Outdoor Adventure: A dog with a wild heart
It is difficult for a single individual to walk three dogs at the same time. Three mild-mannered, well-trained dogs of gentle temperament and driven by a willingness to please might be doable. Small dogs without the muscle to pull hard or the drive to run wild; that might be possible. A threesome of pups of calm mindsets and milquetoast personas; yes. Three dogs such as I own: another story altogether.
The two older dogs, Riika, now 12 years old, gray-muzzled but with a wild heart, and Thor, at 10, with long legs and a marathoner’s stamina. Those two I can manage if, in fact, dogs can ever be managed. But add the third one, the year-and-a-half old Boston terrier, Fenway, and all bets are off.
Waking them on leashes is a risky business, with dogs going off in a starburst of directions; nylon leashes tangle legs, theirs and mine; a cat’s cradle of leashes; a fall is imminent. That or shoulders, mine, pulled out of sockets by strong dogs with a mind to chase.
Taking them out “off lead” holds more peril as the pack runs pell mell through the world ahead, scattering in different directions like a covey of grouse flushed in the fall woods. Following three dogs in the field is folly; frustration leads to anger leads to headache; the sound of my dog whistle fills the air like a wail of a lost soul.
The experience of going out with my trio is best not described in polite company and the best way, in fact, the only way to avoid the anguish is to simply walk no more than two, pick whatever duo you wish; things will be manageable. Or as manageable as you can hope for with dogs of strong will.
Once one works things out, dogs of strong will can be a joy. Riika and Thor are a little-known German breed, hard-wired to hunt and full of boundless enthusiasm for the task. Fenway, the Boston terrier, has no discernable potential in the field and one has to wonder, or at least I must wonder, what place in the dog hierarchy terriers fill. Too small to pull, too short-winded to run, too bug-eyed for close work in the brambles and thickets where grouse and woodcock lurk; one simply has to scratch one’s head when pondering the breed.
But Fenway, to his credit, grew of age with Thor and Riika and has taken on Thor as his role model in life, so for all I know, he thinks he is a hunting dog and who am I to disagree? Fenway follows Thor and I suspect, given his head, that he would do so in the field, too. I have the passing thought to give him a go this fall; he and Thor can go out and we can see what will happen.
Not now, though; not this summer. This summer it’s enough to take two out of the three into the woods. And that is how I avoid the teeth-gnashing agony of having to walk three dogs at the same time.
So on this evening, Sally takes Fenway for a walk in the neighborhood while I call Rikka and Thor. Let me correct that; I do not call them to me. I do not have to. I simply pick up their collars, each of which is belled, and when the first sound, however faint, of bell sounds the two of them come to me, eyes alight and quick on their feet, for they know that the sound of the bell on their collar means only one thing: they will go to the woods.
I worry for Riika; she shows her age and it saddens my heart to see it. Her muzzle and eyebrows are white now and her hearing is fading. This spring she tore the ACL in her rear leg and we had her operated on to repair it. She was slow to heal, limping for weeks, unable to weight the leg.
She got better; slowly, day by day. But she hurt and she was uncharacteristically short-tempered with the other dogs. We walked her some; took her to the lake where she swam but only a little and without enthusiasm. In the past weeks I’d taken her out, let her work a bit, run when she could. Afterwards, I would have to lift her into the truck; she could not push off on the leg.
This evening she looked at the open door to the truck and hesitated. I told her, “Up,” and she turned to me. I pushed her a bit and she jumped as best she could and made it into the cab.
We drove out of town, not too far, but far enough, to a place of some woods and water and no traffic.
Riika is never more alive than when she is in the field and on this night she jogs ahead, all legs in synch, no sign of a limp. After a hundred yards she slows and I catch up to her and Thor.
On a whim, I start to jog and Riika responds.
It is a quiet summer evening, but clouds are building and to the west, where the weather comes from, it is dark. The road is dirt and gravel and sand. I run and Riika runs next to me, running as she did before her leg gave out, running in the cooling evening, eyes focused ahead, nose flared, breathing steady. We run, my dogs and I, down to where the road curves along the edge of the lake, and then past that curve and down the road, farther than Riika has run since last autumn’s hunting season and still she does not slow down.
We run for minutes more and then I slow and she slows and Thor waits. I lead them to the lake; they wade in, lie down, cool off. But their eyes never leave me and when I turn, they leave the lake and we walk back to the old road. The two dogs course back and forth in the brushy cover, for they are hunting dogs and that is what they do.
Riika moves ahead, nose up, seeking scent. Dogs know no calendar season; every day is hunt season for them and they do not know that we are 45 days or more from when I can carry the gun.
She is old now and she cannot hunt forever; I know that, even as she does not. But on this night she moves like she did when she was young, full of life, moving hard and steady. I know she will hurt tomorrow when the leg stiffens with the effort, but for now she is a dog in full.
I watch Riika in the long shadows of sundown, watch her move smoothly through fern and grass and wildflower, watch her hunt and know her wild heart is content. When she runs, she has no age; the years have no weight. When she runs, there is no white on her muzzle; there is only the blur of movement. When she runs, she is like a young dog with years ahead of her and time, boundless time, and a world to explore and birds to find, and joy, sheer and absolute joy, fill her world.
And so she runs on this evening, runs in the haze of dusk, in the golden light of sundown, runs for the simple exhilaration of running, runs in the woods and fields she loves, runs and runs as if she could run forever, even as the thunder rolls low and heavy in the darkening skies to the west.
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