Not a secret: I really love my dog.
Also not a secret: My dog is kind of a jerk.
I never had dogs growing up. My mother isn’t a fan of any animals bigger than a breadbox, and if they tend to drool or make noise, any hypothetical fondness goes right out the window. We had cats (one at a time) and my sister and I were allowed to have hamsters, but those big fluffy things that wag their tails a bunch and need to be walked outdoors on a regular basis? Not a chance.
That said, I’ve always liked dogs. I’ve always had friends with dogs, and despite my mother’s rather subtle attempts to sway me to the anti-dog camp, dogs have always made me feel warm and fuzzy and pretty great. When I started dating the husband way back when, I won’t lie: his family’s adorable golden retriever was a big plus.
But until the husband and I adopted Sammi, I’d never really had the full dog owner experience, and holy goodness, it was a wake-up call.
Dogs, for those of you who don’t know, are nothing like hamsters or cats. First, they are much larger. (Note: Apparently there are in fact some breeds of dogs that are cat-and-hamster-sized, but I don’t really consider these to be dogs so much as dog-shaped…things.) Due to being much larger, they can be much more insistent about the things that they want, whether those things are food, or that piece of cardboard you’re holding, or BALL BALL OH MY GOSH MOM THAT’S A BALL I NEED IT RIGHT IMMEDIATELY NOW.
Dogs are also, and this calls back to the size thing, rather strong. Sometimes, this strength is a very good thing, as it means that if you choose to, say, wrestle with them on the floor, you don’t have to be totally panicked that you’re going to break them. Unfortunately, this also means that if your dog sets its sight on something that they want (see above), they’re often quite capable of taking you to that thing, usually rather forcefully. Especially if that thing is a squirrel. Or a bird. Or a crumpled plastic bag that might be hiding some kind of squirrel-bird hybrid war machine.
Owning a large, stubborn, energetic dog has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, with one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever experienced. Overnight, I went from being able to do just about whatever I wanted on my own schedule, to being completely focused on another being that was totally dependent on me for food, bathroom breaks, affection, and safety. My time wasn’t really mine anymore, I was planning my days around walks, cuddles, feedings, and playtime. Goodbye uninterrupted days at the coffee shop, hello more disemboweled squeaky toys than I ever thought I’d ever own.
Shortly after Sammi joined our family, I posted here about the things she taught me almost immediately: the importance of patience, the process of learning tolerance, the need for kindness in times of frustration and stress. A year later and a half later, Sammi has come a hugely long way in her training, and I like to think that I’ve grown leaps and bounds as a dog owner, though I’m sure it helps quite a bit that the husband now spends more time at home, and pet parenting is much more egalitarian. Sammi can now sit and wait patiently when she’s told to do so; she no longer leaps instinctively at every new dog she meets; she’s even learned that jumping on my mom is an absolute no-no.
Unfortunately, the one trick that Sammi is still stubbornly refusing to perfect is perhaps the most important one: to not bolt out an open door–or, if she does, to come right back when she’s called.
I’ve been told by many a dog owner and vet that hunting and herding breeds are runners by nature, and are just about always delighted to go for a run when given a chance. When you get a dog as a puppy and it knows from the time it’s itty-bitty that you are home base and it should always come back when you call, that running is a bit more okay, and those are the dogs that you can train to be off-leash because in general they just want to hang out with you while you do whatever you’re doing. In contrast, older adopted dogs with strong prey drives and stubborn temperaments are far more likely to go for a joy-run if they see an open door or a hole in a fence, and far less likely to trot back to you the second you call for them, unless you’ve done some seriously intensive training with them.
File under: Things you don’t generally learn until your wily hunting breed has gone for many a merrily independent adventure.
Sammi’s escaped a few times over the course of our time together, sometimes by her craftiness (a.k.a. Shawshank Redemption-ing herself right out of our yard) and sometimes by our screw-ups (a door not latching properly, or one of us failing to instantly close it behind us when we left through it). Each time it’s happened, we’ve always gotten her back fairly quickly–defined here as within an hour–though rarely without considerable panic, worry, and run-throughs of every possible worst-case scenario that could befall an innocent puppy bounding through the Big Bad World. And each time it’s happened, Sammi has been in great spirits when we’ve finally caught her, usually damp and happy and wagging her tail as we, tearful and relieved, snap a leash onto her collar. And why wouldn’t she be? As far as she’s concerned, she’s just had a great time! She ran around super fast! She played in mud! She met another dog or five! Mom, can we go again?
This past weekend, it was a different story.
My husband’s parents have a lovely home out in the Hudson Valley, a beautifully rural area of New York State, full of farms and forest and hills and nice cows and horses you can pet if you happen to be walking near one of their pastures. While the husband was working, Sammi and I took a roadtrip out to visit the in-laws, as well as their two dogs. Also visiting that weekend were my brother- and sister-in-law, their super-adorable six-month-old son, and their new dog, Yogi. Lots of potential for cuteness. And also, apparently, potential for disaster.
I’ll be honest: I’m not entirely clear on the details of how Sammi got past my brother-in-law and out into the world. I was in the dining room at the time, and all I know is that one moment she was in the house, and the next minute, she was bolting across the street and everyone was panicking. I threw on my shoes and grabbed the first leash I could find, and took off across the fields after her.
Here’s a thing you should know: Sammi is very, very fast. And I…am not.
We kept track of her for a really long time, which was actually kind of impressive. Sammi is fast, and her color lets her blend in with natural surroundings really easily. She wears a collar that jingles quite a bit, which helps, but generally we’ve found that if we lose sight of her, we’re screwed unless she comes back into view. Which, usually, she does. But not this time.
This time, we lost sight of her when she bolted through a swamp and up a hill, rounding a corner and disappearing while we were still struggling through swampy reeds after her. Brother-in-law and I shouted and made kissy noises to our heart’s content, but Sammi was just…gone.
The next three hours became a blur of hopeless driving, phone calls, flyer-making, and despondently sitting on the floor of my in-law’s living room, valiantly trying not to have a complete and total breakdown. (Moment of pride: other than one panic attack in the bathroom, I actually kind of succeeded.) I cuddled my little nephew a lot, but mostly I just sat around and thought, miserably, about my dog.
I’ve never pretended that Sammi isn’t, from time to time, an extremely frustrating pet. She’s much stronger than I am, and our walks often involve me sharply jerking her leash at least a few times when she lunges at something with enough strength to jerk my arms out of their not-so-competent sockets. She can be loud as hell, even if I have a migraine (sometimes it seems like she’s especially loud when I have a migraine), and still has a nasty habit of eating our books and pillows if she gets too bored, hence why she’s not allowed in bedrooms anymore when we’re not home. She likes to hide our slippers under the couch, she’ll whine for food in her bowl even if she already has some in a Kong toy, and she always seems to be sitting in the exact spot of the couch that one of us wants to curl up in to read or play a game.
But guys, Sammi is also my baby. Sammi is my baby in a way that none of my other pets, hamster or cat, have ever been. Sammi looks despondently out the window at me, even if I’m just going out to check the mail or put something in the car. Sammi curls up on the couch with me when I don’t feel well, and licks the tears off my face if I’m crying from anxiety or a particularly bad fibromyalgia pain day. Sammi wags her tail happily when I come back into the bedroom after a shower, just because she missed me. Sammi interrupts my typing when I’m working on a blog post or a story because I’m not petting her enough, and my writing slows down because I’m too busy scratching her behind the ears. Sammi lays her head on my shoulder when I’m sad, and is always ready to bounce herself into party mode if I’m excited. Sammi is my crazy bouncy moose dog, and as the hours ticked by on Saturday without a phone call from a Good Samaritan getting my number off her collar, the terrifying idea that Sammi might not be found started to feel like an overwhelmingly horrible reality.
In the late afternoon, as my sister-in-law was out walking her dog Yogi, she caught sight of a familiar wagging tail. Sammi, covered in mud, brambles, and thorns, had come into a neighbor’s yard where their small dogs were outside playing, and recognizing her for the lost pet she was, these wonderful neighbors lured her in with rice cakes and clipped a spare leash to her collar. They were just contemplating what to do next when my sister-in-law came up their driveway to let them know that she knew this lost pet, and would love to bring her home.
Guys, I have never been so happy to get a phone call in my life.
For the first time, Sammi came home from an adventure not happy and tail-wagging, but muddy and exhausted. She came through the basement door and just about tackled me to the floor, and then, once I toweled her off, spent the rest of the night (and all of the next day) curled up by my side and just about refusing to leave. She gave me big sad eyes as I carefully plucked the brambles from her fur and whimpered when we even more carefully eased thorns out of her skin (and because of her dense fur, we’re still finding them embedded in her, which is awful). For my part, I’m perfectly happy to have her in needy-snuggly-moose mode, because it means I know just where she is: exactly where I can see her, and in arm’s reach.
Everyone’s heard that old cliche about not appreciating what you have until you lose it, and guys, I came so scarily close to finding that out the hard way this weekend. I don’t often give preachy advice at the end of my blog posts, because I find it super annoying, but seriously, take it from me: take some time this week to think, truly think, about the things in your life that you take for granted but would miss like a hole in your heart if they disappeared. Maybe it’s your cat who changes their food preference every week but curls up and purrs next to you while you read a book. Maybe it’s your parent that nags you about your homework but drives you to your doctor’s appointments and holds your hands if you’re scared. Maybe it’s your partner who can’t load the dishwasher correctly to save their life but never fails to brighten your day with a fresh cup of coffee or a kiss to the top of your head.
And maybe it’s your dog, who drools all over the place, wakes you up with her barking, eats all your stuff, and has taught you more about unconditional love than anything else in the world.