I had an amazing dog—Sandy—a golden retriever/collie mix who never knew how to bark and had the attitude of Snoopy. When I’d throw a stick or a ball, he’d sit next to me and look up as if to say, “Well….now it’s over there.” We spent a lot of time at a state park in Virginia Beach and along the ocean. He’d run full speed down the sand but wouldn’t get anywhere near the water. This was right after Jaws came out and he would sit on the sand next to me, panting hard from running for an hour, and then look out at the ocean and say, “No, no way. Remember what happened to that black lab in Jaws? Gone. No.” Sandy was gentle. He would lay in the grass in the yard, and when two ducks waddled from the river to the patio, he would simply raise his head, sigh, and go back to sleep. Perhaps the scariest time happened when I was away at college. He ran out onto a frozen river and fell through the ice. Neighbors called to tell my parents that our dog was paddling in circles unable to claw back onto the surface. Thank God my brother happened to be around at the time, and he dragged the canoe over and paddled out, breaking the ice with the oar, and saved Sandy’s life.
All these decades later I still miss Sandy. He seemed more human than canine.
Scientists have discovered that the first animal we would call a dog lived about 32,000 years ago in Belgium and lived off a diet of mostly horse, musk ox, and reindeer, not as random kills but table scraps from their masters’ hunts. The dog resembled a Siberian Husky but closer to the size of an Old English Sheepdog. They must have been man’s best friend even then since the tools and jewelry were often depicted with dogs. Paleolithic footprints of children next to paw prints indicate the whole pet thing came about 26,000 years ago when the pooch would accompany his pal on hikes in caves or on narrow mountain trails, as protection against wildlife, perhaps.
One significant difference from today’s dogs–when they died, they became food. Today we bury dogs in pet cemeteries, backyards; we cremate them and build monuments. Schnauzers mostly die from kidney disease; when Great Danes die young it’s often from intestinal diseases; Goldens and Dobermans often get cancer. Larger dogs commonly have hip or joint issues prior to death. Heart disease is common. However, freezing your ass off in a rampaging creek bed during a deluge is surprisingly unusual, but it has happened. At least once.
I knew a couple when I was at Penn State, Ricki and George, who owned a manor house on a few hundred acres in central Pennsylvania and a penthouse in New York. Whenever they went to New York they called me to watch their house and take care of their dog. I’d stay at the estate and fill the birdfeeders, answer the phone and basically be there so burglars wouldn’t bother. Mostly, I’d feed and take care of their Old English Sheep Dog, Dilly Dally. Dilly Dally was an old Old English sheepdog, about sixteen. She mostly lived in the house but had her own large digs with a heated doghouse not far from the patio. She was Ricki’s, and Ricki made no apologies for spoiling the dog she raised from a puppy. When they first asked me to watch Dilly Dally, Ricki was insistent I dedicate my full attention to her furry child. No writing while Dilly Dally was awake. No talking on the phone unless the old dog was asleep in her house. No daunting about watching movies or listening to albums while darling little Dilly Dally wanted attention. That’s what Ricki called her, “My darling little Dilly Dally.” I called her Dildo; she still came when I yelled for her. They paid me well, left me full run of the house, and their only request was I took good care of their only child. Actually, Ricki expected that; George really couldn’t care less. Ricki wanted her pampered until she returned; George simply wanted her alive.
But one November I stayed at the estate for ten days, and one night it rained. I put on a raincoat and checked on Dildo and she was comfortably asleep and dry in her heated estate house, so I returned inside. But by midnight, the temperature had dropped to the mid-thirties and the rain hit hard. I was in the brick-floored den cooking tuna kabobs on the indoor fire pit, listening to music. Eventually I noticed the torrent, and when I walked out on the covered porch and looked toward the pen, I couldn’t see Dilly Dally. I called a few times but nothing. Finally I put the raingear back on and headed to the doghouse. She wasn’t there. Dilly Dally had disappeared. Damn.
I hiked about the house in fading concentric circles, moving up the trails, in the ditch that ran along the road and then out in the road past the thousand feet drive. I headed up the trails she’d walk with me in the morning as I filled birdfeeders and checked the property for problems. Everything flooded, the creeks ran rapid, and though it was the type of downpour one expects can’t possibly last long at that pace, this one did, for hours and hours. Rain fell like a stalled tropical storm, and I couldn’t find the geriatric Dilly Dally anywhere. At two am I called a friend to come help me look. Brian and I scoured the property in the pouring rain for another few hours. Eventually we settled back into the den, restarted the fire pit, and at about four in the morning cracked open some of George’s beer. We figured she’d show up in the morning, drenched and smelly like us. She didn’t.
Several creeks meandered through the estate property and ran full during the spring thaw and after autumn’s heavy rains. The night of the storm found the creek careening over its banks and rushing past trees and small creek bridges. I walked about at six am and pulled sticks and fallen branches off of birdhouses and birdbaths, and when I paused on a small bridge which led back to the yard near the house, I heard whimpering. The water flow made it difficult to determine from which direction the cries came, but it didn’t take long to know it was certainly the weak sounds of an animal. I focused past the prevalent pounding of water and found Dildo beneath the bridge, against the side of the creek bed, half her torso beneath the rushing icy November water.
Old English sheep dogs are heavy, particularly when the back half of one is frozen solid and sits like dead weight. I wrapped my arms around her waist-like part of her body and while she kind of pulled at the creek-bed with her front paws, I carried the rest. We fell several times and my foot kept slipping and a few times I went completely in the creek. I had to sit on the bank and slide down into the water at her head, but when I did I dislodged the poor girl’s only grip and we both dropped into the middle of the water. At that point I simply pulled Dilly Dally away from the shore and floated her down creek to a bend beyond the bridge and heaved her again by holding her hind legs and rolled her onto the soaking ground. I picked her up from behind while she dragged herself with her front paws, and we made it to the patio and eventually inside the den where I collapsed onto the brick floor. I moved her to the fire pit and lit a fire for us both. She shivered with some dog version of hypothermia and threw up on the bricks.
I grabbed a stack of towels from the bathroom and covered her up while drying her off. As I rubbed she licked my hands, though her eyes were little more than slivers. Dilly turned her head toward me as if to say, “Sorry. What now?” I called the vet and left a message for an emergency call back. I pet Dilly’s head and got her a biscuit but she couldn’t eat.
The phone rang as Dilly Dally rested.
“Hi Bob it’s Ricki!”
“Is it too early to call? We’re at Penn Station and I wanted to call before we boarded. We need to stop at the store on the way home from the train station there. Does my girl need anything? Food? A new toy?”
“You know, probably not, Ricki.” I had about five or six hours max.
I dried Dilly Dally a bit more with a towel, but her eyes kept closing and once in awhile I would lift her hind end to make her stand but she’d just fall each time, paralyzed; the poor girl was frozen, her legs numb.
She took a deep breath and wheezed but not loud enough to be heard.
I no sooner hung up with Ricki when the phone rang and it was the vet. I told him the whole tale. He hung up to head over.
They kept a book about the care of Old English Sheepdogs on the corner shelf and I lay on my back next to Dilly and read to her. “Let’s see what it says about a frozen ass, shall we? Hmmm. Nothing. But, it does say you like to be the center of attention and if you get enough you’re friendly and loving but if you don’t you get a negative temperament and your health deteriorates.” I looked at Dildo who rolled her eyes toward me. “Says you won’t bark a warning if something is wrong, but it also says you’re extremely devoted.” She looked at me again as if to say, Well, that’s true.
“Says you’re a good herder, especially of sheep. Says you’re good with kids. Says you love to play and frolic.” I stared at the poor girl a long time and told her, “Well, you’ve got two old owners, no kids and no sheep.” She put her head down and sighed. “Yeah, sucks,” I said. Her hind had stopped shivering but when I poked her harder low down, she didn’t flinch.
The vet pulled in and after a brief examination he said he’d take her with her. “You going to be able to help her when you get to the office?” I asked as we lifted Dilly Dally into his van. “I’m not so sure, Bob” he said, discouragingly. “She’s old and this isn’t her first retreat into the creek. Does Ricki know what happened?”
“No, but she gets in later today.”
I don’t know if he said or I thought he said, “Well you killed her dog she had for almost two decades, asshole,” but that was floating in the air as he drove off.
About an hour later Dilly Dally died.
After I hung up with the vet, I walked alone filling the birdfeeders. I swear some birds seemed surprised Dilly Dally wasn’t there. Cardinals, house wrens, finches, titmouse all flew to the feeders after I’d moved on to another. The woods were wet, still swamped from the storm, but fresh. I could see my breath and the sky was blue and clear. Earlier reports indicated snow that night, but it didn’t seem so now. I finished the trails and walked to the house.
That afternoon, the car came down the driveway. Ricki and George pulled to the far side since my car faced out closest to the house, and Ricki headed immediately to the pen area. George came to me and asked how things were going while Ricki peered into the heated doghouse. She walked toward the other side of the house near the gazebo where Dilly Dally would sometimes linger on sunny afternoons.
“George. Dilly Dally’s dead.”
“She’s at the vet.”
He spoke in a hard whisper. “What happened?”
I told him everything, after which he thought quietly then said, “Ah, you know during bad storms she always hides under that bridge.”
“That’s important information, George!” I said. “I probably should have known that.”
He touched my arm and apologized to me, which threw me, of course, since the dog died on my watch. “Bob,” he said, looking back toward Ricki, “You might want to go home now. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Not everyone is good with dogs.
Some guy in British Columbia ventured out one morning to find his dog frozen inside a block of ice shaped like a rubber bin on his front lawn. The dog is standing looking forward, like the ice age hit him without warning. The man was arrested for animal cruelty. In Wisconsin some poor overweight Border Collie lay on a sidewalk in front of his home and froze there for several days. He was okay, but animal rescuers poured warm water on him to free him from the cement. When the owner was told what happened, he said he wondered why he hadn’t moved from the same spot for a while. He was arrested. The dog lived because he happened to be obese and the fat saved him.
Ricki called me the next week and said the vet told her Dilly dying anyway, and she would have been suffering quite soon. She said they had decided to head back to Manhattan to avoid the quiet there without her Dilly Dally but asked if I’d please stay for a few weeks to simply watch the place.
I did, and each morning I’d walk the trails to fill the feeders, and I’d stand in the morning cold and listen to the quiet, but it was simply too quiet, absent of the small shake of her collar, the click of her nails on the patio.
But that’s not the point. And the dog dying isn’t the point either. The point is Brian. The moral is companionship and trust. I called him well past midnight and he got up, drove the half-hour in pouring rain through hilly country roads to the house and then walked about in a storm looking for a dog which not only wasn’t his, it wasn’t even mine.
I have friends like this. I know people like this, people who will not only give you the proverbial shirt off of their backs but have consistently made me want to try and be a better person. I’ve been lucky throughout my life to have friends like this.
I saw Brian recently and as soon as we met again after nearly fifteen years, it was as if I saw him the day before. True friends are like that; it’s very doglike. The real friends, the kind that know who you are and the ones to whom you can’t make excuses about anything because they know you too well—those friends—as the years go by and time rolls like water under a bridge, they’re all we have.
They’re all we need.
My close friends live too far for such a swift journey as this pilgrimage we find ourselves on. They’re 800 miles west. 300 miles north. 600 miles south. Maybe that’s why we get attached to our dogs. They’re there when we get home, waiting, panting. Sure, it’s food and a walk they’re after, but still. Their love for us is unwavering. They don’t care about what mistakes we have made; the don’t give up on us. Ever. True friends–both canine and human–keep us going.