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Culture: Stories & Lit
Strawberry Blond
Labrador retriever and berries

Nick was my husband’s dog. But, come June, he tagged along every time I ventured out to the garden with my picking bucket. Like me, the big yellow Lab knew that nothing in the world tastes as good as a strawberry plucked hot from the vine on a summer day. I think of him now, with this year’s bumper crop of berries, as I lean over to snap the stem of each scarlet jewel between my thumbnail and index finger.

Years ago, a friend gave me these plants, an ever-bearing variety that yields fruit almost until the first frost. Strawberry plants usually produce for just two years and then must be replaced using the offspring or “suckers” from the original plant, and most people grow them in regimented rows with ample space between the rows for the pickers to navigate. But mine have been allowed to roam—much to the dismay of my straight-line, engineer husband—wandering aimlessly around the front of our vegetable garden, replanting themselves among the flowers, rhubarb and herbs with which they share the space.

Picking berries in my patch presents a challenge even for the average two-footed being, but this Retriever’s four club-sized paws bouncing atop my bumpy red-and-green crazy quilt spelled disaster for the tender fruit. So, Nick soon came to understand that his place was on the perimeter. There he would wait, brow wrinkled, nose twitching, ears pricked forward until I called, “Hey Nick ... Wanna berry?”

One for Nick, one for the bucket, one for me: that was how my picking often went.

Nick left us at age 14 and a half—a good long life for a big dog but not nearly enough for me. I miss him every day. He was the only fruit-loving dog I’ve ever known, dancing on his hind legs to pick green apples from the gnarled Red Delicious over by the pasture as soon as they grew to size in August or September. “Where’s Nick?” somebody would wonder, and we’d go hunting to find him under the old tree, sucking the remains of an apple core.

He had a taste for cantaloupe and watermelon as well, though he didn’t participate in the kids’ seed-spitting contests. He ate bananas, and even developed a foolproof way of picking raspberries, sauntering between the rows of canes, lifting that droopy upper lip and positioning his teeth just so to roll each purple pillow from its thorny stem into his soft Retriever’s mouth. Still, his favorite was strawberries.

This dog’s taste for strawberries allowed him a kind of symbiosis with the birds. Birds are strawberry lovers, too, and they can do a lot of damage. It should come as no surprise that a robin, for example, will bypass all the piddling undersized berries and pick the biggest, shiniest globe in the garden to sample first thing in the morning. These juicy morsels with a slice out of the side will spoil the rest of the berries in your bucket and so have to be thrown away unless you have a hungry Lab waiting nearby.

In my experience, strawberries hide as a matter of practice. Under their big clover-shaped leaves, they  conceal their ripeness. Not wanting to be picked, they lurk in the shadows of sunflowers that have come up voluntarily next to the compost bin. As I reach into the waxy leaves of sweet marjoram that has surprisingly returned to my Pennsylvania garden, my fingers find the most luscious berry, hot in the sun, effervescing a delightful scent with hints of oregano—a perfect specimen, save for one ignominious gash on its crimson shoulder.

Hey, Nicky ... How about a berry? I call silently, closing my eyes, expecting to see my golden boy there next to Grandma Graham’s peony bush, doing his happy dance, bouncing first on one oafish front paw and then the other, ears cocked, mouth open, pearly whites just waiting for the toss.

Finding only a disappointing empty place in the sun, I bite off the good half, ruby juice rolling down my chin. And I savor the sweetness, knowing that even in dog heaven there can be nothing better than a strawberry, fresh from the patch on a summer’s day.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Learning the Meaning of Shelter
Picking up the pieces after a breakup

Musician, writer, actor, Portlandia creator, Carrie Brownstein is an alt-scene megastar. The following excerpt from her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, picks up after the split up of her band Sleater-Kinney, and we see her putting her abundant skills to help shelter animals.

Instead of playing or thinking about music, I dove into my volunteer work at the Oregon Humane Society, which is just about the only way I knew how to deal with the loss. If you’re wondering how sad I was, you’d never know by talking to me, but you would know it by the fact that I won the Oregon Humane Society Volunteer of the Year Award in 2006, the year of Sleater- Kinney’s demise.

I clocked in over one hundred hours that year. I developed new programs to help long-term canine shelter residents get adopted, I made laminated flyers replete with photos I took of the dogs and added pat, inspirational, and euphemistic phrases like “If you love a toothy kiss, you’ll love Buster” to promote specific dogs. I walked them on the shelter grounds and even took them on field trips. I taught the more rambunctious dogs to sit, wait, go to their bed, how to walk better on the leash. I sat in the lobby wearing my teal volunteer apron with two large front pockets gritty with dog treat remnants, torn and gooey from overeager puppy mouths, stretched from too much wear and not enough washing. I greeted customers in the lobby, grateful to be in a uniform, just one of many, anonymous and near invisible in a place where frumpiness and depression thrive. The dogs I brought with me to the lobby were my interlocutors, my translators; they bounded up to customers and I channeled their optimism. They lived in the moment, grateful for the interaction, and so was I. I had a purpose, even if part of that purpose was hosing down feces-covered kennels. The dogs’ needs seemed simple, and I required simple needs: to have somewhere to be. It’s easy to feel sated when all you’re asking for in life is food, water, and some gentle petting.

I befriended the older women who made up the majority of the other volunteers. Retirees and former powerhouses in realms like consulting and finance, bored at home, sapped by stale marriages, with reticent or far-flung adult children and ill or dying friends, these women felt useful and appreciated. We formed a constellation of surrogates who likely should have been paying the dogs for therapy; it could have funded the entire shelter operation. We cried when dogs were euthanized but also when they were adopted; we had been seeking comfort in the constant and could barely deal with change. The term “shelter” seemed to apply as much to the humans as it did to the animals.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Tula
The challenges and rewards of a new pup.

Perhaps she knew this was to be a lifetime position: For her first few days at home, Tula was a portrait of angelic calm. She accepted a leash and trotted next to me down the block, sitting quietly on my foot when she encountered anything new. She bunny-hopped through tall grass. She cocked her head at crickets. She talked to her toys, not with a bark but with a woo-woo. “You will love her,” Janice had written, with declarative certainty. How hard could it be?

And then gradually, persistently, the charm had to make room for the young fiend who lurked within. After a few nights of routine Tula may have deduced that her new surrounds— the grassy backyard, the hovering human, the palace of chew toys—weren’t going anywhere, and I watched as her careful reserve gave way to exuberance at the world around her. She was an exploding bottle of seltzer, most hours of every day. My small urban garden, beneath towering maples, had become an oasis of green in Clementine’s last years; when I brought Tula home, at the end of summer, the yard was lined with stone pots of geraniums and tuberous begonias and border perennials. Two weeks later every flower on the property had been de-headed. Happy and animated by the sight of me, Tula hurled herself into me from any direction; I started calling her Sanorka’s Attack from the Rear.

When she started teething she preferred me above all her chew toys, and for a month my forearms looked as though they’d been savaged by barracudas. I thought I knew all about teething puppies, and I tried every diversion possible: frozen washcloths, yelping in response, a shake can full of pennies. Tula seemed amused by my efforts. If I tried to pry her jaws off me, she would back up and bark in a wild frenzy. It was like having a baby fox in the kitchen. One night, during my allotted fifteen minutes of calm, when Tula was finally napping in her crate, I sat down at the computer to write Janice. My T-shirt and shorts were shredded; I had scabs up and down my arms. I had been brought down by a creature onetenth my size. “Tula is really mouthy,” I wrote Janice with bloodless calm. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“She must be getting her first teeth,” replied my pup’s laconic breeder. “It’s something they all go through. Give her some bones. Easily distractible.” I dried my tears and walked back into battle.

From the book New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell. Copyright © 2014 by Gail Caldwell. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.

Culture: DogPatch
Off The Leash
Cell Phone Lady
Dog Park Illustration

That spring, my new park friend Hayley lectured me about talking on the cell phone at the dog park.

“I like to leave my phone at home,” she volunteered to me, when she saw me having an animated conversation with my brother in Philadelphia. “How sad to be miles away while Toby is playing joyously at your feet.”

Ultimately, I was persuaded. The idea of a daily intermission from the virtual, a spot of sun through the cloud, appealed. Like the rest of

civilization, I was leashed to my devices, as well as to my Facebook friends and my 24-hour news scroll. You were in a room or on a street or at a gorgeous park, but you were somewhere else.

As if on cue, a stout woman with a brown shag haircut started coming to Amory Park that April, climbing out of her low beige sedan with a cell phone forever cradled between her shoulder and her ear.

Talking, she’d let her two Westies out of the back seat, then follow the pair of white pom-poms off the tar and around the grass, never looking up, idly holding empty poop bags in one hand like little jib sails. It was painful to watch her twisting her neck to keep the phone in place, looking and nodding into the middle distance as she talked. Now in her 40s, she was heading toward some expensive later-life chiropractic sessions.

Hayley and I hated her right away. Whenever she’d pull into the parking lot, we’d look at each other and raise our eyebrows. “Hate her.” Here she comes, the lady who doesn’t care about being here, twilight-zoning her way through this beautiful place. We had attitude about it. For a half-hour, she’d linger on the phone, her dogs drifting together by themselves ahead of her, an absent-minded shepherd with her flock of two.

Finally, she’d click the phone off as she returned to the parking lot, and they’d all get back in her car. It was as though the park was merely a necessity in her day, to be gotten through, like taking out the garbage.

Cell Phone Lady looked a bit like her dogs, as is often the case—feathered hair, wandering forward close to the ground. She seemed weighted down by the world, and her conversations didn’t appear to be particularly cheerful. She was the absentee leader, walking behind them, in another world, out of touch. At least the dogs had each other, I thought. Then one blue-sky day she showed up, and midway into her shoulder-led trip through the park she clicked off her phone and put it in her pocket.

Her call had ended.

Her bubble popped, and she stood blinking, looking up. It was strange, and she seemed lost standing on the field without her crutch. Her dogs, sniffing the ground side-by-side, didn’t notice. It might have been the first time she’d really looked at the place, taken in the trees and the grassy hill and the other owners.

I saw my chance, split off from the grouping of people and dogs, and moved toward her with Toby skipping at my side. “Hello Cell Phone Lady,” I said as I approached. She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and she clearly took no offense. Suddenly I was very curious about who she was. She brought an unexpected amount of eye contact to our encounter, and she said, “Hello park person.” Again, she laughed.

It was day and night, my impression of her, the way it switched over in a moment like a page in a book. Suddenly I wanted to be on her side. Toby headed over toward the Westies, sniffing and sniffing. It was as if he’d sensed my shift in reaction. “What are your dogs’ names?” I asked. She was with “Miss Midge and Miss Hope, 3 and 8,” she said, and they were all on a break from work. She said something about how they loved getting a break from “the house” and “the clients,” so I asked where she worked. She was the manager of a halfway home for intellectually challenged youths, and she was on her lunch break but still in contact with the other counselors at the house.

This was her time to coach and supervise. Sometimes the counselors needed pep talks; burnout was common in her field, she said. She found she could muster positive energy when she was away from everything for a few minutes. The clients at the house loved the dogs, too, and she was glad about that. Midge and Hope were a healing presence, with Midge the grande dame of the whole human-dog litter. The kids really lit up when the dogs were underfoot. And she lit up when she told me that, her puffy eyes taking on a sparkle. She went on sharing, as people often do at the dog park, about all the special times the clients would have with Midge and Hope, and how dogs had been her savior when she was young and afraid.

In short, Cell Phone Lady was the best person ever, a combat fighter in the war for the needy and helpless. She was completely sympathetic, and her love of the park was real, if entirely different from mine. It gave her freedom from her routine, a little slack on her leash. Like me, she let go at Amory; we were just letting go of very different things. I’d gotten her relationship with Midge and Hope entirely wrong. She was the backbone of their trio, just getting a stretch. She was so damned maternal, there for all those kids and colleagues and dogs. I felt like a silly fool having judged her, and so did Hayley when I told her.

“You mean WE were wrong?” she asked in irony.

From that point on, when we saw Cell Phone Lady on the field, doing her thing, straining and straining her neck, we nodded at each other. “Love her.”

Adapted from Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert. By Permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Canis Mythicus
A creation story that makes sense
Canis Mythicus A creation story that makes sense

Once upon a time, back in my teaching days at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the Chair of the Agronomy Department, Dr. Mohammed Azad, lived in the modest white stucco house clinging to the James Avenue hillside like the American middleclass clutching by its bloody fingernails to its disintegrating economic status. Mo had two PhDs—agronomy and hydrology—so I called him Dr. Dr. I often queried him in the words of Harry Nilsson: “Doctor, Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take, Doctor, Doctor, to relieve this belly ache?”

I’m an atheist; Mo was a Bangladeshi recovering Muslim. He’d come whistling down the sidewalk on his way to catch the bus, swinging the old-fashioned leather briefcase his father had bought in London when he was a student and given to Mo when Mo moved to the States. I’d be sitting on the porch reading, and I’d holler, “Yo, Mo!”

Mo would stop and poke his head through a thin spot in our hedge and reply, “Is that Teresa Dave-Ass on his porch daveno reee-ding like one little girrr-l?”

In a moment of weakness induced by Mo’s post-Simpsons martinis, I had revealed how the kids in elementary school teased me about my name.

Before you call me a bigot and admonish me for not allowing this man the dignity of his name, let me say that we grew to be friends watching The Simpsons. He didn’t specify the show when he invited me over to meet his favorite TV character. He told me he’d blend me up one chutney squishie. I didn’t know what chutney was, let alone something called a chutney squishie. When I wasn’t reading student work, all I watched on TV were the animal shows. Mo’s favorite character was Apu, the Indian from India, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.

I know what you’re thinking: “How is it that a cultivated fellow like Dr. Mo Azad, a guy with two PhDs, would tolerate— let alone enjoy—a cultural stereotype like Apu?” The answer is that Mo didn’t have a gram of pretense or political correctness in him. I suppose the answer could also be that Mo was Muslim and Apu is Hindu. Yes, Mo was in recovery, but the residue of any monotheist delusion is tough to shed. I prefer to believe that Mo’s expansive heart had room for a good laugh on anybody.

What Mo’s heart did not have, however, was room for dogs. This was the only character flaw I observed Mo to suffer; it clung as tenaciously as a devout dingleberry. So, of course, I went right for it.

This was a golden time for Beck and me and the kids, who were still in high school. One February, our dog Snickers gave birth to six pups in a big cardboard box in the dining room. As the trees filled out and the cattails grew so high we couldn’t see the marsh across Stoltsman Road, we did get to see the momma ducks lead their ducklings across the road, creating traffic back-ups that were fine with everybody. (It’s hard to find a duckling-hater anywhere.)

The pups were now knee-high and ready to give away, except for Norton the runt, who—at that stage of his evolution— looked more like a possum than a dog and barked like a seal. We decided that Norty’s utterance wasn’t a bark at all; we called it a barp. Norty barped like a seal forever; years later, at a gas pump east of Sturgis, South Dakota, a few days before the legendary Harley-Davidson rally, his barp aroused the attention of the famous actor Peter Fonda, who walked over to the old Ford with me, peered into the cab at Norton considering what he might be, and refused to acknowledge that my Dear Nort was a dog at all. It was Fonda’s contention that Norty might be the infamous Chupacabra. Gawd, I hated it when people said that.

Snickers was a Siberian Husky-Golden Retriever mix, and the puppies’ father was a Golden; the pups themselves were beautiful, wonderful American mutts, except our beloved, oxygen-deprived, always-last-to-the-tit mutant Norton, with whom I identified most closely, and who seldom left my side for 12 years rich to overflowing with love as true as a dear friend of any species.

I would gather my attack pups around me on the porch and wait for Mo. I’d hear his door open and close, then the leather soles of his wingtips on the sidewalk.

“All right, muttskis,” I’d say. “We are the old-world colonial power, and that guy up there is a tiny, third-world country dipped in ham juice. Go get’im! And off they’d go a hikin’—as my Dear Old Mater, Lucille Bernice, used to say— Yodi with his grown-up bark leading the pack, Norton chugging along behind, barping, wondering what his brothers and sisters were up to at such a pace. The Nort’s right hip never worked right, and he had to throw his leg out in a wide arc to get up any steam. He also suffered a lack of balance: he’d walk along the edge of the porch and fall into the bushes. That could have been his lousy eyesight, too.

You figure an animal possesses all kinds of animal litheness and cunning and communion with nature. But nature shortchanged Norty; he was flompy and guileless. With each example I observed of nature’s gifts denied, the more I loved him. Parenthetical admission: I have a mental illness, and that could be the reason—along with love, of course—that I identified so closely with the Nort. I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Davis? You’re missing some fasteners? Geez, we sure can’t see that in your persona here.” And my response? “Oh, ha, ha.”

Norton’s brothers and sisters had received their names first, mostly from Nikki: Yoda, Coda, Bolshoi (Yes, Nik was a musician and a dancer), Walter, Custer. We learned later that she meant Custard because of his color. My enduring terror of copyright infringement prompted the change from Yoda to Yodi.

Josh named Nort after our old British motorcycle: he was Norton Commando Davis. That was his name, but you know how it goes with the names of creatures and people we love: Josh began calling him Nortskur; one of us shortened that to Skur, and it evolved to NortskurBear, SkurBear, Skurbeery.

We found good homes for Coda, Bolshoi, Walter and Custer, and Yodi found a home with the Everywhere Spirit, whom our friend Jim Petersen said must have needed a good dog over there beyond the third bank of the river.

Mo expressed his condolences about Yodi, and we knew he was sincere. But he was also glorifying in the absence of our gang of muttskis gamboling at his heels twice daily for a solid block, nipping his pant cuffs and breaking off their milk teeth in those little round holes in his shoes.

I was teaching the young Nortberry to catch biscuits when Mo walked down the sidewalk one stunning afternoon in May. Every tree and plant was budded out, and the earth was redolent, as the poet says, with the assurance of new life and continuing possibility. H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, would probably have waxed lyric and referred to Nature’s profusion as eloquent, a predicate adjective with which he was never stingy. I sat on the porch couch, and Norton sat with his front paws at the toes of my boots; he always sat a few degrees off-kilter because of his bad hip. He was ringed by biscuits whole and in pieces, and a film of light brown biscuit dust accented his muzzle like nutmeg on a latte.

Mo walked up the steps and extended his hand at the moment I tossed yet another. So far, I had not motivated Nort to open his mouth, or even move his snoot, let alone catch a bisky: this one landed on his head equidistant between his ears and stayed there.

Mo and I shook hands as we always did. He looked down with heightened disdain at my poor addled Skurberry with the biscuit on his head. Norty’s little black eyes, always slightly crossed, almost seemed to acknowledge the weighty presence above them. I grabbed the biscuit, Mo sat down; then, Norty worked his way to all-fours, climbed onto the couch and lay his head in my lap. I held the biscuit under his nose; he opened his mouth and I shoved it in. He pondered a moment; then he chomped away with vigor and determination. I smiled pridefully.

“Yo,” I said, “Mo. What are you doing flouncing down my sidewalk on this beautiful Minnesota afternoon?” I knew he was headed up to campus for his night class.

He replied in his Apu voice; I knew that I and my Skurberry were in for a battle of wits and would be miserably outnumbered. “It is you who is the big flouncer, Miss Teresa Dave-Ass, here on her porch daveno with her creature of indeterminate specie.”

“I abide no blaspheming of My Dear Skurberry,” I replied. I rubbed Norton under his ear. He chomped away. A drool spot the diameter of a soup bowl had appeared on the crotch of my overalls. Biscuit chunks adorned it like mini-croutons. “I have come to reveal to you the origin of this … ” Mo looked down at Norton as though my happily chomping Skurbear were something floating by in the yearly Ganges f lood. “ … this dog,” he said in Jack Nicholson’s voice as Nicholson refers to Greg Kinnear’s little pooch in As Good As It Gets. He then gave me a viciously knowing look and told me I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he switched back to Apu: “After which I am offering to blend you up one aubergine squishie.”

I allowed him to glory in what he assumed was my ignorance of the word. Aubergine is—of course—the French word for eggplant. And I don’t even have one PhD. Ha! “Reveal away, Doctor, Doctor,” I replied. I gave Nort another bisky and settled back.

“When God made Adam,” Mo said, “the devil was furious because God looked upon Adam as His finest creation. God had made the devil of fire, and Adam of earth. The devil claimed that fire was a superior material, and that he was, therefore, superior to Adam. The harder the devil pressed his claim, the more his hatred for Adam grew. One day, the devil and Adam were arguing, and he spit on Adam, right in the center of his belly. God was outraged to see the best of his handiwork defaced in this way. He reached down, pinched away the piece of flesh and threw it on the ground. An indentation remained in Adam’s belly and in the bellies of all of Adam’s offspring where God removed the flesh the devil had defiled. It looks like a little button.”

I nodded. I appreciate a good belly-button myth as much as the next guy. “I thought you said this was a dog story.” Mo stood. He glanced down at Norty and didn’t crack a smile. Then he turned his eyes back to me. “God looked at the little piece of flesh on the ground and did not want even one such small piece to go to waste,” Mo said. “And so out of this profaned scrap of flesh, God made the dog, whose duty it would be to clean up scraps forever.”

He turned and walked down the steps. He didn’t turn back when he spoke in his Apu voice: “Come visit the Kwik-EMart later, and I am blending you up one mongoose squishie and one road-kill squishie in a to-go cup for your friend.”

“We’ll be there!” I yelled after him.

Wonderful, I thought. Brilliant. All my poor Skurberry needs is a vicious dose of anti-dog myth to squash his selfesteem forever. I looked down: Nort’s narrow black eyes perched over his dry and cracking parody of a dog nose like an out-of-office response that said no one home … ever. How could I tell if my dear Skurbear had been undone by this attack of species bigotry? The only time Norty had ever taken on a different expression was when he had a baby raccoon in his mouth, and then he looked prim. He was awake, which was all you could ever discern of his relationship to his environment. My dear friend Norton was a vessel of indeterminate content in whom I invested more love than I knew I possessed. I rubbed under his ear and told him the true story of how his ancestors came to be.

“Skurbear,” I said, “everybody thinks Adam was full of confidence because he was God’s favorite creation. But he wasn’t as confident as everybody thinks. The truth is that Adam was lonely in the enormous new world all around him. Plus, the devil picked on him all the time. And plus again, the devil glowed ferocious with flames and brilliant shiny shimmers of heat because he was made of fire, and Adam was made of the brown earth. The truth was that even though the devil was bad, he was beautiful, and Adam didn’t feel beautiful.

“Once the devil saw that Adam felt inferior, his hatred for him grew. One day he was bullying Adam and his contempt boiled over. He spit on Adam—as all the stories tell—right in the center of his belly.

“But here’s where all the stories get it wrong.

“The devil’s spit was volcanic, and it burned that hole in Adam’s belly. Why didn’t God blow on it to cool it off? Because God wasn’t around right then, that’s why. And the devil knew it. That’s something else the other stories get wrong: God isn’t always around.

“When God came back, he found Adam sitting on a smooth, round rock staring into the fiery sunset. Adam was feeling that everything in the world was brighter and stronger than he was. This wasn’t true, but that’s how Adam felt. God looked into Adam’s heart and saw all of this.

“God walked with Adam far from the devil’s radiance and roar. God reached into Adam’s heart and excised a little piece. He pointed to a patch of earth where flecks of gold lay on the surface like tiny leaves. ‘My son,’ God said, ‘I am going to make a new creature who will always love you.’ God scraped up a palmful of earth and mixed it with the piece of Adam’s heart. He wrung his hands together and molded the heart-earth into a ball the color of caramel. He rolled the ball out on the ground. It sprouted four legs; a tail; pointed ears; a bright, curious face radiant with love; and a noble snoot. The dog ran up to Adam and licked his foot where Adam had stepped in something nasty. It tickled, and in a few licks, Adam’s foot was clean. Adam smiled. The dog smiled. God smiled. And Adam had a friend forever.”

I thumbed the switch on the thrift-store floor lamp that stood beside the couch, grabbed the stack of student stories from off the milk crate we used for an end table, and set to the work I loved and that allowed me to feel of use in the world. Becky and Snickers got home from their run then. Snickers took a long drink from the dishpan of water there on the porch, then climbed up and curled beside Norty. Beck went in for her shower, but she popped out later with the giant comforter we all snuggled under when we watched TV; we called it our comfort mountain. It was, of course, layered with dog hair. She covered the three of us, then went back in to read her papers. I was comfy as could be under the comfort mountain with Norton and his mom in that beautiful evening in that golden time.

I was still reading when Mo came walking up the sidewalk. I set the stories on the milk crate, clipped ropes on Snicker and Norty’s collars, covered them with my part of the comforter and tucked the edges under them.

“Doctor, Doctor!” I called to Mo. “Doctor, Doctor, I need one eggplant squishie.” I hustled out to the sidewalk and caught up to him. “And one road-kill squishie to go.”

Where Mo got the old Spike Jones line, I’ll never know. YouTube, maybe. The good Doctor, Doctor was a YouTube monster. I swear this is what he said: “Yes, we have no eggplant, we have no eggplant tonight. All we are having is the aubergine squishie.” I admit it: the squishies that Mo and I pounded ’til after midnight were concocted of gin, vermouth and jumbo green olives, as always. I remember our handshake that night, as I remember that golden time with the dense weight of years welded with regret.

I tottered down the sidewalk to that wonderful big old house with the covered porch at the dead end of James Avenue. Snickers and Nort and the comfort mountain were inside when I got back, and Becky, Nikki and Josh were in bed. Anissa was starting high school in Spokane with her mom, and Pascal was in his last year of prep school with his mom in Paris. It was like waking up from anesthesia when I looked around one day 12 years later and everybody but Norty was gone.

I never cried as much in my life as I did when Beck and I stood beside the table and held Norty as the vet slipped the needle in the big vein in his leg with a gentleness that still touches me all these years later. As great as the vet’s generosity of heart was Becky’s act of friendship in taking Norty in with me. We weren’t about to let our dear Norty spend one more minute in pain from his cancer.

I can’t spend any amount of time behind the wheel of my rusty old Ford F250 without feeling Norty’s head on my thigh. How I laugh remembering the time he fell through the passenger side floor. It was the look on his face, of course, that was so funny. Good thing we weren’t going down the road.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Pre-Amble
A man, a dog, a snowy mountain—deep-winter thoughts as a new year approaches.

New Year’s Eve already, again. Stepping out through boot-deep snow.

Here on Spring Mountain it’s traditional to celebrate the final evening of each calendar year with a good stiff hike, accompanied by whatever hounds are currently at hand and up to the effort. This year, I’m down to Mr. Otis, since Angel dog is 13 and on her last leg and that last leg is lame. While Otis is nine, which in big-dog years makes him a borderline senior like me, he, also like me, still thinks he’s a stud. In fact, old Oats frequently wins compliments as a supremely handsome example of the Labrador breed, even in his muzzled grayness. He’s been blessed with glossy black hair (recently, a visiting Alaskan trapper friend made my wife Caroline nervous when he stroked Otis appraisingly and remarked on what a “fine pelt” he has), long sturdy legs (Dr. Woody, Otis’s personal physician, calls them “mountain legs”), clean white teeth and a broad intelligent head (as opposed to the rat-nosed look of lesser Labs). So why ruin the ruse by revealing that his mother was a Golden Retriever?

Of course, for O and me to take an evening hike together is hardly unique, insofar as he walks me most every evening, the high point of most every day. The high point, at least, when the weather is pleasant and calming, or nasty enough to be exciting because it’s scary enough to offer a reminder that nature always bats last: say, a wildly showy electrical storm, wind like a low flight of fighter jets screaming through the trees, a blinding whiteout of blowing snow and swirling frozen fog. Barring any of that during the moody holiday season—deep in the white gut of winter, with its foreshortened days, crackling cold nights, delaying snow and precious little wildlife to animate the scene—a walk in the winter woods can often seem more effort than entertainment.

This New Year’s Eve, this final evening of yet another year of our whirlwind lives, we are healthy, happy and celebrating—a boy and his dog striding up this comforting old mountain while ruminating on the past, pondering the future and, with every step and breath, offering active praise for the blessings of the moment. And glory be, after the first hard few minutes and the catching of my increasingly elusive second wind, I sense that this is to be one of those sweet retro intervals when my aging mortal shell, rather than dragging behind and slowing me down, lifts me lightly along, like a buzzard climbing a summer thermal, up and up on a free ride to heaven. Suddenly I am young again, high as a hippie on the pure animal joy of self-powered movement. At least for the moment.

We climb eagerly on, Otis and I, running occasional short sprints, choosing the steepest routes simply for the sake of their steepness, running uphill in the snow. As we near the top, 9,500 feet above the sultry beaches of southern California and a vertical gain of 1,500 feet from the cabin—with only a few dozen minutes remaining in the day, less than a half dozen hours to go in the year, an unknown number of years left in our lives—a light of impossible beauty laminates the sunset sky. The churning, shifting spectrum of pastels—blue, lavender; purple, pink, red to fiery orange—seems almost sentient, somehow feminine, ineffably alive.

When we finally reach our goal—a rocky point overlooking a snow-covered lake—I stop for a look around. The awesome grandeur of such vertical landscapes makes one feel rightly small. And such feeling-smallness, by exposing the false front of our feeling-bigness, feels real good to me.

Impatient as a puppy, ever the anxious seeker, Otis flashes past, brushing against my snow-dusted pant cuff as if to proclaim, “Look at me, Dad! Here I go!” running in widening circles. On his third counterclockwise circumnavigation, the 80-pound goofball surprises a congerie of ravens, which in their panicked flush startle the hell out of me, as I had neither heard nor seen them there, clustered on the ground behind the low rise to my right. Righteously alarmed, the overgrown crows hurl themselves skyward as one dark body, a flapping black cloud that rises in brief solidarity then flies abruptly apart, like a fistful of scarves flung into the wind.

How I do love ravens! At once the most clever, adaptable and confident of birds and the most joyful heralds of death. Like Otis and me, ravens perceive themselves as far too handsome and wise for their humble lot in life as scroungers, kidnappers of robin chicks and carrion eaters. Yet they, like O and me, don’t merely endure but always find ways to enjoy. What most humans view as hardship, ravens see as play. Everywhere good I go, from Alaska to Mexico, ravens are there.

Even so—this late in the day, this deep into winter—these gregarious birds should by now have retreated to their nocturnal roosts to perch on limbs like so many lumpy black leaves, feathers fluffed for warmth, among the sheltering boughs of Douglas fir or ponderosa. Suddenly, it occurs to me that these preeminent scavengers may have been feasting late on a holiday gift of frozen flesh. Dead elk or deer? Dead coyote? Dead …?

Winter: the dying time of year.

I hurry over to investigate. Approaching the spot where the birds had been ganged on the ground I find … nothing.

Who knows? Who gives a flapping croak? Not Otis, who has already whiffed some new and intriguing scent and is off hounding after it, headed conveniently down-mountain, the way we need to go. With twilight fading fast I turn and follow his lead, the prints of my big insulated rubber boots shortcutting Otis’s switchbacking slashes in the snow, like a drunken slalom skier. Dogs, like preachers, politicians and real estate whores, never run straight unless they’re being chased. But Otis has disappeared, coursing far ahead. Perhaps he’s cut the pungent trail of a pine marten, like the one he and Caroline saw on this morning’s walk together. In fact, Caroline admitted to having seen the sleek, cat-sized, tree-climbing, rodent-hunting weasel only after Otis had tracked its scent to the base of a tree and his animated excitement, urgent whines, and upward panting stare had lifted her gaze away from its normally grounded fix. While a hunter, like me, peers up and away, scanning the horizon for broken hints of color, pattern or movement, Caroline, a gentle gatherer, focuses closer at foot, stalking wildflowers, mushrooms, animal spoor and other rooted prey. Alone, each of us is half blind. Together, we see near and far.

No matter. Wherever my dog-son has gotten off to, or why, he is out of my sight—an intolerable breach of Petersen doggy etiquette. I refuse to yell, clap or wolf-whistle in the woods, any of which would rudely shatter the tranquility I come here for, disturbing the critters and destroying the very treasures I seek. Instead, I stop and peer around—waiting, watching, straining my ears into the ringing silence for the rhythm of panting breaths, the soft thuds of paws on the snow. I chuckle out loud when I catch myself sniffing the air, as if I were a dog or a bear. This thought, in turn, reminds me of Dersu Uzala, the charismatic wild-man protagonist of Russian explorer V.K. Arseniev’s 1910 classic adventure memoir, Dersu the Trapper, a mostly true story beautifully made into the 1975 Academy Award–winning film Dersu Uzala by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Dersu is an aging aborigine of a dwindling hunter-gatherer tribe, the Goldis, who are animistic (nature worshipping) foragers of the Manchurian taiga. The scene I’m recalling takes place one bad winter day while Dersu is out boar hunting with the captain. When Dersu misses an easy shot at an animal he can pungently smell but barely see, the old woodsman wails in pidgin Russian, “Capitan! My nose sees better than my eyes!” in sudden realization that he is going blind.

The point being that that’s the way our big boy Otis see his world: nostrils first. Could we dwarf-nosed human animals experience for just one hour the world as a dog, deer or bear perceives it—in shape-shifting layers of Technicolor scents, far more vivid and varied than even the most stunning sunset sky—that brief, epiphanous window of wonder would alter our outlook and actions forever. For all our manipulative cleverness, we really know so little of life.

Growing uneasy with Otis’s ongoing absence, if not quite worried (he knows the way home from anywhere up here and would yelp for help if in trouble), I venture a soft, birdlike whistle, poorly imitating the bright spring rondo of a mountain chickadee. Inappropriate though it is for the bottom of December, it will alert Otis, if he hears it, that I am here.

Sure enough, within moments here comes the Oatsmobile, a graceful flowing streak of ink sluicing across the snow, sleek as liquid silk, contouring cross-mountain full-bore: big ears flopping, jaws agape and cheeks flared wide, gums spotted pink and black, long tongue lolling, ivory fangs flashing a delighted canine grin—four score pounds of pure animal joy.

As with the other animals in my life—and my life is peopled with animals—I envy Otis his freedom from burdensome ambition, from debilitating regret, pointless worry and egoistic longing for public recognition and personal immortality. For him, life is now, to be experienced—chased, caught and played with; chewed up and swallowed, digested, and always celebrated—not some Calvinistic adversary to be feared, conquered, intellectualized, rationalized, fantasized or dogmatized.

Panting and pleased with himself—“Here I come, Dad! Such a good boy, me!”—Otis stiff-legs to a stop at my side and raises his snow-frosted mug for a pat. Which of course he gets, plus a kiss on  the head and a few soft words of encouragement to Stay with me, knucklehead!

Looking to our left, eastward as we go, light-years beyond the saw-toothed silhouette of the Continental Divide, we see Jupiter come awake: a blinking benediction in blue. At least I think it’s Jupiter, not being much on stars (or planets either, obviously). I mean, there are so many of them. And all so far away, untouchable, ultimately unknowable, thus largely removed from my life. “One world at a time,” said Thoreau on his deathbed to the hovering preacher. “One real world is enough,” echoed Santayana a century later. I feel much the same. Yet how gratefully each night do I greet Orion (a bowhunter, like me), who at the moment, still hidden below the horizon, is gearing up with bow and dagger for another night’s go-around with that ballsy old aurochs (a Taurus, like me), the two of them battling clockwise across  the nocturnal firmament. Forever.

Shaking me from my reveries, Otis suddenly stops, goes stiff-legged, raises his muzzle, sniffs and licks his slobbery chops—tasting some delicious promise that’s as yet invisible to me. Explaining himself with an excited Whoof! he deserts me and bounds ahead, barreling down the hill. Following quickly after, I, too, soon smell the spicy incense of aspen smoke, perfuming the lucent night.

Almost home.

Excerpted from On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life © 2005 David Petersen, published by Henry Holt and Company. Reprinted with permission.

 

Culture: Stories & Lit
The Lowdown on Life with Three Dachshunds

It never fails to amuse all of us when all 12 pounds of Molly intimidates all 25 pounds of Baxter. And it is often. If Baxter even looks at Molly’s rawhide bone while she’s chewing on it, out comes a deep, serious growl from Molly. It’s a sound you would think impossible to come out of such a tiny muzzle. It’s almost like there’s a pit bull hiding behind the couch, and it’s throwing its growl. Every time I see it happen it reminds me that it’s not always the largest dog that’s the “big” dog. There have been instances where Baxter has gotten a little too close for Molly’s comfort, and she’s taken enough of a nip to leave a mark. What’s Maya doing when this is happening? Nothing. She just goes on blissfully chewing her bone. I guess when Molly joined the household she and Maya came to some kind of understanding —namely, that Molly would be Maya’s muscle. Which is sort of strange, since Baxter and Molly spend a lot of their time shadowing each other. But, make no mistake: Baxter is always Molly’s bitch, and not the other way around. However, Maya and Molly’s fondness for each other is at its strongest when they’re sleeping.

I doubt that it’s a girl thing. They weren’t littermates. Molly is three; Maya is almost ten. It’s hard to conceive of any logical kind of reason that they would look for each other when they’re looking to catch a nap or settle in for the night. But they do.

You can find them in any one of several body configurations, usually ones that would put a contortionist to shame. But there is always a common trait in their contortions: they are always touching. You would be as likely to find Molly resting her head on Maya’s neck as you would Maya doing the same to Molly. Each uses the other’s body as a blanket; each often buries her entire face under the other’s warm, soft belly fur. They have taken snuggling to an art form. But I think what makes an even bigger impact on me, and makes their behavior even more amazing, is the way that they deliberately seek each other out.

We keep the dogs in the family room at night. They all sleep on a big, brown, comfy chair that, at one time, I used to enjoy. Baxter is usually the first one to climb up the little Dachshund stairs at the base of the chair, where his bulk takes up most of the prime real estate. Next comes Molly, and without a growl or a glance she shoves Baxter out of the way and claims the choicest spot next to one of the chair’s arms. Baxter will lay his head down on the chair and start snoring away. Molly? She sits. And she waits. For Maya.

Maya is always the last to arrive. Part of that is age, and part of it is simply another of Maya’s inexplicable phobias. But, once in the family room Maya climbs the stairs, steps over Baxter’s bulk, and sidles up to Molly. It’s then they find a suitable configuration for them, one that best ensures two things: that they are warm and that they are one.

I am reluctant to say that I think that Molly and Maya have each other’s backs, because they are dogs. But because they are my dogs I’m going to say that they do. Maya and Molly have each other’s backs.

Culture: DogPatch
Interview Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Dogdom's Grande Dame
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The 80-plus-year-old writer Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a new book, A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her amazing life and her observations of the natural world.

Bark: What first drew you to dogs?
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Our family always had dogs. I grew up with dogs, and one of them, a Newfoundland named Mishka, was our nanny.

Bark: In this book, you write that the Bushmen regarded and respected lions, and were rarely attacked by them, unlike their pastoralist neighbors, who attacked lions and, in turn, were attacked by them. Do you think the same dynamic may have existed between early humans and wolves (and protodogs)?
Thomas: A study was done in the 1970s that found no attacks on people by wild wolves except for a man who dressed himself as a bear cub and rolled around on the ground as if he were injured or ill. Wolves attacked him, but that should come as no surprise —they thought he was an injured bear cub. I [once] spent a summer alone in a small cave on Baffin Island next to a pack of denning wolves. They could have had me for lunch, but they never as much as threatened me. They did tear up my [anti-mosquito] head-net and a sweater, but I had carelessly left these at my lookout post on top of a hill. Those wolves worked very hard to find enough to eat, and I would have been easy prey if they had decided to attack me. Now and then, they would come to my cave to look things over, but always when I was asleep. I felt no fear of them whatever. They, on the other hand, felt cautious of me but tolerated my presence very well. If they were worried about me, they would have taken their pups and moved to another den. But no, they stayed. I don’t think it’s known why wolves seldom, if ever, attack people.

Bark: The Hidden Life of Dogs was perhaps the first best-selling dog book; have you been surprised by how many have followed? And do you still believe that dogs “want” other dogs?
Thomas: I don’t have an answer for the popularity of dog books, but I do think that dogs enjoy the company of other dogs because, like wolves, they are highly social animals. We, their owners, could almost be called surrogate dogs, usually in the role of pack leaders, but not always.

Bark: What do you think inspires our ongoing fascination with dogs?
Thomas: One reason might be that dogs represent something “other.” They are perfectly comfortable with people, but they are not people. Dogs fascinate me because they are windows to the natural world—they have thoughts, dreams and emotions; they make plans just as we do. What this tells us is that human beings are not the only creatures to have such abilities and do such things. To a great extent, dogs show us the “one-ness” of the animal kingdom.

Culture: Stories & Lit
A True Romance
Dog laying by tree

If grief stops the clocks, turns time into that thick substance it feels nearly impossible to trudge through, joyousness has the opposite effect. Tee’s first job in our household was to enact his own boundless sense of JOY, to get the moments of our day to tick forward once again.

We really needed him in this regard. As we’d explained to the women at the shelter, we were depending on him to keep us up and out of bed, to free us from the prison that gloomy room had become. He was there to remind us how much work a rambunctious puppy is. We had no choice but to do this work. If we weren’t up for what it took to care for this dog, we’d have to take him back.

The Greeks named Necessity the mother of all Three Fates. This new dog of ours—acquired out of plain, grim need— seemed to bring us the message of how it’s Necessity that will swing open the hinge that shows the present moment might be built on the Past, but also predicates the Future. Our lives without Thiebaud become almost instantly unthinkable, which did not mean we were missing Whistler less, only that we were now mourning him in a more healthy, active way, missing him in every step we took as we walked those same trails with this new dog, who most likely—because of his astonishing time-layered senses—could still faintly track him. The Three Fates, named also the Daughters of Necessity, has seemingly arranged to give us the dog who was Whistler’s opposite: Tee was humorous, stable, not one whit jealous of his place in the New World he was asked to join, easily confident he’d find his rightful slot in the hierarchy.

Affectionate, overtly sociable, he seemed on a mission to win all people over to him, sure he could accomplish this if he just patiently took them one by one. He was like a Bill Clinton– type politician, not to be satisfied until everyone had fallen hard for him. Whistler’s sense of pride? That measured cool aloofness? Not Thiebaud; being dignified simply never occurred to him.

For a long-kenneled animal, Thiebaud had miraculously become this sensible, intelligent, exceedingly trusting and friendly dog. Like any foundling, he excelled at self-sufficiency, suffering not at all when left alone. Of course I identified with him: All orphans are like this, we take no one’s affection for granted, we never assume anyone will like us, but once we’re convinced we can trust you, we’ll fall even ridiculously in love with you. We do it because we’re so relieved and grateful. But it was my husband, Jack, whom our dog latched on to as his first ardent attachment, which made sense since each has the same talent for happiness. Happiness is probably like any other gift—dancing, say, or being musically inclined? and coming easily only to some. Then there are the others— and I am one, my dog Whistler was another—who will simply have to work at it.

Thiebaud was interested in everything Jack did as long as they could be together: sitting quietly outside watching as Jack looked after his fruit trees or restocked his birdfeeders. Then, inside—after running a few frenetic interior exploratory laps around the big room he seemed to take as a dogtrack— Tee lay with Jack on the couch, his small ears flicking back and forth, seeming to really listen to the Metropolitan Opera being broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio every Saturday afternoon.

Tee had the characteristically beta personality, but Jack— who discounts our current requirement that we dismissively label and judge—called it his dog’s good Southern manners.

Thiebaud was both patient and deferential, sitting by his full bowl watching until both Jack and I were seated at the dinner table. It was because of our dog that Jack and I began our now longstanding practice of reading a different grace from a little book we have of ecumenical blessings, this so Tee—in hearing the somewhat singsong cadences of prayer always ending in the word Amen—would get the signal that he too was now invited to eat.

Thiebaud had simply demanded that we come to life, saying you need to grab a leash, need to step outside into Jack’s fragrant little orchard where the pear and cherry and apple were now budding, need to notice how the hillside beyond the shed has gone crazy with wildflowers: bluebell, cowslip, adder’s-tongue, trout lily.

Over the short time we’d been away in California, spring had riotously arrived, making our little patch of Morgan County into a whole new and beautiful world. Look at this! our new dog seemed to say: How amazing to be alive!

Culture: Stories & Lit
Dog Leading the Way Home
Lessons for a service dog in training
Illustration of homes

Jake piper’s making slow sense of the Home command. I’m not sure how much he’s really got it. He follows Puzzle readily when she leads us home, but I notice that he is clearly following her. He is a moment behind her dance steps, always, and doesn’t appear to be making any choice of direction. When I give him a handful of trial runs beside her, I realize that as long as she is with us, he will be content to let her lead. I don’t think he’s got it. It’s time to work him on the Home command alone.

I’ve watched him work his nose since the very first day he came to us, and what I know about Jake Piper is that he’s got a keen sense of scent and a high drive impulse. But, unlike Puzzle, he doesn’t have six years of finding a specific something and leading me to it with his nose. Jake also naturally works more head down across the turf than head up across the wind. He can trail a rabbit’s recent path through our back yard quite easily, but it’s Puzzle, head up, who seems to snag the airborne scent of passing humans long before they reach the house. It’s Puzzle who picks up on the roof-hugging squirrel pressed flat to the tiles above us. Of course, she is a field dog by birth and long trained to work air scent, and he is all raw nose talent and completely unversed. I’m interested to see just how quickly he picks up the Home command and recognizes what I need him to do. I’m curious if he’ll consistently backtrack our trail or if he, too, in time will simply take us home by moving from scent zone to scent zone regardless of the path we took outbound. It’s possible he won’t pick up this command at all.

Jake learns words quickly, so I start with teaching him what I mean by home. Walking along the boundary of the property, I’ll suggest we go home, and then, as we approach the front of the house, tell him to find the door. Jake has successfully learned that the Door command can mean door in as well as door out, so I hope to build on that understanding. Where once it was just about finding the door, Jake’s task now demands he find home and the door. For a week’s worth of sessions, I simply say, “Let’s go home,” as we approach the house, adding the Door command as we step onto the property. Jake learns commands well. The first time I say, “Let’s go home,” along the back fence of the property, and he chooses to run the length of the fence and then turn right to get to the front door, I mark it as a success. Yes, he did pee over other dog marks on the way—a quick hike of leg out of form rather than function— but he got us there. He enjoys the command, the job, and the big, big praise for a good dog doing well. In this he is much like Puzzle. Home is a happy command to give a once abandoned dog like Jake. Every time we work it, I’m reminded that in a way Home celebrates what he nearly never had.

We begin to train farther away. This is tougher for Jake, working across a merry universe of distractions. Even one house down from ours there are enticements: a cat arching in a window, any number of piss marks on trees, a child’s sock, a dead pigeon. Before we can nail the Home command, Jake has to reliably Leave It, a term he now understands. Usually good about it, he occasionally plays dumb and lunges for whatever (Never heard that command in my life). He also plays deaf (Even if I do know the command, I didn’t hear it).

Jake’s a curious beast, leaving the taunting cat and the rotting pigeon much more readily than the piss marks, leaving the child’s sock most reluctantly of all. He doesn’t try to snatch the sock as toy, but he’s curious about it. When Jake does Leave It on the second command, he looks up at me in puzzled innocence, as though he’s wounded by my tone of voice.

In a few days, from one house away, he leads me home. In a week, from two houses away, he leads me home. When the month is out, I can give him the Home command as we round any block leading to the house, and he’ll take me there, long lead drooping and scraping across the sidewalk, a loose connection between us so that I can be certain I’m not cuing him with tugs even I don’t recognize. For a time we work into the sun so that my shadow is thrown behind me—I want to make sure I’m not even cuing him by some lean of body he can see, though I’m not sure he recognizes what a shadow is.

We have several good Home finds from a block away, once even approaching from a side of the block we had not taken outbound, and I think it’s time to let Jake Piper advance a little more. We take a long, free-to-be-dog walk into town, and halfway back I put on his service vest. He stands still for the putting-on-of-uniform, slides into it easily, and I see the change of demeanor I see in Puzzle when the vest goes on, as if he understands which rules apply.

“Take me home, Jake,” I say. We are about three blocks away. It’s a big step up from the block he had been doing, but we’re on the very road we took outbound, and we are walking into the wind. With any luck, it’s blowing straight over the house and into our faces. With any luck, Jake has so much of our outbound scent and home’s scent that the path back glows.

Jake perks at the command and starts off with great energy. Too much energy. For a moment I have to rush to keep the lead slack between us. If we weren’t near traffic, I’d drop the lead entirely to see which route he’d take. Jake’s head is lifted. The spotted left ear is standing almost straight up. The right ear twists like a corn chip. Everything about him looks happy, and with a terrier’s easy, distinctive trot, he moves confidently in the right direction. His pace is steady: Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home. A couple of times he turns around to shoot me a glance. It’s a check-in but so confident and prideful that it reads less like How am I doing? and more like I am so on this. Who’s the good Jakey?

He’s the good Jakey, I think, and I am just about to share his overconfidence when suddenly he shivers all over, the nose drops, and the tail goes from a sway to a wag. This is the very kind of animation we may see in search dogs the moment they catch human scent. There is nothing about the Home command that should torque Jake up in this way; I’m thinking this even as he moves from the trot to a scramble and, nose down, begins to pull me along the sidewalk—right-direction-right-direction-yes-it’s-the-way-we-came—and then suddenly goes across the street on a diagonal, onto the opposite sidewalk, and into a row of bushes. Jake is crittering. He has chosen a place where possums like to sleep off the day, and I have no doubt he’s trailing one now. He is on it. He thrusts into the green so deeply that all I can see is his madly waving tail. By this time, I’ve abandoned my role as observer of the process and am pulling him into me, heaving hand over hand down the long lead. We meet somewhere in the middle of the thicket, and as a huddle of little possums scatter in the underbrush, Jake sits and turns to look at me. His expression isn’t guilty. He beams as though he thinks he’s done the job.

“Jake, come out of here,” I say, leading him out, giving an embarrassed little wave to an elderly man grinning from a neighboring porch.

No treat. Sit for Jake. Deep breath. Let’s try this again.

“Jake, take me home.” Jake stands and looks pointedly at the hedge, then back to me.

“No, Jake. Take me home.”

His expression mystified, as though he can’t imagine why a hedge full of baby possums is not the thing I want, Jake begins again. We move away from the hedge in a cloud of Leave Its; Jake crabs sideways, looking back toward possum land as long as he possibly can. Somehow, though, when we hit the sidewalk, he seems to shake off the hedge’s allure. He is service dog in training again, and I am hopeful that this time he’s got it. He’s slowed from a trot to a walk, a better pace for a human handler behind him, and I’m glad to see he made that choice. (I hope he made it out of consideration for his partner, but he may have made it because we’re now upwind of possum.) The lead between us is slack.

Two blocks from home. A block and a half from home, and we’re still moving in the right direction, at a partner-sensible pace. A car passes, honks lightly, its driver smiling at the two of us. I smile back, because really, we are on it this time, and here we are, woman and dog, the picture of obedience and collaboration. A nice walk now; Jake-goes-home-now-Jake-goes-home-now. No pull, no tension on the lead, still moving in the right direction.

A block from home, Jake’s head pops up with interest, and for a moment I fear he’s on another possum. But no— though Jake has snagged some happy scent on the wind, he doesn’t break stride for it. Instead, he moves steadily forward and with great confidence, leading us down the last block, up a low set of steps, and to the front gate. He sits and grins at me, eyeing the treat bag.

This was right on so many levels. Right direction, right pace, no startle at the car honk, a lead up the steps, to the gate, and the happy Here we are! Sit. The only problem: We’re at the wrong house. Not only the wrong house, but one of the most splendid historic properties in our little town. A beautiful full-blown Victorian mansion with turrets and wraparound porches, its lovely landscaping bounded by a wrought-iron fence.

To Jake’s credit, we passed this house outbound, and today it’s immediately downwind of our own. I can see home from where we stand. So could Jake if he were looking for it, but at the moment he’s happy with the house he’s found for us. Holding his Sit, he perks every time I look at him. This is home, isn’t it? I give him credit for having good taste, if not accuracy. He seems pretty sure we should just head on through the gate.

Excerpted from The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Copyright © 2013 by Susannah Charleson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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