For stray dogs, happy endings are few and far between. But often, active stable yards are popular dumping grounds for unwanted canines that can provide wonderful new beginnings.

Many barn dogs are well-bred working dogs or very content Humane Society adoptees; most of the barn dogs I know are of unknown heritage; and all--in the proper environment--become active, happy and healthy.

It is interesting to go out riding across the country and watch such individuals "hunt." Tripping over a fox den or a groundhog hole often will awaken some sort of hunting instinct, and chaos is sure to follow. Usually, four dogs will go in four directions, and then panic because they each think the other dog has managed to score some game.

Rarely do barn dogs catch any big game. Mice in the feed bin and dog biscuits are about as exciting as it gets, but occasionally an exceptional hunter or one lucky dog will manage to nab a squirrel.

When riding with the barn dogs, the variety of sounds they emit probably should be branded a unique experience. Hearing everything from high-pitched squeals to bloodcurdling screams is the norm, and an occasional silent but stealthy hunter can be found in the barn dog pack.

To tell the difference between a novice and an experienced barn dog, just watch a rider do a 30-minute trot set, or an extremely long gallop around a field. The novice will follow on a horse's heels--resulting in an overly exhausted dog. The dog with horse savvy will sit in the middle of the field enjoying the sunshine and watch as the silly horse and rider go around for miles.

Also, the experienced dog knows when a horse and rider are headed toward the arena, or when the ride might be a hack through the countryside. The arena ride means the dog has to sit at the in-gate and collect dust as the rider goes around and around. The hack means deer chasing, limitless careening about, puddle flopping and, quite possibly, some mature cow manure in which to roll.

Any horse competition is considered a giant party for the serious barn dog. The organizers of shows request that dogs be leashed at all times, and some people follow these rules. Barn dogs believe it is their duty to make sure the concession stand runs smoothly and that the show area is free of anything edible. The best time for dogs is after hours, when the show is over and the leashes are released for total nose-to-nose freedom.

As barn dogs get older, they realize the best way to spend the day is in a warm tack room. Plenty of traffic comes in and out of this area, where the coffee machine is operating and the donuts are stored. An old horse blanket serves as an excellent bed for these well-seasoned individuals, whose creaky limbs only partake in an occasional sunny day hack.

The life of a barn dog is a good one, with horse hoof clippings to chew and attention in abundance. No stable is complete without at least one dog underfoot to chase the barn cat. Dogs, horses and people always have been a natural mix, and probably always will be.

Questions, comments or suggestions? E-mail Julie Gomena at jagomena@crosslink.net