddies and salesmen alike running for the hills; you can take it anywhere -- fishing, hunting, hiking, camping -- and it will love you for it. In other words, if you can fit your dog in your purse, go the hell back to New York City.
Based on the dogs I usually see when I'm out and about in the West, I'd say people have pretty well agreed that labs, collies, and shepherds are the breeds most capable of living up to the western dog ideal. These dogs are great breeds, no doubt. In fact, the American Kennel Club just announced that, in 2011, the lab was the most popular breed in America, followed closely by the German shepherd, beagle, and golden retriever. But I would argue that the perfect western mountain dog knows no breed, and no size, either.
... Enter Daisy, the intrepid mountain Pomeranian.
I got Daisy back in '07 when I was friendless, working a shit job, and living with my parents at home in Billings, Montana. Having grown up with a border collie, I had never considered myself a "small-dog" person. In fact, at the time, I was obsessed with Bernese mountain dogs and hoped I might find a similar-looking dog at the shelter. Instead, I left the place with what people have described to me as a living floor-mop.
"Precious", as the shelter staff called her, walked over to me not five seconds after I came in the door, plopped her fluffy little butt down next to me and looked up. Her pointy ears, long nose and black-tipped orange fur made her look like a fox kit with a bad dye job. She reminded me of Sir Didymus, the gallant fox-like knight puppet from Jim Henson's movie "The Labyrinth". Needless to say, I adopted her on the spot.
I'm not going to lie; Daisy is as spoiled rotten as she looks. All she would eat during our first week together was prosciutto. But I'm pleased to report that I have since weaned her off expensive Italian meats and onto cans of Alpo Prime Cut Slices with gravy. And, yes, the brain capacity her tiny cranium affords is limited. She is also, I admit, fond of pillows. But don't be fooled. When it comes to outdoor adventure, she's a beast.
Whether I'm hiking in the Beartooths, canoeing the Jefferson, or camping in the Pryors, Daisy comes along. Being a small dog in the great outdoors has its disadvantages, of course. She tires faster than big dogs, has trouble navigating through tall grass and tangled undergrowth, and, if we ever encountered a bear, I doubt she'd be much help other than, say, serving as a potentially distracting appetizer.
But Daisy's size comes in handy too, especially when we're camping. She fits great in a tent, snuggling easily into the empty space between my head and the tent wall. And while Daisy doesn't often bark, when she does, it's shrill and ear splitting; a great alarm system for a girl out camping alone.
And I couldn't ask for a better fishing dog. She never gets in the way or tangles my line, just curls up in the sun on the bank and patiently watches me cast. When I have to cross the river, I just hold Daisy in one arm and my rod in the other, and unlike labs and retrievers, Pomeranians don't care much for water, so Daisy never jumps in and spooks the fish. Our old border collie used to tear off after squirrels and birds and passing cars; you'd have to put down your rod and go after him. But the only things I've ever seen Daisy chase are Canada geese, and, honestly, who doesn't want to chase Canada geese … silly garbage birds.
The looks Daisy and I get from old-hat fishermen and their hounds when we walk past are priceless, especially so when Daisy wears her dog-sized fly-fishing vest (What!? It was a gift from my sister-in-law!). Fishermen will often ask me if they can use Daisy as bait, "to catch the big one," or suggest that I use her fur for fly hackle. But she takes it all in stride.
Daisy's at her best, though, in the mountains (Pomeranians are, after all, descended from a group of arctic sled dogs).
She summits steep slopes and precarious talus piles with the ease and grace of a mountain goat. She adores alpine meadows, looks at home there even. She loves to flatten out and run circles--butt tucked, nose in the air-- through blooming fields of bluebells and buttercups. I think she likes the way the springy summer tundra feels beneath her paws.
In fact, I've yet to see another dog look as joyful as Daisy looks when she's running, flat-out, across a mountain meadow.
Little dogs like Daisy may not look the part of the typical western mountain dog, but if you banish from your mind the assumption that little dogs are only good for lap warming and looking cute, you may just discover that they love exploring the West as much as you do.
Marian Lyman Kirst is an editorial fellow at High Country News.