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.
These thoughts about the meaning of “dog-ness” were swirling through my brain as I gazed at a glistening pile of canine feces. Glistening is important because it meant it was fresh, and I got excited when I saw it because it looked about Sydney-sized and -shaped. Some people will likely find this next part offensive and strange, but I don’t care; those people likely have never loved a dog. I touched it with my bare hand to see if it was still warm and broke it apart to check for evidence of Sydney’s hair. It was cold and there were some suspicious hairs, but nothing that clearly said, This is Sydney’s poop. It was something, though, and that was good enough for me.
With each day came Sydney sightings that ranged from mundane—“I saw her trotting down Lower Creek Road”— to proof of her resourcefulness—“She was seen opening trash bags”—to commentary that could describe no dog other than Sydney: “I saw her cross Route 366. She looked both ways before crossing and looked like she knew where she was headed.” A common theme in the sightings was the assessment that she was capable and fine, thank you very much. Meanwhile, I was rendered dysfunctional, perching in the woods yelling things like, “I’m eating your chicken, Sydney! It’s really good!” and “If you don’t come eat your ham, this is a lot of wasted pork!” Seems unfair, doesn’t it? I think so.
As Sydney was about to spend her fifth night away, and with no sightings for 24 hours, I received a phone call. “Hi, Katherine, this is Glenn Swan. I think I have your dog here. She is very happy on our dog bed, with my daughter brushing her …” The message went on, but I had already started to cry and put on my shoes. Glenn Swan, owner of Swan Cycles, is well known in the cycling community; he’s also a former employer of a close friend, and sold me my Fuji road bike in 2008.
I was greeted at the door by Glenn and his young daughter, who was wearing a pink tutu. Sydney was lounging on a pile of dog beds far nicer than the one she had at home, and while she did wag her tail briefly, she could otherwise barely be bothered to greet me. Hussy.
She looked fine; not thin, barely dirty, sporting no wounds or ailments that might have summoned some empathy from me. I asked her if she wanted to go home. She gave me a look that said, Um, hold on, let me think … I guess so, before slowly rising and following me to the door. I thanked Glenn and his family profusely and we walked outside. Glenn showed me the spot right near the door where she had been waiting to be let into his house. The whole time, I was thinking, Are you f—ing kidding me, Sydney?
As my friend Heather said, she could have at least had the decency to have a laceration or simple lameness. Even after I got her home, I still could not believe she was back. The mix of emotions, compounded by running on no sleep, spending five days in the same pair of meat-smoke-infused, brown Carhartt overalls, contemplating life without a dog, was intense. Do I kiss and cuddle her, or scream obscenities at her? It was a tough call.
One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.
As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs. I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much. All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.