The life of a once-lost dog

Aging takes its toll on creatures both human and canine.

 

Beast in his youth, in Buena Vista, Colorado.
Courtesy Jane Koerner

I found him in an outhouse in April 2004. I opened the door and there he was, eager to exploit his unexpected good fortune. A tour of the campground produced no owners, only theories. “He barked all night, tied up to a tree. Someone must have cut him free.” “He chewed his way out. See that mangled rope around his neck.” The campground was within earshot of the highway. Perhaps somebody put him in the latrine so he wouldn’t get run over.

He followed me up the trail, though from a safe distance. When we returned to the parking lot, he watched me warily, retreating to the other side of the creek when I got too close. Two men in a pickup helped me catch him and wrestle him into the car.

“A rock chewer,” the vet surmised. “At least a year old.”  Those chipped teeth demonstrated impressive survival skills. Was he a runaway, an abandoned pup, or did he tumble out of the back of a pickup — a common occurrence, the vet said. I named him Beast, hoping to transform him into a Beauty.

On one of our first hikes together, in 90 degree heat, he disappeared. I shouted until my voice gave out. His frantic barking finally reached me from the dense scrub oak hundreds of feet below the trail. Afraid he had caught his collar on a branch, I searched for him. It was sunset when I got back to the car, bloodied from shoulders to shins. I would never find him, I thought. He would die up there of dehydration or predation, trapped and invisible in the treacherous jungle. He was probably unconscious by now, or half-eaten. Weeping, I reached behind the rear tire for my key. A wet nose grazed my hand; he had found me.

Since then, we’ve climbed nearly 200 mountains. He always makes the summit first. In his youth, he would grow bored with my pace and take off, turning into a dark speck on a distant ridge. He could bash through anything: willows so thick we needed machetes, marshes the size of golf courses. As we both age, we have to remember our joints. Now he stays in sight, looking back occasionally to gauge the distance between us, then waiting for me to catch up.

 

The author and her dog, Beast, on a hike to Grizzly Peak in the San Juan Mountains near Durango, Colorado, this summer.
Courtesy Jane Koerner

Beaver-like, Beast used to collect fallen aspens. Since losing three teeth, he has downsized to sticks. His Husky genes proved indispensable when we went cross-country skiing. Until the stiff hind legs of senior citizenship slowed him down, he could haul me, by his end of the leash, more than a mile uphill.

As the most successful toy thief in the county’s history, he accumulated a yard full of pockmarked Frisbees and deflated balls for his favorite pastime, Toss the Toy Until Mistress Can’t Take It Anymore. At the first sign of fatigue — I’m human, after all — he switches to a different ball, booting it with his nose perilously close to the patio door.

The pyramid of miniature plastic chairs and de-limbed dolls next to my garbage can testified to his larceny. One afternoon, a neighbor sent his 8-year-old son over to retrieve his missing toys. “Why do you take our toys?” he demanded, looking at me.

 “Don’t ask me,” I mumbled, pointing at the dog. “Ask him.” 

At age 13, my best estimate, Beast limps for days after a round of Toss the Toy. Within 10 minutes I have to hide the football, then the Frisbee, as he yips in frustration at my retreating heels.

This summer, we had to adjust to the recently diagnosed arthritis in my right knee and his hips. If we overdo it, I recline on the sofa afterward, icing my swollen knee while he snores like a locomotive at my feet. I have to shake him sometimes to wake him up. His eyes open, and in their mirrors my face is tender as I help him up.

We’ve also adapted our bedtime routine. I call him until a thunk -announces his awkward exit from the living room chair. Like my sideways steps on staircases to spare my knee, he has to accommodate the undeniable limitations of aging. His cataracts are probably worse than mine. Nuzzling my calf so he won’t lose me in the dim light, he follows me upstairs to the bedroom and his cushion on the floor. His nest on the bed is out of reach now.

One of these days, one of us might not wake up. I’ll probably outlive him, but it’s best to take nothing for granted. This realization has inspired another new routine; before switching off the lamp, I listen to the lullaby of his snorts, sneezes and sighs, its melody steeped in 11 years’ worth of memories. And I think: I should have named him Heart Thief.

Jane Koerner and Beast of Fairplay, Colorado, are confining their walks to gentle trails until she gets her kneecap replaced.

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