Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The social patterns of a dog park
The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”
Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.
“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”
Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.
“I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.
Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?
Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.
Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.
The singer and her, dog, Juliette — rock on.
Say the name “Rickie Lee Jones” and a swooping, sailing, raw and tender voice comes immediately to mind. This singer-songwriter has been on the cover of Rolling Stone, won two Grammys and a bucket-full of nominations, and otherwise entertained and surprised us for more than three decades. (Her most recent album, The Devil You Know, was recently released by Fantasy Records.) Rickie Lee and her dog, Juliette, are regulars on LA’s Los Feliz Boulevard, where she knows all the best places for coffee and corn muffi ns with raspberry jam. Her take on her dog is much like the artist herself: a little unpredictable, irreverent and, in the end, poetic.
You know, the joy of the dog’s life is in the normalcy, the strangers’ footsteps they warn you of, the way they know you’re tired or sad, or when you’re on the phone and your voice changes and they start poking you with their nose and wagging their tail extra loud to remind you not to take things seriously. The respect — my dog insists I eat before she does, or at least be cooking. She does not want to be pack leader.
My dog tries to teach me her language (even though she has not had consistent luck), and I see her eyes, or the way her head is raised, and I know she feels ill. She knows about 100 words and 50 more phrases; she knows when I’m leaving for long or short. She knows “scoot over,” “give it back” and “drink some water.” She knows the names of places and people in her life. She loves the recording studios, and the live shows make her crazy excited.
She is not a “licker”; she doesn’t see the point, and neither do I, but once in a while, a small kiss. Maybe a second small lick. She’s a lady and her name suits her. She has pain, but she insists on walking with the horse, running near the beach. She is present every day, and I have learned a lot from sharing my home with her. When I contemplate the nature of dreams, she runs and barks in her sleep. When I feel besieged, she wants to comfort me.
The story of Juliette is in her kind, kind spirit; her motherlove wakefulness; her baby dreams. I care for her, little pains and big. And she is a companion to me every day of my life now.
Dog's Life: DIY
Recently, a bark reader turned us on to Ravelry.com, an incredible online community for knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers and those who simply need a dose of inspiration to get started. Beginners can find instructional videos, and numerous groups and forums offer personalized advice, expertise or just enjoyable crafting chat.
A search for “dog” returns a long list, ranging from “Dog Rescue Knitters” and “Big Dogs Need Love Too” to “Spinning Dog Fiber” and “Gone to the (Small) Dogs.” The Snuggles Project, with its mission to make comforting blankets for shelter animals, has a group there too. There are also patterns galore; some are free, while others are available for a modest fee.
When we visited the site, we came upon these fabulous, eye-catching designs for three adorable doggie sweaters. Knitwear designer and knitting maven Lorraine Hearn created the patterns for her charity e-book project, which helps raise funds for her daughter’s school, the Aspley Guise Lower School in Bedfordshire, UK. The human models are students at the school and the Pug pup, beguiling Gladys, is now the school’s mascot.
All of Hearn’s charity e-book designs, including those she created for the children, are made with Cascade Yarns’ Ecological Wool (Cascade, along with Rico Design, supports Hearn’s cause).
Karen Parker took these charming photographs. Catch the video and slideshow of the photo shoot on mypdfpatterns.com, and while there, be sure to purchase an e-book and sign up for Ravelry.com.
Robin and Linda Williams have been making music together for almost 40 years. Their new CD, These Dark Old Hills (Red House Records), is a vibrant collection of original folk and bluegrass tunes, one of which especially caught our fancy. The couple praises the charms of their rescue dog, Tessie Mae, in a song.
What surprised the couple most about this sweet stray, whom they adopted from the Charlottesville, Va., SPCA, was her independent streak. As they told us, “We couldn’t leave any door open or else she would take off, and no amount of calling would make her stop. Just like we say in the fi rst verse of the song. ‘You’re an angel and a little sneak/A sweetheart with a stubborn streak/Good at following your nose/Out any door that wasn’t closed.’”
While we found this song to be a real toe-tapping, paw-thumping delight, Tessie has another idea about what the couple should be doing. “She doesn’t particularly seem interested in our music other than in the fact that it takes our attention away from her. When we’re rehearsing, she’ll come in the room wagging her tail and look at us as if to say, ‘Okay, it’s time for you guys to focus on me.’” Hard to not to do that with a chorus that goes, “Hey, Hey your straying days/Are over Tessie Mae/ Hey, Hey sit and stay/Don’t turn your head away …”
Listen to it on YouTube.
Q&A with Kim Kavin, author of Little Boy Blue
When journalist Kim Kavin decided to adopt an adorable pup on Petfinder.com, she didn’t realize that her good deed would lead to a book exposing shelter practices as well as reporting on the amazing canine rescue network responsible for saving that pup. We talk with the author about her book, Little Boy Blue: A puppy’s rescue from death row and his owner’s journey for truth about what she learned on that “journey.”
Bark: Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve been seeing more purebreds especially with first-time dog people, than I have in the past (historically, mixed-breeds have been the city’s top dogs), and it’s a trend that concerns me. What’s your take on the best way to get the word out about shelter adoption?
Everyone I interviewed for Little Boy Blue told me that education is the answer. They were thrilled to hear about the book; they said they’ve been screaming like banshees about adoption for years, and finally, people are starting to take notice. We need to keep that level of education going, and growing. If people simply understand the options—what they’re buying into when they acquire a purebred from a breeder versus what they’re supporting when they adopt a rescued dog—most do the right thing. Education is the key.
B: What five things can shelters do to improve their adoption rates?
B: How does a dog benefit by being fostered?
When they see how calm Blue is, they begin to understand that they are somewhere happy and good. In a very short time, each one turns into a completely different dog. Sometimes it takes a few days, or a week with the shy puppies or those who need medical care, but it happens every time. They know they will get their own bowl of food at mealtimes. They have a sunny, grassy back yard to run and play in. They have me hugging them and giving them toys. They have a big, clean crate where they feel safe and can take a nap in peace and quiet. They ride in the car, they go with us for walks at the park. They learn basic commands like “sit” and realize they can do things to earn treats.
That’s when their real personalities come out—the personalities that we can tell potential adopters about. We have a much better chance of matching people with the right dogs if the dogs come out of foster care, because we have a better sense of who the dogs actually are compared with what they were like in the shelter.
B: What tips would you offer those who might be interested in a shelter dog?
B: Any ideas on how to improve spay/neuter rates? Groups around the country have promoted low-cost, accessible services but still, many people won’t neuter their pets.
There are a number of reasons why. First and foremost is a lack of education. People don’t realize that they are contributing to a massive national shelter crisis when they allow their dogs to produce unwanted puppies. This can be overcome. Education takes time, but it does work. As the founder of Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass., told me, education has gotten through in the Northeast, where spay/neuter has become as routine as daily tooth-brushing—and where shelters typically have far lower kill rates than in some other parts of the country.
Another reason I’ve heard more than once has to do with religion. I’ve had people tell me that encouraging spay/neuter is akin to “playing God.” They feel that it’s just as immoral to spay or neuter a dog as it is for a human to take birth-control pills or have an abortion, because God and God alone should decide which puppies are born. This is much harder to address, and I don’t know that anything will ever change those opinions. It’s like trying to convince pro-life and pro-choice activists to see eye-to-eye. It’s just not likely to happen.
B: Beyond spaying and neutering, what more can be done to control pet population in shelters?
The other main reason that people give dogs back to rescues or shelters, is that they say the dogs “turned out” bad. This tends to happen when the dogs are two or three years old—and almost always a result of the human failing to train the dog when he was a puppy. If a dog doesn’t know how to sit or where to go to the bathroom after you’ve had him for two or three years, it’s because you failed to teach him. The dog isn’t bad. It’s a lousy dog owner. If more people took advantage of training classes, which are usually just one hour a week, then far fewer people would be complaining they had “bad dogs.”
B: Did you gain any insights into why the AKC pushes back so vigorously on spay/neuter laws and puppy-mill legislation?
My suggestion to people who find this situation untenable is to adopt rescue dogs and mixed-breeds like Blue instead of buying purebreds. Encourage everyone you know to do the same. There will then be a point at which demand slows for the product that the purebred industry has marketed and sold for such a long time. Without customers, breeders will go out of business. We don’t need to pass laws to effect this change. We just need to educate more people about what they are buying into when they acquire a purebred dog from a breeder.
B: What are the most important things people can do to help their local shelters (along with adopting from them, of course)?
B: What do you hope to achieve with your book?
First Lady Michelle Obama talks with us about two of her favorite subjects—healthy children and a happy dog.
Bark: Have you discussed walking or playing with dogs as a part of “Let’s Move” and the fight against childhood obesity in the United States? Do you see children’s relationships with their dogs as playing a role in this aspect of their health?
Michelle Obama: Through Let’s Move! we encourage families to find creative ways to stay active whether it’s through riding their bikes, walking together or dancing to music at home. For our family, having Bo has taught our girls about being responsible because Malia and Sasha are charge of taking care of him when they get home from school. And since Bo is an energetic dog, I know that when the girls take him out for his nightly walk they also run around and play outside with him.
B: Many studies have looked at the health and social benefits to dog ownership, including that walking with a dog increases the time spent in that activity and the degree of commitment to it, have you seen evidence of this in your own family?
MO: Bo has been such a positive addition for our family. I think of him as my third child because we all love him so much. Whether we’re teaching him how to roll over, swimming with him in the summer, or watching him greet kids who are visiting the White House, he constantly keeps us smiling.
B: Where does Bo sleep? Does he have a favorite trick/ behavior that your family finds especially endearing?
MO: Most nights Bo can be found sleeping in one of the girls’ rooms. I’m proud to say he is a really smart dog and is known for his tricks, but it is the simple things he does like climbing up in our laps to cuddle that we love the most.
Young Scientist in Action
Are dogs’ mouths cleaner than humans’? Her grandmother said they were, her mother said they definitely were not. Not one to take things at face value, Abby Walling of Iowa City, Iowa, decided to conduct an experiment and answer the question once and for all. Not only did she reach a conclusion, she won a 2011 Young Naturalist Award from New York’s American Museum of Natural History for her work. As a bonus, she no longer feels guilty about letting Lucy, her kiss-happy Yorkshire Terrier, lick her face.
Specifically, Abby investigated the bacterial content of both human and canine tongues. She hypothesized that humans would have fewer bacteria — after all, they brush their teeth regularly and aren’t quite as indiscriminate as dogs about what they put in their mouths. She then obtained saliva samples from five dogs and their associated humans and plated the samples on agar in a laboratory. What she found surprised her: Humans do have more bacteria in their mouths than dogs. That, however, is only part of the story (to read Abby’s full project report and results, go to amnh.org/yna and look under Past Winners, 2011).
At the time, Abby was in the eighth grade at Northwest Junior High School, and this project landed her a place in the State Hygienic Lab’s student mentorship program, which matches junior high and high school students with a laboratory scientist mentor; Gabe Gerken, public health microbiologist, helped her refine her methodology and the lab provided testing supplies.
What does Abby see in her future? “After college, I’d like either to manage a zoo or conduct scientific research concerning animals and the environment. I am very passionate about improving the world, and I believe I can use research to solve some of the environmental problems the world is facing today.”
Sounds like we’re in good hands.
Dog's Life: Humane
Sri Lankan Humane Effort With Style.
Life for Sri Lanka’s more than one million street dogs is rough and tumble, and Embark, a humane group launched in 2007 by Otara Gunawardene — founder and CEO of Odel (Sri Lanka’s premier department store) and humane activist — is working to change that. The group is funded largely by Odel’s sale of Embark-brand jewelry and clothing, colorful wristbands and t-shirts for men, women and children with cool, dog-positive, provocative graphics designed to change public attitudes toward dogs. T-shirt slogans like “Real Dogs Bark Loud,” “I’m So Street,” “Who’s Your Doggie?,” “I Love You but I Love My Dog More” and “Wag Harder” certainly will attract a lot of attention here too.
From its base in Colombo, the island nation’s largest city, Embark tackles the issue on several fronts: sponsoring free spay/neuter and vaccination clinics; promoting and sponsoring adoptions; treating injured and critically ill dogs; and, most importantly for long-term improvement, conducting education and awareness programs. Working in partnership with Blue Paw Trust and the Maharagama Medical Officer of Health, Embark is also involved in the ambitious Humane Dog Population and Rabies Management Project, whose goal is to create a rabies-free environment. The task is a critical one, as rabies continues to threaten both animals and humans in many countries, including Sri Lanka (World Rabies Day is September 28; learn more here: worldrabiesday.org).
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Understanding dogs’ secret language
Speech is probably the most important means of communication for humans. Dogs are different: “speech,” in the sense of barks, whines, howls and other sounds is less crucial for them than many other aspects of their communication.
Instead, they use tails, ears, whiskers, mouths, and posture to tell us what they are thinking, and, once you have some idea of what to look for, they are astonishingly eloquent. For example, you can read a lot of basic information about a dog’s mood from how he or she is standing, and the shape of his or her back.
Legs and paws are also used expressively, and both backs and legs are relatively easy to “read” for the onlooker; they give broad information that you can augment by looking at what the ears, mouths, tails and eyes are doing. A square, stiff stance on four braced legs is forceful, the sign of a dog that is highly reactive for one reason or another; “easier” poses, with legs placed rather than braced, are more relaxed.
From Tail Talk: Understanding the Secret Language of Dogs by Sophie Collins, with foreword by Dr. Karen Overall © 2007 by iBall Press Ltd., published by Chronicle Books. Used with permission.
Adventure athlete has her dog to thank for her rescue after a near-fatal fall.
When Danelle Ballengee headed out for an eight-mile trail run near Moab, Utah, last December (2006), it was supposed to be just another outing.
And that’s probably what her dog, Taz, thought, too.
A two-time world champion in the extreme sport of adventure racing, and a seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher, Ballengee lives in Dillon, Colo., and frequently uses Moab as a training ground. And lucky Taz—a big mixed breed— often gets to come along.“He loves to run with me,” says Ballengee, adding that she thinks Taz is part Australian Shepherd. “He really enjoys it.We’ll run for a couple hours sometimes.”
They were midway through what would have been about a 90-minute run when Ballengee slipped on a patch of black ice, slid down a steep rock face and across a series of ledges, and finally crashed to the ground some 80 feet below, shattering her pelvis.
As soon as Ballengee realized she wasn’t paralyzed, she started to crawl; it took her five hours to go about a quarter of a mile. Then, when the sun went down and the temperature dropped into the 20s, hypothermia became a very real threat. Ballengee drank water and ate her energy gels sparingly, but knew that if she closed her eyes, she’d fall asleep and might never wake up. Rather than giving in, Ballengee did subtle abdominal crunches, both to stay awake and to keep her body temperature from plummeting. She also took comfort in having Taz at her side.
“I wanted to curl up next to him and be closer, but I couldn’t move. But it still helped to have him there. I wasn’t really alone,” Ballengee says.
Ballengee has always loved dogs. When she was a child, her parents had an Australian Shepherd, a Springer Spaniel and, later, a Golden Retriever. She considered getting a dog when she graduated from college, but developing her career as a professional endurance athlete, race director and personal trainer took a lot of her time. When she wasn’t running, cycling, swimming or kayaking, she was planning for a race or traveling to an exotic location—New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, Switzerland, Hawaii or Fiji—to participate in one.
Still, she really yearned for canine companionship, and kept her antenna out for a good candidate. In 2003, in the middle of a busy summer, she drove two hours to a rescue facility north of Denver.“It was one of those places where you know you’re not going to leave without a puppy,” she recalls. It was love at first sight when she laid her eyes on a 10-week-old mutt, part of a litter that had been rescued from a Kansas farm.
During their first year together, Ballengee took Taz on short walks and trips to the lake. As he got bigger, they started running and hiking together, eventually covering as many as 15 miles at a time, and occasionally hiking to the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000- foot mountains. So while the Moab trail she and Taz were running that day was rugged and remote, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Ballengee. “She trains 20 to 30 hours a week by just going out and having fun in the mountains,” says Dave Mackey, an ultrarunner and adventure racer from Boulder,Colo.“It’s amazing, but that’s what she does. That’s who she is. She’s tough as nails.”
When the sun rose the morning after her fall, Ballengee’s optimism was renewed, but Taz was growing restless. He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. When night again found the pair alone in the wild,Taz wouldn’t sleep next to Ballengee; instead, he lay about 15 feet away. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘I can’t die. I’m not ready to die,’” she says. “It scared me to even think about it, so I just kept fighting and telling myself I just had to stay awake.”
At about noon the next day—more than 48 hours after Ballengee and Taz began their fateful run—police found her pickup at the Amasa Back trailhead.As a search and rescue team assembled, a dog matching Taz’s description was spotted heading toward town.“We were going to try to identify the dog, but the dog basically didn’t want to be caught,” said Curt Brewer, chief deputy of the Grand County Sheriff ’s Office in Moab. “When the dog turned around and started running, we decided to follow it.”
By midday, Ballengee had become very lethargic. When Taz returned from his longest journey yet, he wagged his tail and gulped water from the small water hole on which Ballengee had come to rely. “I figured maybe he had a nice run and was just happy to be back. I gave him a little pat—and then I heard the sound of an engine. He knew that someone was coming… he knew before I did.”
The rescue team arrived and worked quickly, strapping Ballengee to a stretcher in preparation for being airlifted to a hospital in Grand Junction.“The dog took our rescue personnel right to her,” Brewer says. “I think we would have eventually found her because we were in the right location, but the dog saved us some time. And that was important, because if it had gotten dark, that would have complicated things. And it wound up snowing later that night, too.”
He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. After surgery to repair her broken pelvis and an extensive rehabilitation, Ballengee made a full recovery. By late spring this year, she and Taz were once again trail-running, albeit a little more cautiously, and in May, Taz received the National Hero Dog Award from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles.
“It’s pretty amazing, what he did,” Ballengee says.“We figured he must have run about 15 miles when he led the rescuers to me.He definitely helped save my life.”But it might have been a case of one good turn generating another: Taz was repaying Ballengee for rescuing him.
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