The Prodigal Dog

By Erica Eisdorfer, May 2020
unleashed dog hiking

I live in the suburbs of Piedmont, N.C., but we also own (so far, the closets of) a little house in the Great Smoky Mountains. Our house is on a low mountain, or “knob” as the folks around here like to say. Granny’s Knob is what it’s called. We may, in fact, live in Granny’s house, as ours is by far the oldest and shabbiest on the road, but it’s fairly snug except for the stinkbug problem. But, as I’m not the type to let the perfect lie in the way of the good, we’re pretty happy with it.

Down in the suburbs, we have a fairly sizeable fenced-in back yard, which our Akita mutt uses to full advantage. She’s a fine dog. We found her as a little bitty thing in a box of pups in front of our local food co-op. The dude who was trying to find homes for the puppies had been stymied at the shelter, due to overcrowding. A huge puppy mill—the sort that generates lap-dogs—had been busted in the next state over, and the shelters for a couple of hundred miles around were full to bursting with traumatized Pomeranians and Malteses. So there was no room at the inn for these little Akita mutt puppies. Thus: the box in front of the co-op.

One of our daughters chose her from among the litter, and we took her home. We named her Pumblechook, after a character in Great Expectations. It’s nice to name your pets after minor literary characters, who are often beloved of their authors and need a little time in the sun. Pumble likes the sun plenty but, sad to say, doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain. Her coat is very thick (Akitas were bred to fight bears in the snow country of Japan), so when she gets wet, she’s wet for days. And when she blows her fur? There are not enough lint rollers in the world.

I take Pumble on walks, but her leash makes me sad. Leashes, while necessary in the suburbs—especially for Pumble, who wouldn’t mind eating any dog smaller than herself—are restrictive. Dogs are sorta ultra-refined wolves, right? And wolves like to run free.

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For many years, I’ve entertained an elaborate fantasy about taking her off the leash; what would it be like? Would she stick around? Would she frolic and smile? Would she immediately bolt? Another of my daughters had a rescued Husky who spent every waking moment trying to get away, despite the fact that my daughter treated her like a visiting ambassador. Take the Husky to the dog park? She’d ignore the other dogs and patrol the fence line like an obsessed prison guard. I thought maybe Pumble off the leash would act similarly; she has been known to escape our back yard and officiously wander the neighborhood, the hair on the back of her neck at full stand.

You hear about how amazing a dog’s sense of smell is; how remarkable, their hearing. If that’s true, then what about all those stories of dogs getting lost and then found 1,000 miles from home. Lack of intellect? Lack of loyalty? Looking for better chow?

Up on Granny’s Knob, I decided to make my fantasy reality. I put a baggie of cheese in my pocket and off we went, sans leash. Pumble was amazed. Her eyes were wide; her breath came fast. We set off up the mountain. She ran ahead 10 feet, looked back, trotted 10 more feet, looked back. I called to her often and toasted her return. She began to run farther ahead, looking back to either (a) make sure I was with her, or (b) wonder why I wasn’t chasing her down.

But she stuck with me. Day after day, we’d go out together leashless and walk the mountain. Once we found a possum skull. Often, I sang. One day, for a couple of hours, I helped my husband haul logs. Pumble ran around, happy, until she came to a spot so extremely steep that she couldn’t get up the slope. She was obviously worried and, as she’s getting on to elderly, I decided to help her, though I, too, am getting on to elderly. At any rate, in a Laurel-and-Hardyesque maneuver, I climbed down the slope and pushed her back up by her rear end, while Dave hauled her by her collar. “We saved her life,” I declared. Dave snorted. And while I’m fairly sure she could’ve found her way all by herself, a doubt lingers: Pumble’s awfully nice, but she may not be the sharpest tool in the box.

One day, toward the end of our stay, I veered off the path and got totally bogged down in what mountain people call a “hell,” which is a nigh-impenetrable cage of mountain laurel. Once in, you can’t really get out. I mean, you can, but it takes fortitude as well as the adrenaline that comes with panic. While I was fighting my way through, I caught the look in Pumble’s eye. “Oh. My. Lord,” she seemed to be saying. “Come ON.” I’m not sure, but I think I saw her shake her head at my predicament. Then, with a final glance, she disappeared completely.

Back at our house, Dave stood staring into space, axe in hand. “I lost our dog,” I announced. “You lost our dog?” he said. I nodded. He put down the axe and walked up the road some, calling. About 10 minutes later, Dave and Pumble returned together. I gave Pumble the rest of the cheese in my pocket and praised her, my good prodigal dog. Then I made lunch for Dave.

Tomorrow, we go back to the Piedmont, back to the leash and the fence. But until we return, Pumble (and I) will live with our memories. Do dogs remember like that?

Erica Eisdorfer is the author of the novel The Wet Nurse’s Tale. Her short pieces have been published in a motley crew of journals. She reviewed books on NPR for many years. She’s been a bookseller for a couple of centuries. She lives with her husband and their new dog Cindy (short for Cinderblock) in Carrboro, N.C. Pumble recently passed on to the great-smelling dog park in the sky.