Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
Culture: Stories & Lit
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: Stories & Lit
Daily routines provide welcome relief at both ends of the leash.
Back in 2004 when my daughter was 10, she and my husband were united in their desire for a dog. Me, I shared none of their canine lust. But why, they pleaded. “Because I don’t have time to take care of a dog.” But we’ll do it. “Really? You’re going to walk the dog? Feed the dog? Bathe the dog?” Yes, yes and yes. “I don’t believe you.” We will. We swear. We promise.
They didn’t. From day one (okay, maybe day two; everyone wanted to walk the cute Cavalier puppy that first day) neither thought to walk the dog. Worse still, when I said, “Misty needs a walk,” they both had excuses at the ready. With Becky, it was always about her homework or extracurricular activities; with Joe, it was his journalism assignments or gym workouts (not to mention his games of Free Cell that he thought I didn’t know about). Hey, I had work, workouts and whatever else, too. But Misty needed walking. Why was I the only one who seemed to get that?
Despite my insistence that I didn’t have time to take care of a dog—really—I gradually came to accept that I would be the one to keep track of her shots, to schedule and keep her vet appointments, to feed and groom her. In short, to be the alpha in her life. Misty, of course, figured this out on day one. She peered up at the three new humans in her life (small, medium and large) and quickly calculated, “The medium one, that’s the sucker in the pack.” While, like most Cavaliers, she wasn’t a candidate for Mensa honors, her survival instinct was exceptional.
Quickly, Misty brought everyone in the household to heel. She trained Becky to sleep with a dog on her head. She trained Joe to brush her teeth (this because I had to draw the line somewhere). She trained all of us to give belly rubs on command. For everything else—well, let’s just say she and I developed something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. She’d look at me with those doleful brown eyes of hers, beam her need, then wait, trusting I would understand—which, bizarrely, I almost always did. In no time, she became my fifth appendage, snoring on my home-office couch as I worked, cradling against my feet as I read, splaying across my stomach as I watched television.
Even so, part of me continued to resent walking duty. Not just once a day. Twice a day. Every day. Joe and Becky had sworn. They’d promised. Yet it was very clear that if my schedule didn’t find the give, Misty wouldn’t get exercised, which exercised me plenty. Not fair, I’d balk silently as she and I walked. Not fair, I’d loudly remind anyone within earshot upon our return home.
Then one day—January 1, 2007, to be specific—my husband’s hematologist uttered an unthinkable word: leukemia. With that, my walk-and-balk tirades evaporated, my head too filled with worry to leave room for petty resentments. Save the two days a week I had to meet magazine deadlines in Manhattan, I now spent eight to 10 hours of each day with Joe in the hospital, doing anything and everything I could to ease his discomfort as he stoically withstood chemo, surgery, then a stem-cell transplant. During those six months of intensive hospitalizations, Becky, 12 at the time, adjusted to other adults being in the house when she returned from school. My work colleagues adjusted to my taking off at a moment’s notice to respond to a medical emergency. Every part of my life shifted; no part of my old routine remained.
Save one: Misty still needed walking. Each day. Every day. Once, preferably twice a day. Initially, when friends and neighbors offered to step in and take her through her paces, I declined because I knew they had their own households, jobs and dogs to deal with. Though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t see my way to further burdening their schedules.
As the months went by, I began to realize that my rejection of people’s kind offers was no longer spurred by considerations about their overcrowded lives. Rather, I actually wanted to walk Misty. Not once a day. Twice. It wasn’t just that the walks were my only opportunity for exercise and fresh air. The walk in the morning before I headed to the hospital was quiet, peaceful, a time to gather my thoughts or just be before the day’s medical drama unfolded. The evening walk was a time to shake off the day’s upsets and let the worry tracks in my head go to white noise.
And then there was this. When dire illness visits your household, it’s not just your daily routine and your assumptions about the future that are no longer familiar. Pretty much everyone you know acts differently. When they see you, their smiles crumble. Invariably, they steer the conversation in the same mind-numbingly repetitive direction: How’s Joe? How’s Becky? How are you? They mean well, but their expressions, their body language, their questions are a constant reminder that your husband might die. In other words, like everything else in your life, the people around you have changed.
Not Misty. Take her out for a walk and she had no interest in Joe’s blood counts, chemo concoctions or bone-marrow test results. If it was just the two of us on the street or in the park, she had only one thing on her mind: squirreling! If we crossed paths with another pet owner walking her pooch, she had a different agenda: sniff that dog’s butt! As she chased ecstatically after a furry rodent or thrust her nose eagerly into the hindquarters of a dog 10 times her size, she was so joyous that even on the worst days, she could make me smile. On a daily basis, she reminded me that life goes on.
Somewhere during these months, she stopped sleeping on Becky’s head and started sleeping at the foot of my bed. After Joe died in 2009, she shifted to his pillow. Sometime after that when a new human named Bob entered the picture, she shifted to the rug, her pillow in tow. Quickly, she trained Bob to give her belly rubs and baths. She’s even trained him to take her on walks.
I’m grateful—but only up to a point. The truth is, after years of balking, I’ve come to savor my walks with Misty. As I watch her chase after a squirrel, throwing her whole being into the here-and-now of an exercise that has never once ended in victory, she reminds me that it’s the effort, not the outcome, that makes life rich. She reminds me, too, that no matter how harsh the present or unpredictable the future, there’s almost always some measure of joy to be extracted from the moment.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A most unusual adoption arrangement
One summer, hoping to be a role model for my kids, I volunteered at a local animal shelter as an assistant helper—in essence, a pooper-scooper.
Starting at 6 am, I bagged poop and hosed down dog cages. I remained on poop patrol until my shift ended at 11 am.
During the training orientation, I was instructed not to feed the dogs, as this task fell to the full-time senior staff.
I abided by these rules until a Monday morning in early July when I met Murphy. His 96-year-old owner Lila had passed away, and Murphy was found sitting beside her on the bathroom floor, head on her shoulder.
When Lila’s body was transferred to a stretcher, Murphy climbed aboard. Unable to reach next of kin, a kind EM T brought him to the shelter.
He looked exactly like a Labrador in every way, except he was a color they don’t usually come in: pure white.
My morning routine at the shelter always began with a cacophony of barks, growls, yips and yaps—your basic pandemonium. This particular morning was no exception. My canine friends acknowledged my arrival with a standing ovation.
Our newest guest didn’t budge.
I introduced myself to him. The rest of the crowd went wild. Murphy didn’t move.
I knew conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie.
The only problem was, I didn’t think Murphy was actually sleeping. I thought that, at best, he was ignoring me and at worst, he was really depressed.
That’s the moment I decided to break the “no feeding” rule. Grabbing a dog biscuit off the shelf, I placed it by Murphy’s nose.
He wouldn’t touch it. I pretended to leave the room.
He devoured it. I repeated this routine at least five more times. On the sixth go-around, I decided to stay. Murphy decided he’d eat.
More than three weeks passed before Murphy decided to take part in the standing-ovation segment of the morning.
After that, he was first off his feet and after that, I was hopelessly in love.
The end of summer was now approaching, time for the shelter’s annual “Adopt a Furry Friend” campaign. I made posters and greeted many of the prospective adoptive families. The event was a huge success!
Fifteen dogs were in need of homes.
Fourteen were adopted.
No one chose Murphy, and I couldn’t understand why until the shelter director explained.
“All the other dogs play the part. They work hard at making themselves appear adoptable. They allow themselves to be petted, they lick hands and faces, give out their paws and play with the kids. Murphy mopes. That is, with everyone but you.”
We lived in a condo with a no-pets policy. It did not seem fair. Murphy and I belonged together.
I knew that. The shelter director knew that. So we made an arrangement. I would be allowed to “adopt” Murphy. The only caveat: he would sleep at the shelter. I would provide love, nurturing, food and exercise. The shelter would provide, well, shelter.
And so Murphy and I began our unorthodox partnership. Every morning after I put the kids on the bus and before I left for work, I’d head out to feed Murphy breakfast, take him for a run and cuddle with him on a chair in the employee break room.
Dog treats and toys became staples on my weekly shopping list. Every afternoon, once the kids finished their homework, Murphy and I played Frisbee in the exercise yard and then stretched out on the lawn for a hug-fest before I left.
It took time, but I taught him how to keep a biscuit steady on his nose and not move until I said “Okay, buddy, chew!” He never cheated. Not even once.
Sometimes, on the very best of summer days, we walked to the park down the block and ran through the sprinklers together. He chased birds and ducks and geese and squirrels and little kids in wagons. I chased him.
Our love affair lasted nearly two years.
Murphy passed away quietly in his sleep. I was just one block away when it happened. I placed a biscuit by his nose. Murphy was the only pet I was ever privileged to have.
Some would argue I really wasn’t his owner because he didn’t live with me.
I would argue back that he did indeed live with me, in the most important place of all: my heart.
Cell Phone Lady
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
My golden retriever, four years old,
on the edge of a green, rippling
slopes into the deep end, but he stays
in the person of his patient owner.
and my dog stares as if at the current
down her neck, an elusive girl
What does one do with a sin-bedraggled
What can be said to convict
respect, even—for dogs who know
Culture: Stories & Lit
One lick at a time, a reformed Terrier helps the unemployed find reassurance.
Einstein greets my clients with an enthusiasm no paid receptionist could match. I mean, even if I paid a receptionist $100,000 a year, he or she wouldn’t give each client a big sloppy kiss. He then escorts the client to the sofa, sitting right next to him (if not on his lap) and bestowing another round of kisses. An occasional client prefers career counseling without a face-washing and eases Einstein off the sofa. Undeterred, Einstein assumes the position: head on the client’s shoes.
Sometimes, a client gets anxious during a session. After all, it’s not easy to discuss having been unemployed for eons and trying to land a good job at a time when they’re harder to find than a perfect (and cheap) dog-sitter who’ll stay at your house 24/7. When clients feel stressed, they often pet Einstein; if they were already petting him, they tend to speed up—a useful anxiety detector for me.
Einstein is also my stress management consultant; I’ll often snuggle up to him on the floor, nose to nose, and rub his belly. Thirty seconds of that makes anxiety a physical impossibility. He’s my fitness trainer as well. Without him, it would be too tempting to stay on my butt, but Einstein needs his exercise, so we take walks four times a day.
Lest you think Einstein is the perfect dog, let me tell you what he was like before he matured into a multitasking professional.
When I walked into the shelter’s adoption area, I was greeted in the first cage by a Pit Bull, who sort of snarled. I sped up. In the next cage, a Rottweiler retreated in fear. I walked on by. But in the third cage, a little white Terrier with a Poodle-y face stood on his back legs and pawed the cage, squealing: “Please take me out. Puh-leeze!” The attendant told me this sweet dog had been thrown over the fence into the pound’s parking lot in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, the shelter policy required My Doggie to stay there for seven days lest the owner decided to reclaim him. The nanosecond the pound opened on the seventh day, I phoned: “Is that white Terrier/ Poodle mix still available?” Yup. I jumped in the car and retrieved him. He jumped happily on me, then equally happily into the car. He didn’t, however, like our next stop—the vet, for neutering—quite so much. But he handled it without a hint of a growl.
Alas, while his trials were over, mine were just beginning. Although he was almost a year old, he still had a bad case of puppy hyperactivity on top of new-home anxiety. Within the first week, Einstein had eaten the only pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever felt looked good on me, and chewed a hole in three, yes, three, carpets.
And those weren’t the worst things. He decided to make a meal of my medication. The fact that it was in a sealed pill bottle didn’t stop my goal-oriented boy. He treated it like a chew toy. Alas, his reward was 20 pills. Off to the vet to get his stomach pumped.
But the scariest episode of all happened one morning when I opened the door to get the newspaper. Einstein escaped and tore down the street. I—in T-shirt, shorts and slippers—raced after him. While there are many turns he could have chosen, he picked the one that put him on the freeway on-ramp. I chased him up the ramp and, for the first time in my life, was grateful for traffic. Cars on the freeway were at a dead stop. Knowing Einstein likes being in the car, I yelled, “Someone open your car door!” Miraculously, someone did, whereupon Einstein jumped in and was saved.
Believe me, it’s all been worth it. Einstein is a beloved family member. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I care more for him than I do for most people. (I love him almost as much as my wife.) He’s a true member of the family, not to mention the world’s best receptionist, co-counselor, stress reducer and fitness trainer
Culture: Stories & Lit
Wherever scent blows, this hound goes.
He trots the trail happily, lapping the green
in the trough of wind—coyote scat,
of opossum skin, the bear’s
the swoon of smells his canine art,
this stinking world.
Culture: Stories & Lit
What We Do for Them.
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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie
For the past few years, my dog Chloe and I have been going south for the winter, staying in rentals ranging from cottages at artists’ colonies in Florida to cabins at spiritual retreat centers in South Carolina. I don’t pack lightly for these annual trips. Thus, I always hire someone to help me load my van.
“Just how many dogs do you have?” asked my most recent moving man as he maneuvered yet another large dog bed into the already overstuffed van.
“Just one,” I said.
“And how many dog beds do you have?” the man asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his head as though my answer made his mind itch.
“Creature comforts,” I said.
Yes, it’s true that my dog-to-dog-bed ratio is quite high.
But my girl is getting old. Although I don’t know her age for certain, nine years have passed since I adopted her, so she’s at least 10. Only recently has she started showing signs of old age. The clearest sign is that her new favorite thing in the world is sleep. And I believe that an old, arthritic dog who spent her early days lying on a concrete floor in a shelter deserves a comfortable place to sleep. The more the merrier.
Most of Chloe’s beds were freebies, by the way. One was a gift from a friend in the city who can’t resist buying things in bulk at Costco. (“A $12 dog bed! Can you believe it?” she exclaimed.) Two were hand-me-downs from another friend whose beloved Vizsla passed. The enormous thermopedic mattress came via Freecyle.com from a woman who couldn’t bear to throw it away. The final two were thrift-store scores. It’s easy to find a good dog bed if you know where to look.
At our New York house, I keep one bed in the master bedroom, one in the main living area, one on the deck (for optimal deer-viewing), one in the van (I took out all the seats, so it’s like a studio apartment in there), one in the office (where I spend the majority of my time) and one at our favorite English Setter Rainbow’s house (where Chloe frequently stays).
When we drive south for the winter, I take four of these beds, stacking them on top of one another next to the back passenger door, creating a rather precarious travel throne. Perched up there, Chloe looks like the princess in the “princess and the pea” story. I actually don’t mind dogs on the furniture, in case you were wondering. In fact, I welcome it. There’s something about a sleepy dog curled up on a chair or sofa that makes the house feel more cozy. More down-toearth. (“That’s because you have actual earth on your furniture,” my stepmother used to say.)
In my defense, I do like to keep some pieces of furniture dirt-free, so when I first adopted Chloe, I taught her which pieces were available for her use and which were forbidden. She has her own special corner of a very soft couch, and she is welcome to sleep on my bed at any time. I was dismayed, however, to realize that she only wanted to sleep on my bed when I wasn’t in it. Chloe, it turns out, is not a snuggler. This saddens me to a certain extent—I don’t know what happened to Chloe in her previous life that led her to keep her distance from humans; I don’t know what private sorrows she holds, or how her trust was violated. But I accept her needs. So if she prefers to sleep on the sofa in the living room, that’s fine.
The point is moot now, because Chloe is too arthritic to jump onto furniture. I see her approach “her” sofa, looking longingly at those comfy cushions. I watch the way she seems to ponder the situation, analyzing the amount of strength it would take to leap up and whether her current level of stiffness allows this. More often than not, she turns away and opts for one of her beds.
Yes, my girl is slowing down.
In the past, Chloe was always the first to wake in the morning. She’d trot into my bedroom and stare at me, tense with anticipation, waiting for me to wake up, too. The moment I opened my eyes she’d start her “happy dance,” running around in circles, leaping joyfully, trying to herd me toward the front door so we could take our morning walk. There, she’d press her nose to the crack, wag her tail and wriggle her whole body in barely contained excitement, as if saying Seize the day, seize the day! It was like this for nine years. In her feisty-dog opinion, I slept too much.
Things are different these days. Chloe now sleeps in the bedroom on that glorious thermopedic mattress she loves so much. We call it the Master Bed. I like having another being in the room—another beating heart asserting the continuity of life. Also, I’m now the first to rise in the morning. What surprises me is that Chloe no longer leaps to her feet when I get out of bed; instead, she remains on her Master Bed, stretching a little and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come to her to say good morning and give her a quick belly rub. It surprises me further that she remains on her bed even as I head into the bathroom or walk downstairs to the kitchen.
Chloe used to follow me everywhere in the mornings— from the bathroom to the kitchen to the refrigerator (for the French Roast), to the coffeemaker, back to the refrigerator (for the cream), back to the kitchen drawer (for the spoon). She didn’t relent until I finally finished my morning routine and followed her out the door. Now, instead of trying to herd me, she lies in bed and observes me from the loft—watching, listening, sniffing—alert, but still. She seems to have concluded that she’s not going to walk all the way down those stairs until it’s worth her while.
After nine years of cohabitation, Chloe has figured out my morning routine. She knows I can be slow to get out the door. She has come to expect that first there will be the sound of the refrigerator being opened, then the sound of a kettle being placed on the stove, then a bubbling of water, followed by the slight hiss of the French press and the smell of coffee. Then this liquid is poured into a travel mug. And so forth. With her keen ears and sensitive nose, she can predict things down to the minute. Once she hears the lid being sealed on the travel mug, she knows what will come next: the sound once again of an opening refrigerator door, that Pandora’s box of cold food smells, the scraping of a stew-pot being removed from the top shelf, and then me calling her name and saying that most special of words: “Breakfast!”
Only then will she spring from her bed, showing signs of the formerly spry Chloe as she scrambles—panting with excitement, down the stairs. While she gobbles her food, I finish my pre-walk tasks: pulling on boots or sneakers, grabbing a hat, searching for keys, opening the front door. Once she hears that sound, Chloe—with another burst of youthful enthusiasm—launches herself through the door.
But our morning walks are different these days. Chloe used to charge down to the river or to the beach (depending where we were), and I would follow briskly, trying to keep up. Now, in deference to Chloe’s arthritic pace, we walk more slowly. We amble, meander, mosey. There is a whole new set of verbs for what we do. Although I miss the aerobic factor of our previous morning walks, these slow ambles allow me to focus on the journey rather than on the destination. On the intricate beauty of a new day. Or the way the birds sound their individual sunrise calls. Or the way the mists rise off the river— as if all the elements of water, sun and air are conspiring to whisper ancient secrets, which one might come to understand if one listens. Or even the distant hum of traffic, which, in the morning, sounds peaceful and hopeful, as the human race tries once again to redeem itself through daily tasks.
Chloe, a water dog, used to spend hours in the water, chasing fish, harassing frogs, observing the ducks and herons in the distance. Now she wades around for 20 minutes or so— sometimes less—then comes and sits next to me on the shore. I like to meditate while she plays in the water. Now, we meditate together: two silent companions harmonizing ourselves with the motherly rhythms of nature and breathing in the water-scented air. It’s nice. It’s peaceful.
Recently, however, Chloe decided that this shoreline was not comfortable enough for her stiff old body, and actually started to head home by herself. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about having to cut short my morning meditation, but still. No matter how safe it is (the trails lead straight to the house), I couldn’t let her walk home unaccompanied.
As soon as we return from our morning walk, Chloe goes straight to her bed. This is another new pattern. I’m accustomed to a dog who runs in circles around the house, sustaining the outdoor sensation of a body in motion. I’m accustomed to a dog who grabs the nearest toy and tosses it into the air, clinging to the joy of having been outside. I’m used to a dog who then dashes into the kitchen to see if any food has materialized since her last investigation. So this new going-straight-to-bed thing is almost alarming. Especially when I haven’t even had the opportunity to give her a “thanks-for-coming-home” treat. Chloe’s former favoritething- in-the-world used to be food. Then swimming. Then her boyfriend Rainbow. Then me. Then sleep.
The bed Chloe chooses post-morning walk is the Office Bed, because she knows this is where I’ll be spending the remainder of the day. It’s one of those Snuggle Nests, plush with big bumpers so that I don’t accidentally roll into her with my office chair.
In Chloe’s younger days, my writing seemed to bore her; it was something she had to endure until our next walk. Sure, she would nap while I wrote, but it was a vigilant sort of sleep. If I so much as moved—stretched or yawned or shifted in my chair—she would spring to her feet in one swift, athletic motion and rush to the door, smiling at me with joy, ready for our next great adventure. In her mind, I was always on the verge of doing something fascinating. (This is a dog’s approach to life. We would do well to emulate it.) Most of my daily office gestures, however, are mundane. I might rise to make another cup of tea. I might pause to check my email. I might moan out loud, saying something to the effect of, “I should just give up on this novel and become a street busker.”
Eventually, Chloe figured out the signals. Rising from the office chair with a glazed look on face meant more coffee, not walk. Moaning about the uselessness of writing meant I was going to check Facebook, not walk. The real moment— the true and absolute sign of an impending walk—was (and still is) the moment I shut down the computer, snap the lid shut and click off the wireless mouse. That one tiny click was like a starting gun for her: she’d push herself up and hurry toward the door.
Now, Chloe sleeps so soundly that sometimes, she doesn’t even hear the click. It’s hard not to smile. A dog in repose conjures up everything sleep should be: restful, peaceful, soothing, safe, warm, comfy. She sleeps so deeply that she snores—a soft, regular snore that sounds like contentment. She often seems to dream as well. I like to watch the way her eyelids twitch and her paws flex. I like to hear her sweet, muffled woofs, which are always sounded in patterns of three. Like a metered poem.
I often wonder what she dreams. Most people assume that dogs dream of chasing rabbits, of leaping over streams, of flushing grouse. But perhaps dog dreams go beyond these mundane visions we humans ascribe to them. Perhaps in her dreams, Chloe visits other realms, alternate universes where all beings exist in harmony, where there is no violence, no suffering, no animal abuse. Perhaps this is the paradise she’s chasing—not some mundane rabbit. Perhaps this is why she used to do that happy-dance in the morning. She’s trying to tell me that such worlds do exist. I hate to wake her. But soon, it is time for our afternoon walk. I lean over and whisper her name. She opens her eyes slowly, unfocused. Then she looks at me, surprised to find herself once again back inside a dog’s body. Surprised, but not disappointed. This has been a good life for her.
Our afternoon walks used to be long, but now—by Chloe’s choice—they are short, especially if the weather is not to her liking. Sometimes she walks a few yards onto the grass, makes a quick pee, then immediately returns to the house and heads straight back to her bed. She’ll circle a few times, then settle down into the foam with a satisfied “oof.” Mission accomplished.
I, however, require more of a head-clearing walk at this time of day, so—iPod in hand—I go back out without her for a brisk power walk along the beach or through the dunes. It’s glorious. Spectacular. Rejuvenating. Refreshing. And yet it feels so strange to walk without my dog. It feels wrong. But I simply adapt to this new phase in my life.
Another new phase: it used to be that when I came home, Chloe was there to greet me at the door. We all know the drill—the happy dance, the joyful barks, the whines of relief. Chloe’s specialty was to grab a toy or a shoe and carry it around in her mouth, enticing me to chase her. These days, Chloe isn’t always there to greet me. She sleeps so soundly that she doesn’t hear me come home.
I must confess I have moments of panic when this happens. I rush through the house, searching for her (because I never know which bed she’ll choose). Seconds might go by, minutes, in which my heart beats more rapidly and I imagine the worst. But then I hear her footsteps and the clicking toenails and there she will be, at the top of the steps, wagging her tail slowly, her lips askew and her face all puffy from sleep, too lazy to come downstairs to say hello.
I rush up the steps to hug her. Her body is warm with safety and trust and comfort; mine is flush with relief. She licks my face and wags her tail, and I get the sense that she is trying to reassure me somehow. Don’t worry so much, she says to me telepathically. But I do worry. My dog is aging. That’s a fact. Her health might very well decline. Maybe someday, she won’t be able to walk at all. And I won’t be able to lift her. But you are here with me, now, Chloe says. We are together now. That’s all that matters. And when the time comes, you will still be with me. And I will be with you.
Then she goes back to sleep. And I go back to my work. Each is its own cure.
One of my favorite parts of my day is the end of it. (I don’t mean that sarcastically, despite my fluency in sarcasm.) What I mean is, I love to read in bed and I love my own thermopedic mattress. Late in the evening, after our final short peewalk, I’ll say to Chloe: “Time to go up to the Master Bed!” At that, she leaps up from her living-room bed and runs up the stairs as enthusiastically as she used to splash through rivers and tide pools. She’ll go straight to her bed, circling a few times and settling herself down with a contented sigh.
Before I get into bed myself, I lie on the floor next to her to say goodnight. I place my face right in front of hers, nose to nose, and whisper some endearment about how pretty she is. She sighs, not really liking such close proximity but tolerating it for my sake. I breathe in her breath. Sometimes she’ll thump her tail a few times, the sound muffled by the bed. Sometimes she’ll hook one paw over my arm and just hold it there. It feels like reassurance. And solidarity. We’ll stay like that for a long while, until I feel her pulse and she feels mine. Until the two of us are aligned.
Thank you, I say. Even though my life is chaotic and rushed and very often unsatisfying—even though it sometimes feels like a puzzle I can’t quite solve—I look at Chloe resting so contentedly and know that here is something I am doing right. Something about me gives this dog comfort. “If you want to feel safe,” the Dalai Lama once said, “help another being feel safe.” She falls asleep within minutes.
I personally don’t know any humans who sleep so well. There she is, snoring lightly, her chest rising and falling and her brown snout smooshed against a pillow. There she is, smelling faintly of sunshine and earth, with a mind uncomplicated by thoughts. Dogs don’t agonize over what they have or have not accomplished on any given day; they don’t worry about the additional tasks, hopes or goals they will not accomplish during the day that follows. No, they simply sleep, breathing in the oneness, breathing it out.
Chloe starts to dream, woofing and flexing her paws. I watch her with such love and tenderness I feel I might burst. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers her life at the shelter and all the nights she slept on a concrete floor. I wonder if those memories help her appreciate the marvelous fact that she now has six beds. But maybe it’s not about remembering or forgetting. We can forget and move on, or we can remember and move on. The trick is to not let those things plague us. We need only keep leaping through the meadows, running forever forward toward the next great thing.
Yes, my old girl is slowing down. So I will just try to slow down with her.
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