I looked up from my phone to see an empty yard.
Behind the shed, I thought.
That was Dakota’s favorite place to forage for forbidden foods. She’d find nuts that had been dropped by squirrels as they scrambled through the fir trees overhead. She’d sniff out droppings from the mice that ventured up from the woods nearby. She even ate dirt sometimes. Anything remotely edible. Occasionally, she’d luck out, finding a “treat” deposited on the ground the previous night by one of the neighborhood’s free-roaming cats. As the saying goes, one cat’s poop is another dog’s breakfast.
We each had our backyard routines. Dakota’s was to walk the perimeter counter-clockwise, scanning the ground by the fence. First along the right side of the yard, then underneath the trees by the back fence, and finally behind the shed. Mine was to sit on the step of the deck, scrolling through social media and checking email. I’d glance up at Dakota occasionally. If I didn’t see her, I’d call for her to come back into my range of sight. Our yard wasn’t huge, but it had a few hiding spots where she’d go to eat things she shouldn’t.
GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!
Sign up and get the answers to your questions.
“Dakota, c’mere!” I sang, in my usual cheery, perhaps slightly nasal, tone.
“Dakota, come here!” I tried again in a deeper voice.
Usually, she’d come trotting over upon hearing that tone. I labeled it my “man voice” and joked with my husband that Dakota was sexist because it was the only time she’d hear me. At nearly fifteen years old, she was a little hard of hearing—or maybe just selective about listening. She never missed the crinkle of a treat bag opening. But our backyard was an all-you-can-eat buffet for her, so it was harder to get her attention here.
Amused at the situation, I stood up and put my phone in my back pocket. I walked diagonally across the yard toward the shed. I smiled as I thought about the plan to catch her in the act of eating something she shouldn’t be.
I took careful steps, sneaking around the side of the shed. When I saw her, I’d throw my arms up, hop, and exclaim, “What are you doing?!” Then I’d tussle the fur on the back of her neck and we’d go back inside for a treat.
I rounded the corner of the shed. When I saw Dakota, my mood changed instantly.
She was lying down on the ground, with all four legs splayed out in one direction and her eyes looking up at me for help. I rushed over and lifted her to her feet.
This wasn’t the first time she’d fallen. She had a narrowing in her spine that caused muscle atrophy and weakness, especially in her back legs. She’d squat to pee on an uneven part of the yard and fall back onto her butt. I’d lift her up and take her inside to clean her up. She’d slip on a strip of hardwood in our house not yet covered by throw rugs. Then, she wouldn’t have the strength to lift herself back up. It wrecked me emotionally every time, and it didn’t get easier.
“You okay, puppy?” I asked, rubbing her side.
I stood there for a moment, hunched over and hugging her torso.
I felt stunned by sadness and guilt, and sympathy. I wondered how long she’d been lying there, helpless, waiting for me to come rescue her. Had she tried to get up? Was she in any pain, either from falling or from lying with her legs splayed out for that period of time? Did she wonder why I wasn’t helping her? What did she imagine I was doing that was more important? Why didn’t I go with her instead of staring at my stupid phone? Why hadn’t I realized yet that I need to stay with her all the time?
“I’m so sorry,” I said into her fur.
When I let go of her, she took a few steps forward. I watched her every move.
She lowered her head toward the ground, sniffed, and ate a piece of dirt.
Like nothing had happened.