Country living requires many things, but one essential is a dog. With plenty of room to roam and the isolation of Anderson Valley during my years — the late 1950s to the late 1980s — there, a dog provided many things: among them help, security and companionship. We had a few dogs during my Anderson Valley years, but only one that mattered: Tinkerbelle.
We got Tinkerbelle late in the summer of 1960, approximately a year after we moved to El Rancho Navarro, my parents’ summer camp near Philo, full-time. Soon after moving to the valley, my mother became friends with Marguerite Gowan, who together with her husband Art owned Art’s Apples, northwest of Philo. Marguerite suggested my mother needed a dog, both for herself and for the summer camp.
In addition to growing apples, the Gowans ran sheep. Earlier that summer, they had the pick of two litters and brought home two female puppies, a McNab and a Border Collie, one of which would become their sheep dog. After observing the two, the Gowans decided to keep the McNab, thinking she showed more natural ability. They gave my mother the Border Collie.
Carol and my brother Aaron picked up our new puppy from the Gowans and drove her home. At some point along the way, they named her Tinkerbelle. Marguerite Gowan detested the name. As she told us frequently, “That’s no name for a sheep dog!” But Tinkerbelle it remained.
I understand why the Gowans chose the McNab over Tinkerbelle; it was an assertive, hyperactive and barky dog. In contrast, Tinkerbelle — when she came to us - was reserved, almost withdrawn. Only after a few weeks did she come out of her shell to show her true personality and talent.
Within a year it became clear the Gowans had picked wrong. Tinkerbelle may not have been aggressive, but she was energetic, had impressive endurance and was a natural herder. During camp she would circle the swimming pool, urging children into the water by running close but never touching them. She was — as Border Collies often are — very smart and a quick learner. In retrospect, we should not have been surprised; Tinkerbelle showed classic Border Collie conformation and appearance, including a black, medium length coat, white markings and a white blaze on her face with a black dot in the middle of her forehead.
She also loved children. She wasn’t hugely demonstrative, save for a bit of tail wagging when petted, but she enjoyed joining us Newmans for chores and camp cabin groups for activities. She even hiked from Philo to the ocean with one group, despite its best efforts early in the backpacking trip to shoo her home. She rarely barked, except to let us know that strangers were approaching: when camp wasn’t in session, she often told us we had visitors as they cleared the front gate, a good 200 yards from the house.
Not everything was smooth sailing. As a puppy, she fell into the camp swimming pool. She swam to the cement stairs, but could not get out. When discovered, she had been scrambling on the stairs so long her front paws were bloody. There was the night she ate liver laced with arsenic put out to kill yellow jackets: she survived, but only barely. Then there was the day we tried to remove a tick and lit her on fire, as recounted in my “Creatures Great and Not So Great” article that appeared in the September 25, 2013 Anderson Valley Advertiser.
About a year after we got her, Tinkerbelle delivered a litter of ten puppies, six of which survived. While I have no memory of the male parent, the puppies looked like Border Collies through and through. We gave two of them to local homes. My mother had the bright idea to take the remaining pups to the Ukiah auction yard, where she had a word with the auctioneer. One of his helpers carried the four into the auction ring and the auctioneer announced, “We have four Border Collie puppies — free.” The puppies went to new homes almost instantly. After the litter was weaned, Tinkerbelle visited veterinarian Doc Poulus in Ukiah and returned spayed.
Like all dogs, Tinkerbelle had a few quirks. One was men in cowboy hats. She hated them, barking furiously whenever one approached. We surmised she may have been beaten by someone in a cowboy hat as a very young puppy, but whatever happened, she never forgot. Another was “fetch,” which she didn’t. She would chase a stick or a ball, pick it up and then look at the thrower with an expression that said, “This is a dumb game and I will not dignify it by participating.” She would then drop the object and find something more interesting to do.
The last was travel. She loved to hop into the back of the car or the bed of the pickup to go somewhere, anywhere. Wave at the pickup or slap the tailgate, and she would hop in. For several years, she could clear even a closed tailgate with ease. When she got older, we opened the tailgate to make the jump easier and in her last years helped her in.
In the mid-1960s, we Newmans again became part-time Anderson Valley residents, spending summers and most weekends working at El Rancho Navarro and spending the rest of our time in Petaluma. Tinkerbelle happily went back and forth with us. Where we lived in Petaluma was next to a grammar school, and Tinkerbelle began spending time with kids on the playground during recess. Eventually she found her way into the school, exploring the halls until she found a classroom of children she could join. One day a school administrator showed up at my parent’s door with her and — before leaving - suggested they keep her at home during school hours!
Tinkerbelle lived a long life, but no dog lives forever. She moved more slowly in her later years and slept next to the wood heater in winter. During the summer of her 16th year, she simply stopped eating and passed quietly two or three days later.
While she was technically my mother’s dog and in a broader sense our family dog, Tinkerbelle was really El Rancho Navarro’s dog, loved and adored by the more than 200 children that came to camp each summer. I know a former camper who has owned a series of pit bull rescues and she tells me the reason she loves dogs is Tinkerbelle. Her influence was that strong.
When the time comes for me to go to the great beyond (do an internet search for “rainbow bridge” to read some nice writing on the unbreakable bond between owners and their pets), I know Tinkerbelle will be waiting for me, but she will not be alone. My parents will be there with her, along with scores of former campers for whom Tinkerbelle was their dog. We will have our reunion, but I know many more will follow me to that place where Tinkerbelle waits to welcome them, and none of them will be wearing cowboy hats.