Yet Another Lesson

Our eight year old dog, Swirl, still has his balls.

He is called an intact male which seems odd to me because isn’t a male not neutered just a male? We’re not sure why he’s still intact but surmise it had to do with him being a sled dog – that being intact helped his running, kept him slim, or kept open the possibility that he could father baby sled dogs. Nobody said. We don’t ask the kennel because, after a thousand questions about Swirl’s siblings and races, we would be pushing our luck to ask why this particular dog, one out of two hundred, is intact and not neutered.

Anyway, after we got him in April, we took him to our vet. She said we should think about neutering him because it would reduce the risk of cancer in his balls. She didn’t say “in his balls.”

We debated this for a while. Should we let him be which was pretty much my preference or should we have him neutered which, oddly, was my husband’s preference, giving me the first real indication that he might be even more attached to the dog than me, or, rather, than I am attached to the dog, if you see the difference. Neither of us is prepared for the notion that we may outlive this dog. That’s deep.

So we decided to go ahead with the neutering. Today we took him to the vet for blood work. “He is the perfect dog!” the tech said when she brought him back to us. “So calm. He did everything I asked.” She went on to marvel at his looks, his personality, how friendly and sweet he was.

And then my husband said this and it has stuck in my mind all afternoon, how careful and perceptive a statement it was, how much it revealed about his love for this dog, after just a few months.

“One reason why he is so sweet and calm is that no one has ever hurt him.”

And he talked about his worry that the surgery and the ensuing pain might make our dog feel that he had been hurt and change him in some fundamental way. It hadn’t occurred to me until he said it, how profound gentleness had been in this dog’s upbringing. How profound it is in every creature’s life. And how rare it is at the same time.

We are so accustomed to harshness. So accepting of it. The harsh commands, the pulls on the leash, the shouts of disapproval. When we went to the sled dog kennel to bring Swirl home, the owner said this to us, “Just say ‘No Swirl’ if he does something bad, anything more than that will break his heart.”

I think now of my commands and orders and insistence with dogs and, if truth be told, with children. My extraordinary impatience, my need to control, my unintentional ability to make either or both flinch with my sudden moves, though I never did anything horrible to anyone. Sometimes I acted like I could not be trusted. I see that now. Because of this dog. He has been such a gift to this old woman.

Imposter Syndrome

This morning at the dog park I got irked by a man who wouldn’t keep his dog from trying to pick a fight with my dog. His dog was relentless, chasing, body-slamming, humping so much that my mild-mannered dog, Swirl, snapped back. He finally leashed up his dog and we split up on the trail.

Even while I was immersed in my aggravation, I realized that a few months ago I had a dog, albeit very briefly, who herded every dog he encountered, picked fights, pinned smaller dogs, and took running jumps onto the laps of people sitting on benches enjoying the sunshine.

How fast we forget.

I have been enjoying the sense of superiority enjoyed by a mother whose kid has never tantrumed in a grocery store. Other people might have awful dogs but I don’t. And, oddly, and pretty quickly, I’ve lost any empathy I might have once had for the owners of bad dogs. I only had empathy for people with bad dogs when I had a bad dog. Then we were in it together.

No more.

I’ve crossed over. I’m with the moms whose kids sit quietly in the grocery cart and sing songs from day care and never ask for candy at the checkout. I’m with the moms who shake their heads at the screaming two-year old in the next lane over grabbing gum from the rack and throwing it over his mother’s head at the old lady trying valiantly to smile and be understanding.

Never mind that I’ve had this dog for six weeks and he spent his entire life of seven years raised in a kennel with 200 other sled dogs so however well-behaved he is has zero to do with me or my dog handling capabilities.

I’m not going to let that small piece of history bother me. I’m going to act like I belong here – with all the other owners of good dogs. This is my life now. I’ve earned it after all those years at the grocery scrambling around putting the gum back in the rack.

Love is Patient

“Wait a year until you let him off leash. Wait until he really knows you’re his people.”

So said Tasha, the owner of the sled dog kennel where we adopted our big beautiful sled dog, Swirl.

He follows us through the house, looks back at us when we’re walking sometimes, not very often, comes when he’s called at the dog park his own way which is running toward us and then past to let us know he heard us but wants nothing to do with us, a lot like our kids when they were teenagers, never really taking off but never under control either.

We spent the weekend at our cabin on Lake Superior. There we were with the sand and the lake and the bluest sky, the one that only exists up there in the north, and we ached to let him go. Watch him lope along, no leash, no harness.

But we did what Tasha said. She hasn’t been wrong so far, we figured. She was the expert on all things dog.

Later in the day, coming up the driveway to our place, we saw a red fox leaping high in the beach grass, flying across our property like a swooping eagle. It was breathtaking. For us and for Swirl and had he not been at the end of a leash I was holding he would have torn after the fox and gone wherever the fox decided to go.

It wouldn’t matter if we called him back. He wouldn’t have come. We’re his people. We know that. But we love him more than he loves us. He loves chasing the fox he’s never met more than he loves us. And it’s going to be that way for a while.

Maybe a long while. That’s fine. We’ll wait.

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.