Yesterday my old dog disappeared.
And yes, this is where I usually come up with some cute twist on words, or tell a funny story about how my husband and I got our wires crossed and forgot the dog at the neighbor’s or some such thing. This time, though, there is no punch line. My dog is really gone.
As I said, she was an old dog. She would have been sixteen on Labor Day weekend. She was mostly deaf, mostly blind, and occasionally suffered seizures that made her fall over and twitch. Still, she somehow always knew when the younger dog Max was anywhere near, and was still able and willing to kick punk puppy butt.
She was a cow dog, a rodeo dog, never an actual house dog other than her quarters in the porch or garage of wherever we lived. We raised her ourselves, the last female of the last batch out of my husband’s best working dog, Squeak. It was inevitable that we would name her Pip. (Pipsqueak. Get it?)
My husband and I had each had dogs when we married. Pip was the first that was ours. She rode a hundred thousand miles in the back seat of our pickup, to rodeos all over Montana and the Pacific Northwest. Spent equally as many hours hunkered under the pickup and trailer, defending her temporary turf from any dog that dared venture too near. She never left that space, never had to be tied.
She despised the UPS man and children of any stripe but would have happily invited a gang of thugs in for coffee and divvying up of the silverware as long as they were all over the age of eleven.
She unequivocally refused to fetch.
Four years ago, when we first moved back here to the ranch, she was still a working dog. The second year she slowed down, and by the third she’d gone into retirement, rarely venturing beyond the front yard. My mother’s porch was her domain, not to be shared with upstart Border Collies. The shitzu, though, could be tolerated. Even protected.
Sunday night Pip left the yard for the first time in months. My brother finally found her the next morning, lying in the reeds in a swampy area below the house. They carried her up to the barn, fed and watered her. The minute they left, she made a beeline right back down to the swamp. When I got home Monday night they had her locked in the barn for her own good.
I gathered armloads of slick grass hay and made her a soft, fragrant bed, then curled up with her for a good long time. Petting, scratching, talking. Sharing memories. She was alert, angling her head this way and that to give me access to her favorite scratching spots. Growling if Max ventured too close. She drank. She ate. But her eyes had gone dull, her ears drooped, and overnight it seemed as if all the flesh had melted from her bones. I left the barn fully aware that it would probably be the last time I saw her alive.
The next day she was gone. Poof. Somehow she’d found her way the length of the barn, up a step, through a cluttered tack room and out a back door that had been left open a gap. Not a small feat for a blind, staggering dog. Once outside, she vanished into the acres and acres of waist high grass surrounding our tree belt and outbuildings. Every square foot my mother doesn’t mow is a veritable jungle. And it’s thick. I could search for days, walk within a few feet of a motionless dog and never know it.
I didn’t search.
There is a belief among the Navajo that when a dying person reaches their last moments they should be moved outside, where the spirits released by their final breath can dissipate into the air. My dog was of a like mind. She knew it was time to go and she was determined to do it in her own way. Her last vision was not going to be of a clothes dryer. Her last breath would not reek of Tide. She chose to walk away with dignity and die under the endless stretch of Montana sky.
Some people might wonder how we could not look for her. Subconsciously I suppose we will, everywhere we walk for many, many weeks.
I hope we don’t find her. I hope we never find her. I prefer to imagine she found a soft place to curl up, cradled by lush green grass, the smell of damp earth and sweet summer rain filling her lungs as she departed the body that had become a burden to her. A quiet fade into the soft haze of memory.
God speed to you, Pip, wherever you are. You were a damn good dog.
Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real