Monday, July 23, 2007

Footloose and Free

Becoming a "city" dog was a big adjustment for a dog who spent the first 11 years of his life chasing woodchucks in the soybean field. Since moving to California from our Ohio farm, Dodger grudgingly adapted to walks tethered to a leash. Feeling sorry for him, hoping he'd just nose around in the leaves at his feet, I once unhooked his collar when we were almost home from our evening walk. He was off like a shot.

A nice young man collared him just after Dodger narrowly missed being clipped by a car. As I rushed up to retrieve my errant canine, I apologized. "Every time I let him off the leash," I said, "he abuses the privilege." Nodding as he released him, the man said, "Don't we all."

Because Dodger had always enjoyed fetching a stick thrown into the pond and creek at the farm (he's part lab – and a host of other breeds), when we first moved to California, I took him to a nearby lake late in the afternoon, hid him behind a bush and unhooked his leash. Then, I pitched a green tennis ball as far as I could out into the water. Joyfully he brought it back to me time after time. Finally, weary, I told him, "One more time and it's time to go."

I threw the ball.

Dodger swam and got it – brought it back to shore on the diagonal and trotted off down the beach. No amount of whistling, promises of treats or threats of violence could dissuade him. He had his eye on a big black dog at the top of the hill. A legal dog on a leash.

As I rounded a bend on the walking trail, hot on his heels – an elderly man seated on a bench lifted his cane in an unkind way and said sternly, "Dogs have to be on a leash here." I lifted my guilty hand around which the leash was wrapped, said, "I'm trying," and kept on going.

I understood what was in Dodger's mind. Only a month before we moved, his best friend since puppyhood had been put to sleep when hip dysplasia left Bo no longer able to get up. The two had been inseparable for more than a decade. From a distance, to Dodger's aging eyes, the big black dog at the top of the hill looked like Bo.

Although the dog's owners were unfazed by Dodger's hopeful sniffing, I quickly attached leash to collar and led him to the car. And that was it. No more outings off the leash for Dodger.

We've played many a "bring me the ball" game in the confines of the living room, but, of course, it's not the same.

Recently, with Dodger sprawled in the back seat, I went to restock the bags of birdseed. First I stopped at the bank, and then decided to try a different route than the usual. The exploration drew me back to an area I remembered where, without Dodger, I had once stumbled upon an off-leash dog park.

I'd read about such parks. Most of what I read said the dogs and owners who use them are regulars, all know each other, and there are few to no encounters of the snarling kind. Not certain how Dodger would behave with a bevy of strange dogs, I hadn't chanced it.

The weather was so nice that I was in the mood to spend a little time outdoors. Cautiously I led him into the park – on a very tight leash. Boisterous smiling dogs bounded up, made his acquaintance and bounded off. The fenced in area even had a wide perimeter of woods and trails. After a few minutes, I turned him loose. I've rarely seen him so excited.

The young dogs seemed to understand that Dodger is a codger and didn't try to include him in their rough and tumble doggie games. The park was, though, littered with well-used tennis balls. As I gripped a gritty, drippy surface to throw one for Dodger, I thought, "yuk." Tennis balls thrown in living rooms stay relatively clean. This one, I couldn't let go of fast enough. In his limping gait, Dodger chased it down, picked it up – and stopped. Brow furrowed he promptly spit it out. "Bleghhhh!!" his expression seemed to say.

Mostly, he just meandered. In and out of the woods, occasionally wending his way back for a reassuring pat to where I was seated on a picnic table. While he meandered, I watched a large yellow swallowtail butterfly dip up and down across the open space, and a hummingbird buzz a nearby tree trunk, sipping out hidden moisture.

A dog loped up to an owner seated near me, leash in mouth, as if to say, "OK, let's go." I decided to retrieve my must-now-be-tired dog.

This time, Dodger made no move to lope away. Tired, yes. Tired, content and happy.

Today, my dear old dog, now 15, is living out the remainder of his life with a friend who manages a wildlife habitat in the California Delta. No more leashes. Free to roam wherever his nose may take him. A farm dog again - at last.

Carol Bogart is a freelance writer/editor. Read her articles at Contact her at

1 comment:

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