Pundit stank. Really really stank, especially in one spot along the side of his neck. It was too cold to use the hose in the back yard and I dreaded the amount of fur that would end up in our bathroom if we washed him in the tub. I never in my life have taken any of my dogs to be professionally groomed. Well, our neighborhood has a laundromutt, a storefront space where you can give your own dog a bath. For $20, I had a half-hour’s use of a high metal sink with a strong hose, warm water, an assortment of shampoos including “coriander,” “mango,” and “extra-sensitive”, various brushes and scrubs, and towels. I managed to get both dogs washed in that time, Pundit with a double scrub on his stinky spot. And afterwards? Their fur was so soft and fragrant! My bathroom looked just as it had before. I left all the mess at the store, there was nothing for me to wipe down or put away or rinse. There may be something absurd about a society in which this is a viable business–but taking my dogs to the landromutt made my day–even if the dogs were less enthusiastic:
What is the death of an old, beloved dog? It is an absence, it is silence instead of noise. There are no longer nails clicking across a wood floor or a bark when food delivery is delayed or a whine reminding of bed time or waking time, or eating time. It is the loss of a witness to the pleasures and pains of your daily life; more than that, it is the loss of a witness to your years, and what your years have brought you, what you have made of them and what you have lost.
When you think of that dog as your last dog, it is the end of an era of companionship, of having soft fur to stroke when things are hard, of having a wet nose thrust into your hand demanding a walk around the block when all you want to do is to pull the covers over your head. It is the end of an era of having a dog’s comfort when you need it, a dog’s joy to magnify yours—at coming home, taking a walk, or jumping into a cold river to swim. It is the end of an era of having a dog to care for who will be grateful for the care you give. It is the end of many hassles, but they are hassles you will miss every day.
My parents’ dog, April, died recently. She was very old and had been increasingly infirm in the last couple of years, and certainly they gave her a long and very happy life, so on one level there is nothing at all very sad about her passing. But we miss her.
Around the time my husband and I moved back to D.C., my parents, who also live in D.C., returned from the animal shelter with 20 pounds of flopsy mopsy terrier energy my mother named April. My mother thinks she was pure bred Tibetan terrier, and maybe she was. She was young but not a puppy when they got her, so we were never sure exactly how old she was.
That first year back in D.C., before my husband and I had Pundit, we would take April on walks in the woods with our dog Ubi and my parents’ other dog, Truck. Truck was a hound mix with a tremendously charismatic gravitas about him. He was calm and peaceful unless you tried to confine him—he would chew through any line attached to him—even metal—with manic determination, he once panicked in the car and chewed through both front seat seatbelts, although neither were confining him per se, and he took occasional forays from the house no matter how secured my parents made the fence. In his later years, after my parents had patched every hole he could wriggle through, he figured out how to open the latch on the back gate with some combination of nose and paw so that he could continue to take his jaunts through the neighborhood alleys. My parents attached a leash latch onto the gate latch. When the leash latch was hooked, he could not get the gate open, but whenever anyone forgot to put that leash latch back on after going in or out, Truck noticed immediately and off he went. Truck’s weak points only served to highlight an essential wild beauty within, and although you might laugh at his predicaments, the laughter was always undergirded with respect, even awe.
April, on the other hand, was a goofy ball of energy who, when she wasn’t killing any vermin she could catch, was just plain silly. Two early walks we took with her included one where she cheerfully waded through eight inches of snow in the woods until the snow balled around the long fur on her short legs and stomach to the point that she turned into a snow statue that could no longer move. We had to carry her back and soak off the snowballs in warm water. Another time, we were walking along a cliff high above Rock Creek when she leaped off it and tumbled into the water far below. We were gazing down at the water in horror when she popped out of the creek, scrambled up the bank, shook herself off, and started racing back and forth trying to figure out how to climb up to the narrow trail where we were standing.
Over the years, April took on different roles. As Truck aged and became increasingly infirm with arthritis, April became his companion and caretaker, checking on him, nuzzling him, curling next to him every night and licking his eyes and face clean every day. She took care of him until he was gone, and then she mourned, and then she became a calm and steady older dog who lived peacefully in my parents’ quiet house.
And then, as happens with dogs, April herself got old. For the last couple of years, she’d become increasingly ghostly, clicking around my parents’ house without fully acknowledging us, pooping wherever she felt like, walking only half way around the block and then only along the edge of my parents’ front yard. She became almost totally blind, and the last time I tried to walk her from my house, where she stayed for a weekend, I turned back after half a few steps because, not knowing the lay of the land, she panicked, and froze, and was miserable. At the same time, she happily poked around our yard that weekend. At one point, I couldn’t find her anywhere and finally found her down in the basement, down the rickety stairs that neither of my dogs will use, curled up on Truck’s old dog bed, which we had put out briefly in our dining room for Cholula and then abandoned in our unused basement until we got organized to get rid of it. I like to think that although Truck died nine years ago now, his faint scent on the bed lured her in her darkness down those basement stairs to curl up once again in the presence of her longtime partner.
For a dog who was a ghost of herself for her last couple of years, April still leaves a great hole of quietness with her passing. It is strange not to hear her nails clicking on the wood floors when we enter my parents’ house for dinner, or to watch for her coming through the half open swinging door between kitchen and dining room. Strange for them, I think, not to have to check with each other, “Did you put April out?”, to walk with her up and down the sidewalk in front of the house, to fill her bowl with dog food and keep her water bowl clean. They do see April as their last dog. For all her silliness, she filled the role admirably; she bore her best doggy witness to a part of their lives that, like most 17 or so year spans, had its share of worry and pain, but also joy and pleasure and excitement. They were well-lived years, and April, more than anything else, was there for every moment.
Pundit is fifteen years old. What’s that, 105 in dog years? When his hind legs slip out from under him at the bottom of the stairs or his leg floats behind him unnaturally as he walks around the block, it’s easy to dwell on all the things that Pundit can’t do anymore. Often, we have to impose his limitations; Pundit would play fetch until he couldn’t stand up, and so we only give him a few throws. Pundit would walk–slowly–until he collapsed, and so we have to decide whether to gear the walk to Pundit’s abilities or to leave him at home. Or remember, after he’s had a big day, to give him several days of rest. But for Valentines Day, I thought I’d catalogue what Pundit still does in his daily life.
He comes down for breakfast every morning to see what the chaos of three kids, five breakfasts, and three lunches being made will bring to the floor.
He hikes with the family.
He launches himself off his spindly hind legs into bed for the story. Through painful joints and fading senses, he fiercely dedicates each of his remaining days to his life with us, our brave Sir Pundit, Mr. P, Pundy-head, Pundy-Wundy, Pindo, Penda, Pandit. That’s what we got when we brought home a little scrappy ball of fur who had been abandoned in the woods 15 years ago.
If Pundit wasn’t a dog, I think he’d be a river otter. Scrappy, self motivated, and above all, playful. I was at the zoo last weekend with the kids. It was cold, even snowing a tiny bit, the best type of day to go to the zoo since almost nobody else goes. The river otters were out in the cold, doing what they do best–back flipping over and over into the water just because they could. Play river otters, play –
These creatures remind me, just as Pundit so often does, that it’s always worth it to go outside into the magnificence that surrounds us; and it’s always worth it to play.
Since the unbelievable Snowmaggedon of 2010, when DC was buried in two snowstorms and school and work were cancelled for what seemed like weeks and we sledded and skiied and jumped off huge snow drifts into our snow-softened back alley–and left one of our cars parked in its own mini snow drifts out on the street for several weeks– D.C. has had so little snow that the kids have hardly had a chance to make a snowman or even taste it. February is coming, and it sometimes snows in D.C. in February, but I thought I should grab the chance to celebrate the little bit of snow that fell last week before it fades from memory–especially when a fluke 70 degree like today leads us to shed hats and coats and boots and play in the sun in the park. So here are a few photos of the dogs experiencing the little snow of January — I hope that in this coming month I will get the chance to photograph the dogs bounding across snowy fields, or plowing through huge drifts carved out along the city streets, but these are still pretty, yes?
One day shortly before the holidays, I looked over from working in the study to see that the sun was casting a rectangle of light through the window onto the rug, and that Pundit had positioned his head and shoulders exactly in that rectangle and fallen asleep. Thank you, Pundit, for reminding us to grab the chance to sunbathe, especially in the winter, whether it means walking outside in the morning or at lunch, or just taking a minute to find and sit in the sunniest spot.
When we were up in Maine last week, we went to Popham Beach. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach in the summer, when we are usually up there, so Pundit and Cholula had never been. The kids, cozy in front of the fire, hadn’t wanted to go– “We don’t want to go to the beach when we can’t swim!” — My six year old went so far as to state, “I am NOT going.” Nevertheless, we all went. We got to Popham at low tide, when there is a tremendous vista of sand stretching to the sea, with various inlets of ocean curling along the hard rippled sand and a sand bridge out to an island that becomes covered at high tide. There were a few other people out, and a few other dogs, but by far the overwhelming sensation was of sea and sand. It was lunch time, and we’d even brought chips. But as my husband and I chose a spot and put down our blankets and sweaters and picnic items and opened the chips, the kids and dogs just ran. The kids tossed off their shoes and grabbed the dogs’ leashes and took off across the sand, wading through the inlets of cold water and running on and on, to the ocean’s edge and then along it.
What could my husband and I do? We ran after them. Pundit, our water dog, was tremendously excited to get to the ocean and stand in it and bark. Cholula–I hadn’t predicted how Cholula would feel about the beach. But the open vista where she could see a mile in any direction and the brisk breeze put her in a frenzy of joy. At one point she pulled her leash out of my daughter’s hands and dashed off towards the horizon along the sand. I was momentarily fearful we’d spend the rest of the day looking for her–but she heeded my call and bounded back and jumped on me, and from then on, she ran on leash with us, happy to go in any direction, at any speed.
The sea gulls ate our chips while we were racing around, and a bag of cookies too. But I would so rather be among the ones who drop everything to enter the glory of the moment than among those who stick with their plan, who guard what they have gathered, who hold on to what they have.
I just read Wallace, by Jim Gorant, subtitled The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls–One Flying Disc at a Time. In summary, Wallace, a pit bull, was rescued from a shelter by a young couple named Roo and Clara Yuri. Roo had hoped to be a professional soccer player, but by the time they adopted Wallace, he had given up that dream. Wallace, with his incredible drive and energy and problems with aggression with other dogs, as well as his breed, was considered a problem dog at the no-kill shelter where Clara worked and where she and Roo had gotten to know Wallace. In fact, the shelter personnel were initially uncertain that they would let Wallace be adopted. and he could easily have been euthanized. Instead, with Roo and Clara’s help, Wallace became a frisbee champion and ambassador for pit bulls.
I’ve never worked with a dog that was anywhere near as challenging as Wallace was described to be in his youth. Jim Gorant describes Roo’s handling and training methods in some detail. Some of them–in particular Roo’s ability to tap into and work with Wallace’s drive–are very aligned with natural dog training, others less so, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading that if only Roo and Clara had known about and been able to work with Wallace with natural dog training methods, they might have been able to save themselves and Wallace a lot of stress and trouble.
Regardless, the story of how a pit bull, with his heavy, muscular body and large head, ends up succeeding in a sport where lighter, more agile, swifter dogs usually win, through a combination of Wallace’s intense drive, Roo’s creativity, and the dynamic relationship between them is a fascinating story.
Two quotes: first, the Your Dog is Your Mirror moment: “Roo loved playing disc with Wallace. He loved how much Wallace loved it, and he loved how it showed that Wallace had been worthy of their effort to save him. … In a deeper way… he’d come to identify with Wallace. As a soccer player he’d been discounted and overlooked, too…. most coaches looked at him and saw only a kid who was a step slow and about three sizes too small and worte him off…. Roo knew about being prejudged based on appearances and assumptions and left for dead.”
The second quote I wanted to share is from Roo’s sometime training and competing partner, Josh. In addition to competing in singles freestyle events with Roo, Wallace also competed in pairs freestyle events with Roo and Josh. Gorant describes one of their early pairs competitions thus: “The music kicked on, the discs began to fly, and Wallace did the rest… As the routine progressed, Roo felt that sensation, that connection and singularity of purpose that had struck him during the earlier competitions. He could sense that Josh felt it too, and the three of them worked in perfect synchonicity, sharing an instant, almost nonverbal communication…. [Later, Josh told him] `That last round with Wallace… That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.’”
I’ve never competed in anything with my dogs. While some of my dogs have had athletic talent–Pundit was amazing when he was young, and who knows, maybe he could have competed in a freestyle competition–I’ve never had anywhere near the athletic ability to be able to carry out the person side of a frisbee routine. Nevertheless, Josh’s statement resonated with me. Some of the greatest experiences of my life have been moments with my dog. My husband and I moved to New Haven the same fall that my mother-in-law died very suddenly from cancer. We were grieving in the midst of settling into a new city, with new friends, new work, new routines. It was a hard fall. But we had our dog, Ubi, then in the prime of her middle age, who had happily moved with us from New York to Minneapolis to New Haven. I remember walking along some of the quiet Yale campus lawns in early night that fall and winter, playing ball with Ubi. I would throw the tennis ball into the darkness and watch her take off, following its arc until it disappeared in the night. Then I would see flashes of her working the field, nose to the ground, tail high in the air, until she honed in on the ball, grabbed it, and raced back to me so I could throw it again. We played night ball that year in a quiet, intense, joyful connection. It is one of my happiest memories of that sad time. Dogs offer that to us–you don’t have to compete at the highest levels of a sport, as Roo, Josh, and Wallace did, to experience synchronicity with your dog.
Finally, here’s a video clip of Wallace and Roo competing. Gorant does a good job of describing the intense quality of Roo and Wallace’s routines, but there is no subsitute for actually watching one. I like how this video (it’s easy to find more by googling ”Wallace the Pit Bull,”) highlights how Wallace races back after catching the frisbee with equal enthusiasm and speed as he runs out to get the frisbee, in complete commitment to the game. Gorant describes this as one of the key features that sets Wallace apart from the other competing dogs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1qXdfGXHKI&feature=relmfu
One day last week, I came into the house with five kids–5!–tumbling after me, shrieking and demanding snacks and complaining and laughing and dropping backpacks on the floor. Cholula had been standing at the kitchen window by the time we entered the yard. She watched us walk up the path, and she slipped through the door to greet us as soon as we opened it. But even after our first tumultous moments in the house, during which plates and bowls were put taken from the cabinet and put onto the table and the refrigerator door was opened and closed numerous times, Pundit did not appear.
This is happening more and more these days. I walked upstairs by myself and all the way to the back of the house to find him sound asleep on the floor of the girls’room. He didn’t wake at my footsteps up the stairs or walking down the hall’s wood floor. He didn’t wake until I touched him. Then his eyelids opened, his eyes focused, and he struggled to his feet to wag his tail and walk with me downstairs to join the party.
There is something so sweet about coming up on your old dog unawares. For so long they are your eyes and ears; you count on them to greet you at the door, to guard the house, to catch wind of any trouble long before you would on your own. And then, they are not anymore. When I walk up on Pundit at these moments–and I remember walking up on Ubi just this way years ago, when she would fall deeply and purely asleep in the middle of the path in the back yard–what I feel most strongly is a sense of sacred trust. This dog has grown old in our lives and now he sleeps. The moment lays clear our bond; I want only to protect him as long as I can, and in his deep and open slumber, he trusts that I will.