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After years of living in the city, Scottie moved to Granby with his family. Photo courtesy of Lanie Smith

Wild Thing

A city dog confronts porcupines, coyote kills, and marmots—and the myriad other challenges of life in Colorado's high country.

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At the age of 60, without consulting our dog, my wife and I decided to simplify, leaving behind three decades of career and personal histories in various metropolitan hardscapes to stage the third acts of our lives in Granby. Eager to discover the joys of living on a more human scale, we transplanted ourselves onto the equivalent of a distant planet. The challenge: to evolve, adapt, and become the people we had always imagined ourselves to be.

But about the dog. He’s a rat terrier named Scottie, 18 pounds of fast-twitch muscle and sinew shaped like a miniature greyhound, colored like a Holstein cow, and possessed of an obvious short man’s complex. Like Napoleon, his leadership qualities are beyond question, and his ability to coax a pack of much larger alpha dogs into following his lead within minutes has at times left us speechless.

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Scottie’s physical skills are formidable. He has snakelike reflexes, and at top speed he seems to have been shot from a cannon—a talent that went undiscovered during countless leashed urban walks. It emerged after we began staging illegal, off-leash fetch sessions at a city park seldom patrolled by animal control. When he was with other dogs, he’d run circles around the pack like a wrestling referee, goading the others to chase him.
He’d pace the takers for a few laps around the park, just for fun. If one of the speedier dogs got too close, Scottie just shifted into a gear the chase dog never had and sprinted away.

Still, he has always been a city dog, with city-dog quirks and phobias. He refuses to swim, or even wade into water deeper than where his testicles used to be. Thunder sets him quaking, and Fourth of July fireworks are his Kryptonite. His most obvious tell? His bobbed tail. It’s usually thrust up like a rear-end rhino horn, and when he’s excited it ticks side to side like a metronome. But when he’s scared, he clamps it tight over his otherwise proud and prominent butthole. In the city, in times of stress, he’d slink off into the laundry room. We’d sometimes run the dryer for him to drown out the noise.

He’d otherwise mastered urban life, though, as had we. Despite its stresses, we were all one-percenters—well-fed, well-housed, and masters of our domains. And Scottie was the constant focus of affection in our quiet, empty nest.

Then we upended it all.

We’d been coming to Granby to visit my sister since 1998, when she finished building her dream home along the Colorado River headwaters. She’d moved here looking, essentially, for the opposite of Phoenix, a city she detested despite having raised five kids there. Like her, we were drawn to Grand County’s mostly unexploited wildness. Historian Robert C. Black III called the county an “island in the Rockies” in his 1977 book of the same name, and that remains true today. Manifest Destiny carried many pioneers to the base of the mountains rising west of Denver, but they tended to flow around Grand County like a stream flowing past a massive rock. As a result, this part of Colorado’s Middle Park basin is relatively undeveloped.

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Navigating from his preferred perch with the author (at left). Photo courtesy of Robin Abcarian.

During our years as visitors, our daughter learned to fish, our son to snowboard. Both learned to drive on the area’s dusty ranch roads. And when my sister died in 2015, leaving behind the special place she’d created, my wife and I decided to continue the back-to-basics experiment she’d started.

We rolled into town in late May 2016, a caravan of two people, a dog, a car, and one overstuffed rental truck. Were we apprehensive? Of course. We’d left behind careers, friendships, and comforting routines for a place we didn’t much understand. We approached our new lives ready for adventure in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, if a little uncertain about what that might entail.

Scottie, on the other hand, was the product of generations of domestication and eight years of urban routine. He knew nothing of the wild and wider world and was, in short, the dog we’d trained him to be. How would our plucky little bantam adapt? Would an essential dogginess surface, like some vestigial organ whose true purpose was finally revealed? Or would an untamed life overwhelm him—and us?

Scottie stepped into his new world like a barnyard rooster with a rookie’s zeal, naive and blissfully unaware of the challenges ahead. Hours after our arrival, he watched one of those challenges waddle by and climb a tree in the corner of the yard. The obese and surly porcupine’s message was clear: You’re on my turf now.

Undeterred, the little dog would materialize from a safe night’s sleep, burrowed, as always, into blankets at the foot of our bed, and charge onto the porch. He’d thrust his nose into the air to process morning scents as if he were a news editor scanning overnight headlines. Nothing was familiar, but everything was interesting.

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During the first year alone our four acres were crossed by the resident porcupine, a family of foxes, deer, pronghorn, elk, geese, ducks, coyotes, beavers, muskrats, a black bear drawn to our hummingbird feeder, and at least one pregnant moose. But within weeks, Scottie had established the perimeter he was prepared to defend and set about making that acre his own.

He began by cataloging the hidey-holes and favored trees of various squirrels, chipmunks, and voles and spent each day running an endless inspection circuit. Sometimes he’d wait for hours for a tiny head to emerge, then scare it back into hiding. At that point he had the illusion of control, but I suspect the wild things considered him a hopeless rube.

Scottie’s first wake-up call came one evening after we blithely opened the door to let him out to pee. He charged at a moving shape in the yard and came away with about 25 porcupine quills embedded in his snout—enough to require treatment, but not enough to earn him a photo on the local vet’s wall of shame featuring spike-faced dogs who’d made the same mistake. I can report that the next time the two crossed paths, Scottie kept his distance.

But the varmint game was endless, and mobile. Marmots pepper the rocky hillsides near the river, along which we hike daily. They keep Scottie under surveillance and in a constant state of high alert thanks to the sentry system they use to notify their colleagues of our approach. As we move upriver, each posted marmot emits a sharp “Cheep!” from high on a rugged perch, warning the next sentinel down the line. They’re better organized than at least one major political party, and Scottie still has no idea he’s being played. He must feel like a guy being followed by black helicopters.

Scottie has amassed a sizeable bone collection. Photo courtesy of Martin J. Smith.

The wee dog sometimes discovers hard evidence that this new world is not a benevolent one. He once was stalked by two coyotes, and during our first months in the country, the sound of their occasional predawn, post-kill chorus set him on edge. Still, there’s a bond. Sometimes we’ll catch him strutting around carrying a shinbone or some complex joint assembly from a slow-footed unfortunate, often with working ligaments or flecked with wet meat.

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His appetite began to change in other ways. He developed a taste for Canada goose poop, beelining toward fresh piles left by the various families that summer on the pond just outside the house. It’s not exactly a breath freshener, but no amount of scolding will dissuade him. It does no apparent harm, so we’ve learned to let him eat his fill.

Still, he remains stubbornly wide-eyed despite the mentoring efforts of ranch manager Pete Dynes’ two working retrievers, a rangy golden named Henry and a gentle, matronly chocolate Lab named Bay. They’re on the job at sunup, loping alongside Pete’s ATV as he patrols the 500-acre ranch, wading in the river while their master clears beaver dams or checks the cows or runs down poachers. Scottie watches them from our porch like the kid no one picked for their kickball team.

We find it difficult to read him in those moments. Curious, sure. Envious? I’m projecting. But his evolving relationship with the two ranch dogs suggests that Scottie’s finding subtle ways to prove he’s no rube. He sometimes steals bones or a favorite stuffed alligator from their collections. We find those hostages on our porch, and there they remain until Henry—an unapologetic alpha three times Scottie’s size—comes by and takes them home.

It’s worth noting, though, that the big dog usually does so when Scottie is inside and unable to defend. And we often catch Henry peering through the low windows of the house during these rescue missions, making sure the coast is clear.

A few months after our arrival, Scottie notched a kill. He was patrolling his usual circuit when my wife accidentally flushed a vole from its hiding spot beneath a pine tree. Driven by instinct, Scottie was on it like a rodent-seeking missile. There was clearly no thought involved; it happened too fast. A commotion, the sound of a vigorous headshake, and then my wife sensed something soar over her head. It landed with a moist thump.

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What she found upon closer inspection was a dead vole—or rather, half of one. The other half was about 10 feet away. Scottie stood by, no less curious than us about what had just happened.

We’ve seen versions of that same scene many times since; one required my wife to crush a suffering chipmunk with a rock. Having succumbed to an instinct long bred into his kind, Scottie stands by looking a little miffed by what he has wrought. He gingerly sniffs his victim, intrigued but without apparent remorse. It seems weirdly respectful. Then he continues his patrol.

Other signs suggest he’s devolving to a more primal state. A small herd of cows arrives in the spring to eat and fertilize the pasture next to the barn. They’re friendly and inquisitive and show no fear of the little intruder who walks boldly among them while taking his morning dump. Should they venture too close, Scottie snarls them back like a drill sergeant then pees on their salt lick for good measure. Recently, when two escapees strayed into our driveway, our budding ranch dog dutifully chased them back to the barn.

We’re devolving too, of course. My wife has been collecting wildflower seed pods during our hikes and is propagating them around our little chunk of wilderness. I’ve watched this former high-powered city manager hunch over a work table for hours, sifting and sorting those tiny promises. I’m still detoxing after a lifetime on pavement, learning to read the flumes and riffles of a river and cast a fly with some accuracy. Introduced to the concepts of tension and compression when clearing deadfall from backcountry trails, I’ve even cut up a storm-damaged cottonwood using a tool that ranch manager Pete—noting its power cord—dismissed as “a lady’s chainsaw.”

Lately, Scottie has been growling at us if we try to shoo him from his chipmunk post at the base of a tree, a low rumble that’s a cross between disgusted muttering and “Hey, I’m tryna work here.”

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But no adaptation is as telling as his decision to stop sleeping in our bed. For his entire life, the little dog rode the swells of our restless legs throughout the night, snug and safe and, frankly, a little smug. But after a year in the wild, he began nesting in a separate room, atop a private perch from which he can survey his new world through our front windows.

The chilling sounds of a coyote kill no longer set him barking. Now he just listens in silence to his untamed brethren and keeps an eye on the passing parade of night creatures, an eager newcomer safe behind glass, like us, but so far convinced he can handle anything.

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