I should start by saying that my dog Sydney is not normal. She doesn’t sit or shake or play with toys. She only really likes to interact with other dogs to size them up. She interacts with people to discuss politics and existential suffering. She is a surprisingly picky eater, especially when you consider that she once maneuvered an entire deer head through the dog door and put it on my couch. Depending on the day, she will respond to you or ignore you in both English and Spanish. She came from the basurero (garbage dump) near Bucerias, Jalisco, Mexico, where she was nursing nine puppies in March of 2006.
Since then, I’ve spent a fair bit of time waiting for Sydney. Waiting for her to come back to the car after a hike, waiting for her to show up after she has run off to eat a carcass or kill a woodchuck (or run a town meeting, who knows). But never have I spent more time waiting for Sydney than the week of Monday, September 23, to Friday, September 27, 2013. She ran off from a friend’s house on Monday morning, which wasn’t in any way unusual. The unusual part was that she then roamed an area of approximately 10 miles for the next five days, ending up virtually where she started.
I waited calmly at first, then with worry, then with panic. Then I waited with meat. Lots of meat. The low point of this five-day ordeal was when I sat in the woods with a rotisserie chicken, crying like a toddler, screaming Sydney’s name into the air with a futility and a pitiful intonation that even I could recognize as borderline losing it. Camping out at the house she disappeared from, surrounded by smoking meat, pieces of my clothing in the woods nearby to scent the air, was a close second. The coyotes were loud, and when they would quiet down, I’d imagine them eating her body. A nice bottle of port helped, but not that much.
I set a trap, one of those oversized humane metal things that barely fit in the back of my Subaru. I thought it was absurd, but I did it anyway because I felt the need to be continually “doing something” while half of the community was out looking for her; by this time, my dog’s face was plastered all over town like a missing child on a milk carton. As a veterinarian, I was aware of the professional embarrassment this whole scenario represented, but by the time the flyers were up, I was already desperate enough not to care. Hence, I set a trap.
The assumption is that the animal will be hungry enough to be baited with food, walk into the trap and be waiting there for you in the morning. Sydney was too resourceful to be hungry, and I knew it. She was seen on day two of her journey tearing open trash bags, for crying out loud. The dog was fine. If she was hungry enough to be trapped, I figure she was just as likely to trot directly up to me in my tent where I waited like a meat-scented Unabomber. But I set the trap anyway, almost closing myself in the damn thing in the process.
Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely. We take for granted the presence of a dog—even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.
Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L. L. Bean calls a bed. Without a dog, the air is thin, like the decreased percentage of oxygen at higher altitudes. Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here, now”—a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important. Without a dog, days have less structure— no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to—and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does. Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.