Walk Away

We had a red cocker spaniel named Rusty. We had this dog for a long time, from before I was born until I was nine or ten. And then she disappeared. My dad said she just walked off. She was very old, he said, and that’s what dogs do, go off somewhere to die.

That seemed strange to me and I wondered why no one was looking for Rusty. We lived on a dirt road, in a working class suburb of Detroit on the edge of a farm field which would catch fire every so often and we’d all have to run over there with our shovels to beat down the flames and ashes.

So I envisioned Rusty mindlessly leaving our yard and walking across the farm field, maybe all the way to the creek where sometimes I went to sit in a cave I found, just an indentation in a little hill with an overhang thick with moss and tiny ferns.

When my dad said Rusty had wandered off to die, it had a finality to it that I couldn’t argue with. After all, he knew Rusty a lot longer than me although I never heard the story of their meeting. My dad wasn’t a dog lover so there must of been something special about Rusty. Maybe my mom wanted her. I knew that Rusty had had puppies and that she and her puppies were put in the window of my dad’s auto supply store where people in our small town gathered to watch. What is cuter than a dog and her puppies? Nothing.

No one was ever mean to Rusty in any way, so don’t go thinking that my dad tired of her in some way and put a pillow over her face or dropped her from the car on the far outskirts of town knowing her cataracted eyes couldn’t negotiate her return. He wasn’t like that. He was too busy working to be mean to anybody, even a dog. He had decided it was futile looking so we didn’t. None of us.

I don’t remember grieving about Rusty. We might have. Or maybe not. My folks had a fatalism about them that was contagious, working its way around the dinner table faster than the mashed potatoes. She was there one day and the next she was gone and that was all there was to it.


There were 200 dogs in the dog yard. Each one was tethered to a raised wooden platform with a big plastic cylinder that worked as a doghouse. Each dog’s name was on a sign on his platform, some had sleds parked in front. The platforms were arranged in rows that mimicked the rows of trees at the end of the yard. The sound was wild and deafening and weirdly joyous, the dogs leaping on to their platforms, barking, jumping down, each dog more handsome than the last. We were at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Michigan, deep in the woods of the Upper Peninsula. We were there to pick up our new dog, an about to be retired sled dog named Swirl.

Dog Yard at Nature’s Kennel

“I’m going to unhook him and he’s going to take off,” said Tasha, the kennel owner, and then she yelled “Dog loose in the yard!” All of this happened before it sunk in that we were standing in front of our new dog. Swirl bounded off his platform and headed for the driveway, the woods, the kids, the car, the puppy yard, and back. He was huge. Probably twice as big as I’d imagined him, having watched a ton of sled dog racing. He was a big, beautiful, exuberant dog.

Swirl at Nature’s Kennel

Tasha told us about him. He was born in a litter of four. As is the habit in mushing kennels, litters have themes. Swirl’s litter’s theme was bread. So there is Pump, Rye, Hallah, and [Cinnamon] Swirl. Later, driving home, we looked at the paper with his family tree and saw that his grandparents were dogs owned by Iditarod royalty – Deedee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey. Back even further was a great, great grandparent from the kennel of the first woman to win the Iditarod, Susan Butcher. But Swirl had never been an Iditarod dog.

He raced some but he was mostly a touring dog. Teamed up with eleven other dogs, sometimes in the lead, sometimes not, he took tourists on rides through the forests around McMillan. And he was happy doing it, Tasha said, until he started to look less excited about going. Oh, he still joined the team but he didn’t have that sparkle and so she decided it was time for him to retire. He wasn’t having fun anymore.

We walked around the driveway, talking about Swirl and what he was like. Sweet, gentle, friendly, totally trustworthy with children and other dogs. “You will never have to worry about him.” This was great because I’ve done plenty of worrying about dogs I’ve owned. And then she said this, “You just have to say no to him. Anything more than that and you’ll break his heart.”

He had been raised that carefully.

It shows. He trusts people. He’s not afraid or shy or aggressive in any way. He is quiet and sure-footed, able to nap anywhere. He’s gone from sleeping in his dog house on top of a wooden platform to sleeping on the rug next to our bed. He seems to sleep a dreamless sleep, he may have yearning for the dog yard but it doesn’t show. He seems at home here, as at home with us as we are with him. Our dog. His people.

The Next Day

Of course, I come in my office, sit down at my desk, and there are two Milk-Bones sitting here.

I’m waiting for the Cardinal to appear in the tree outside. Or a row of pennies leading me down the back steps. Not really.

I don’t believe in signs, angels, spirit animals or any of that stuff. Other people do and that’s fine. Who am I to say?

My dog died yesterday while I held her muzzled head. The muzzle was a precaution, a needless one probably, this dog was never a biting dog, but she didn’t like folks messing with her legs and, well, that was part of the deal. The vet listened to her heart not beating and then she reached over, unbuckled the muzzle and slipped it off. She told us to turn out the light when we left.

So we left, just minutes later, and that was that.

I gave myself the day to feel pretty bad about it and the day is just about done. I figure there will be days and weeks of missing her, thinking she’s coming up the stairs to sit with me here, coming for those two juicy Milk-Bones.

I’m thinking of doing a dog wall with all our famous dogs – Davey, the Doberman-Husky puppy bought right after we got married, Jack, the regal Samoyed I got as a graduation present and a consolation prize, having just found out I couldn’t have any more children, Tiny, the crazy, furiously loyal blue-eyed Australian Shepherd-Collie who was the last dog at the Humane Society, BowWow, the pugnacious, profane Bichon, brought home by my husband for a ‘sleepover’ that lasted 13 years, and, finally, Minnie, my son’s sweet dog who grew too big for efficiency apartment living and turned up here one fine afternoon. “Mom, can you take Minnie?” “Sure, for how long?” “For a while.” It turned out to be a long while.

I made the mistake of anthropomorphizing the last two dogs, giving them personalities and voices in a series of Minnie and BowWow conversations published on this blog. It was fun but made them seem more than dogs so letting them go was much harder almost like I’d not have been surprised to have them actually utter dying words to me.

In thirty-five years together, we have had no more than two or three months without a dog in the house. And a couple of those months were dead of winter months of great unhappiness, hollowness, that were made better, mended, healed, by the joy of a new dog.

So now we’re without a dog but we aren’t unhappy or hollow but our house is empty and rambling with just us but it will soon be real spring and time to start over with a new dog. That’s what we do in spring, yes, start over. It’s what life expects of us.

Slow Walking

We have another dying dog here.

Our beloved Minnie is on her last legs. She stumbles going around corners and down stairs, her back legs weak and spindly, sometimes going in the direction opposite her destination. It’s awful to watch.

On top of that, she has an ever-increasing dent on the right side of her head, the consequence, the vet said, of some neurological event which paralyzed that side of her face. As the muscles in her head and face atrophy, the dent deepens. She is still beautiful, this dog, despite all this.

Our old girl has an aura of patience and forbearance, tolerance and peace. And loyalty. She will always find where we are and lie down. She will wag her tail at the prospect of a walk and so we walk around the block slower than one might with a baby just learning to take her own steps.

So we are wrestling with the prospect of putting her down which we know we have to do and probably should have already done because we are treating her the way my grandmother treated her 99-year old mother, smoothing all the creases from her wrinkled sheets every twenty minutes.

A dying dog is a sad thing. But there are 10,000 sad things on any given day. This one is hardly the most tragic, it’s just the culmination of the relentless passage of time which, I suppose, is itself tragic if you’re in a mood to think of it that way.

I miss the young Minnie, the Minnie who ran on the beach and could fetch a stick in Lake Superior’s waves and bring it back to the shore holding it in her mouth like a cigar. I loved that dog, that fearless, quiet, sweet dog who swam in water just freed from the spring ice.

Who are we talking about here? You or the dog?

I don’t know what you mean.

You’re old enough to know that old dogs die.

Of course. It’s not my first rodeo.

Maybe it is. I guess it’s all about how you think about it.






Unbeknownst to Me

My dog has a dent in her head about two inches long and an inch wide and I never saw it before the vet pointed it out this morning.

“She has partial facial paralysis,” he said, adding that was why her left eye was red and oozing. She couldn’t completely close her eye so it was dry and irritated. The facial paralysis meant that the unused muscle on the left side of her face had atrophied, hence the dent.

I’ve lived with this dog for 14 years. She lies near me pretty much wherever I am. I talk to her, I pet her beautiful head, I hold her face in my hands. I never saw her dent.

Is this how it happens?

You think everything is fine, life is okay, adequate, maybe not spectacular, but fine, and you meet up with someone who hasn’t seen you for a long time and they right away notice the massive dent in your head?

I’m afraid to go out.

Dog Days

Today was a better day with my new dog, Romy. I didn’t get head-butted putting on his leash. I can still feel the result of yesterday’s crash if I move my fingers along the bone under my eye but there’s no bruise. So it can stay our little secret.

The task really is to tame him. At first, it was to give him a home. Then it was to keep our older dog from being hectored to death. Now it’s to civilize him and help him find his place in the world order. We can’t let him be a crazy shit dog because we feel sorry for his poor beginnings because, who knows, maybe he was born in the backseat of a Cadillac and ate poached eggs every morning. I’m not going to assume.

He was a decent citizen today, good for long stretches of time, sometimes even sleeping in the same room with the ancient Minnie without going after her hind legs. But then a switch flipped and he ran like a deer through the house, leaping from the stairs, jumping high enough to look me straight in the eye. We went for our second walk then where he immediately found a half-eaten sleeve of Ritz crackers (yesterday it was a champagne cork) and carried it like a small mouse for half a block. He will give things up which is amazing. I figure if his world order includes me as the pack leader I need to be in charge of what goes in his mouth. So far, he’s agreed.

I’ve never really thought about any of this stuff before. We’ve had five dogs and they just sort of lived here, driving us crazy and then getting old. We yelled at them not to do bad stuff which they did anyway until they got bored with themselves and then they just laid about unless it was time to go run on the beach. This dog is different. I have to out-think him. He is too intense and smart for a laid back upbringing. We’ll wake up one morning and find he’s taken the keys to the truck and gone back to Alabama which we have kind of wished for but not really.

99 New: It’s a Dog’s Life

As grief-stricken as she might have been, our old dog, Minnie, also seemed liberated by the death of her long-time companion and frequent oppressor, BowWow. For years, BowWow, a smaller dog by half, exercised his dominance over her as the alpha dog. He stood over Minnie as she rested on a bed or a blanket or a space of earth on the planet until she got up and moved to another spot. It didn’t need to be a prime spot, an especially cushy or warm spot, it only had to be the spot she had. His mission was to make her move from her spot. For no reason. Just because he could.

I tried to intervene. I yelled at BowWow and told Minnie to stay where she was. Stand your ground! I shouted. Sometimes I grabbed the smaller dog by the collar and took him to another spot to lie down, a nice comfy bed on the other side of the room. But BowWow returned within seconds and continued his silent, oppressive standing over her until she moved, a big dog slinking off to find a cold spot while the smaller dog curled his satisfied self into a ball on the warm spot she’d just vacated.

When BowWow died, I watched Minnie shake off her learned inferiority. She slept wherever she pleased. Because she was old and stiff, we often threw a big comforter on the floor of the living room for her. We turned the TV on when we left the house so she wouldn’t be lonely and soon seemed to replace her regular meals with snacks from the cupboard and our plates. She took to sleeping in, sometimes needing to be rousted at 9:00 am, a sign that she’d left the days of BowWow-mandated early rising behind.

You know where this is going, right? Romeo, the new dog, spent an hour in his new home being sheepish and deferential, well, maybe a day or two, but quickly grew into his 13-month old balls. He has perfected the warm spot steal and is working, not very subtly, on muscling in on Minnie’s food bowl. Minnie stands back now from the stairs if Romeo is going down or up, doing that standing aside and looking at her nails thing that women do when they want to convey their superiority in an environment where they are being trampled, like, oh, I meant to stop here in this nice out of the way spot so all the guys could hurl themselves down the stairs.

Don’t let this punk intimidate you, I want to tell Minnie but she has already gone back to the land of deference. We intervene to try to teach Romeo decent manners and to keep Minnie safe, mostly she steers a wide berth around him, finding spots that he doesn’t want to claim as her own. She is a big, old sweet girl, precious to us but no revolutionary. She has no interest in living up to our feminist dreams for her. She’s just going to keep living her dog life the way she has for twelve years, doing whatever it takes to have some peace in her world and get a decent nap. That’s her right, I guess. Or her lot.