The Official Website of Richard Reilly
Richard's WritingsRichard's Writings > Misha Stories
"Misha Has a Swim Date" and "Misha Finds the Path Home"
Through Misha's eyes, we had a chance to see the world for the very first time...
Misha was born in the shelter, and had only known a world of heavy wire mesh and newspaper scraps. Her litter mates had all been adopted by the time we found her, and her mother had been adopted shortly after giving birth to the litter. The shelter workers suspected she had been adopted by the same man who had tossed her over the fence into the compound, too stingy to pay for the birth and deal with the shepherd-mix puppies.
Being born in the shelter, Misha had never seen the sky, or known the feel of the wind on her face, or stepped in a mud-puddle. On that magical afternoon when we first brought her home, we too were able to experience the world as if for the very first time.
How amazing it was to follow her down the street and watch her take in each new experience. Here was the rough concrete sidewalk; next to it was the soft and furry grass - how different one felt from the other under the tender pads of little puppy feet. A blue jay lifted suddenly from a nearby branch! We saw Misha flinch, frozen, amazed that such a thing could lift itself higher and higher into such vast emptiness, growing smaller all the while until - blink - where did it go? How bravely she started off again, pointedly ignoring the tree limbs waving gently in the mild breeze, hearing the growl of a car engine coming up behind us but not quite knowing what it was she heard, hearing it reach us and pass on by, tied somehow to the huge behemoth that glinted in the sunlight as it rolled down the quiet suburban street.
She was on the lightest of puppy-weight leashes, but I don't think she realized she was fettered in any way. We stopped when she stopped, and we moved when she moved. She tasted a puddle flavored with mud and crumbled leaf and didn't find it unpleasant. We came to a curb and spoke to her for the first time. I don't think she remembered we were walking behind her. We said, "Waaaaaaaait," and pushed her little butt down into a sitting position. Then, "Okay!" and together we all briskly crossed the street. On the far side she leaped up over the curb and onto the sidewalk plateau, and we praised her and gave her a morsel of sliced turkey. That was the first of a ritual we were to repeat a million times, every time we came to a street corner, a ritual we repeat faithfully to this very day, eight years later.
Misha had never known love, and she had never been held, though we could tell wriggling fingers had often reached into the cage for her, and she was timid about such motions. So we held her on our laps, and stroked her soft brown puppy down, and rocked her to sleep, and it was a delight to do so. I think she was feeling warmth for the first time too, the warmth from our bodies. She had a soft sleeping bag that was all her own, but of course she preferred the soft, warm comfort of our laps. This was a pup who loved to be loved! She lapped it up like water from her bowl. She rocked with eyes closed in love's deep embrace with deep sighs of contentment. And we, who had known the love of two wonderful dogs prior, felt our hearts grow even larger with love in return. Drink it in, little one, drink your fill and there will still be more for you. Always more for you.
She spent her first night with us in our bed. Some people are aghast to hear this, but it's true. We had partitioned the kitchen with removable barriers, thinking the linoleum floor would offer obvious advantages in case of accidents, but when bedtime came we decided to put it off just a little bit longer. We cuddled with Misha on the bedcovers, and I think we intended to shift her to the kitchen when she fell asleep, but we fell asleep first and forgot all about moving her. And to our amazement, when we awoke a few hours later we found nothing unpleasant awaiting us. Just Misha, her little black muzzle and tiny brown body snoozing alongside us on the bed. I got up and made her go outside with me into the night air. I waited, and she waited with me, wondering what I was waiting for. It was a mild night under the moonlight and I looked up at the stars, absurdly giving her "privacy." At length, I scooped her up and took her back to bed again. And since that very first night she has never had an accident, somehow knowing to wake one of us if she felt an outside visit was necessary. Maybe it was all those months in a cage with nothing but newspaper for absorption, I don't know, but she already knew about waiting until she got "outside." Incredible.
When she was old enough to mix with other dogs, we took her to the beach. In Santa Cruz we are fortunate to have a beach where dogs are allowed off leash from sunrise until 10 am. It is down a set of steps and completely surrounded by cliffs, a perfectly safe setting to let them all run wild together. Sea otters peak out from the surf at their four-legged brothers on the shore. At first Misha stayed right by our feet, watching the older, larger dogs romp and play. She would venture out a bit, and then quickly retreat again. I don't think she had been allowed to play with other dogs at the shelter, and all this furious activity was a bit overwhelming. And then she noticed the ocean. She broke away from us and toddled over the soft sand to take a closer look. With a lump in our throats, we watched her approach the waves, ready to leap like superheroes to her rescue at a moments notice. The green and white swell surged up the wet, hard-packed slope, paused for a few moments, and receded again. It curled into itself and came at us again, paused and fizzed for a long moment, then slid back down again. Misha chased the surf down the slope, stepping into the receding green water to taste it, tickled by foam on her nose. Then the water roared and boomed and started to rush back in - and she ran with all her might into the waiting arms of her mom. She was having a grand time, but we were nervous wrecks. Some people threw tennis balls into the surf for their dogs to fetch, but she had seen quite enough for one day. No point in giving her ideas before she put on a few pounds and inches.
We returned to the beach every Saturday and Sunday and she grew to love her aggressive play with bigger and faster dogs. We stood with the other "parents" with coffee mugs in our hands, chatting while we watch our "babies" charge up and around and sometimes careen right into a pair of human legs. "Sorry!" But everyone knew, and smiled. That just came with the territory.
Misha Saves My Life
Holding on to her leash, Misha pulled me up the hill to the rescue waiting at the top...
The presence of a canine companion is often cited as a reason why people live longer, but in my case my dog literally saved my life.
I have asthma. I keep it under control thanks to a daily application of medicine, but asthma symptoms can be brought on by exercise, and without access to what they call a "rescue inhaler" it can swiftly progress to such an extreme state that one can literally gasp to death. One terrible morning, such a thing happened to me. One Saturday my wife and I, and our shepherd-mix pound-puppy named Misha, drove up to the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) to take in the view. UCSC is nicknamed The City on the Hill, but it is hidden within a redwood grove and looking up from Santa Cruz you only see trees and pasture land crowning the top of the hill. It's a beautiful spot, and provides quite a view. The city lay at our feet, and beyond one could see clear across Monterey Bay to Pebble Beach.
Below the lookout are more trees and pastures running all the way down to Santa Cruz itself. From the crest you can spy cows and horses running free in the golden fields below, and there are hiking trails that run all through the area. On impulse we decided to follow one of the trails down into the woods below and "be one with nature" for a while. In retrospect, it seems a foolish thing to do, but at the time I thoughtlessly charged down the slope with nothing else in mind but a fun time, and Misha ran ahead of us to take the point, as usual.
She was having a grand time with all the new sights and sounds, and especially the new smells of the forest. To a dog each new scent is a book, and she pranced ahead of us, happily reading.
After a while I began to wheeze from the exertion. I carry a rescue inhaler in the pocket of every jacket I own, but to my dismay I found this inhaler was empty. I wasn't too alarmed. I knew if I stopped moving and concentrated on exhaling completely, I would catch my breath again. It's not just a question of fighting to take in sufficient air, as most people assume, but rather a need to empty your lungs of enough stale air so you can inhale a deep lungful of fresh air.
The wheezing persisted, but I concentrated on each breath in and each breath out, and I began to level out. But we had a choice facing us now. Do we take the long way downhill, make it into town, and perhaps take a taxi home? Or do we take the shorter but more strenuous climb back up to the top of the ridge, where I might - just might - have another inhaler in the glove compartment of the car? We decided to try for the car and the possibility of immediate relief.
We had veered off to the left through some fields, and now we had to take a path back through the woods and then up the slope again. The path through the woods didn't appear to be on an incline, but my lungs told me they were working harder than they would have on a level surface. I got to the point where I could walk only a few hundred yards. Then I had to rest and try to catch my breath again. Soon I was ready to walk a few hundred yards more, then stopped to rest again. My breathing was getting worse. It was harder to gulp in enough air, and panic began to set in. I was in the middle of nowhere and there was no way to contact help. My wife declared she would go on ahead and fetch the inhaler from the car, then return to me on the path.
Misha knew something was wrong. She kept me company while I waited for my wife to return, and I stroked her furry neck and tried to reassure her with my eyes, but I couldn't muster enough breath to speak to her. After a while I felt steady enough to carry on up the path again, and together we set off. The slope was getting steeper, and I had to pause more often to catch my breath. And then my wife returned to me. Bad news. There was no inhaler in the car. She was going to climb back up, drive home, and fetch back one from a supply we keep in a desk drawer. I was to remain calm and wait for her.
She climbed the hill for a second time, and Misha and I waited down below. Again I concentrated on each breath in and out, and with rest I was able to take in more air and felt a bit better. And then it dawned on me: I had a leash tied around my waist, and a sled dog by my side. Misha could pull me along the path!
I tried not to beat myself up for not thinking of this sooner. Instead, I smiled confidently (for Misha's benefit?), hooked the leash to Misha's collar, and gestured for her to proceed me up the path. She seemed to understand what I needed. She pulled me along the path and I allowed myself to be pulled along, working myself much more gently than before. I thought to myself ruefully that I was undoing a whole lot of training today, letting Misha pull on her leash like this, but with that knack that intelligent dogs have she seemed to understand that this was a very special occasion. I whistled to stop her, and paused to rest and catch my breath again, then we continued.
At last we reached the bottom of the final grade. The crest could be seen a few hundred yards up the grassy slope. But it was the steepest part of the entire climb as well. However, thanks to Misha, I was exerting myself much less now, and felt better, and after another rest period decided to give the slope a try.
"Ready girl?" I wheezed. "Let's go!"
She pulled like a champion, like a sled dog out of a Jack London story, and I allowed her to pull my full weight up a pretty steep incline. I trailed along behind and put one foot in front of the other, but it was Misha who was doing the man-size share of the work, and she kept on pulling. I wished I had her in a harness instead of a collar, but regrets were useless now. On and on we climbed, closer and closer to the summit, and suddenly we were there!
There is a bench at the top for people who want to admire the view, and I immediately collapsed onto it. Misha lay nearby, panting. After a short while my wife drove up, amazed to see us waiting for her, and handed me the rescue inhaler. Two puffs, and soon the elixir did its magic, and my breath began to return to normal. I explained to my wife how Misha had helped me climb the slope and she was praised again and again.
Misha had hamburger for supper that evening.
Misha Hits a Car
It is every parent's worst nightmare. You look away for a second, and she is gone...
In Santa Cruz we are fortunate to have a beach fully enclosed by cliffs, where dogs can run off leash in the security of a completely protected setting. The parents mingle together and occasionally check on the whereabouts of our pups, while chatting and sipping coffee or simply staring out into the infinite space of the vast Pacific Ocean. The dogs meanwhile race each other up and down the beach, in and out of the surf, while kongs and tennis balls fall among us like random, harmless missiles.
Across the coastal road is a large, wild tract called Lighthouse Field. Wind-blown spruce cling to the coast with crabbed and tortured branches twisting away from the sea, and the gray skeletons of mighty trees are left to lie and rot and shelter the small creatures who remain in hiding when the dogs are out. Both the beach and the field allow dogs off leash from sunrise to 10 am, and my wife and I are there faithfully with our shepherd-mix pup named Misha every Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine.
There is a nice collection of people who gather every weekend with their dogs, a large bunch of "regulars" who generally identify one another by the names of their canine companions. "Oh look, here comes Buddy's mom." We start off on the beach and wander up to the field, or visa versa, greeting one another as we pass like flocks of calling birds in migration. Someone even built a website in tribute to the dogs and their parents, called Lighthouse Field Dogs. We have Christmas parties, with donuts and pastries and thermoses of coffee, and of course treats for the pups, and on Halloween we have a party and most of the dogs come in costume. Corny, perhaps, but oh so sweet. Everyone enjoys these alfresco parties, and you are free to contribute to the feast or not, but all are welcome regardless.
Misha was not quite a year old when she had her first Christmas party at Lighthouse Field. The turnout was especially large. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and mild, for Santa Cruz never really gets very cold, not even in December. Someone had set up a folding table at the "crossroads" and everyone had brought treats for the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds. Kripsy Kremes were the new sensation that winter, and everyone eagerly wanted to try this or that donut and see what all the fuss was about. The "crossroads" were the intersection of the two larger dirt paths, where clean-up bags were provided by the city and where one could post a sign asking people to help find your lost dog, or announce an upcoming Christmas party. There was a large expanse of dormant tundra between the crossroads and the coastal road, and dozens upon dozens of dogs were romping and chasing and rolling and splashing in orbits around their parents.
Misha loved the aggressive play. As she put on weight and neared her first birthday, she could give as well as she could take, and she didn't mind a tumble in their rough and ready play. She would nip and run away and wait expectantly, and if they didn't chase her she was just as happy to chase them instead. We watched them romp and sipped our coffee and compared jelly against cream as the preferred filling for donuts, and I turned away for a moment to reach for a paper cup of orange juice. I honestly need to say that I noticed Misha was out of my sight before I heard people exclaim that a dog had been hit by a car. My eyes scanned the field for her while I listened to snatches of conversation. "One of our dogs was hit!" "One of our dogs?" "Just hit the dog and ran away." "A hit and run, did you say?" "But Tom chased after it, it was a white van - look, there it goes!" "Did anyone get the license plate number?"
Thank goodness, I spotted Misha on the far side of the field, running straight for me. She ran like the devil was behind her. But what was this? As she came close she began to hobble and raised her left paw. She wasn't putting any weight on her left leg. What was happening?
"That's the dog!" someone said behind me. "That's the dog that was hit by the car." "What?" I said, "This dog? This is my dog. Misha." "Yes, that's the dog that was just hit by the car!" "Oh my gosh!" I exclaimed, and my wife began to cry. I held Misha and she began to tremble, and a dozen doggie doctors began to feel her leg and shoulder and give me advice. At some point Tom pushed through the crowd. He had the license number of the van, but I didn't care about that right now. Only one thing was important, getting Misha to the vet right away and checking her out. Tom added that the van didn't exactly hit Misha; it was Misha who hit the van. She ran right out into the street and collided with the bumper of the vehicle. "It was moving way too fast," someone said in anger, but I didn't care about any of that. I knew who was really at fault here, I knew who should have been watching to make sure this didn't happen, and it wasn't the van who was guilty.
I lifted Misha up in my arms and carried her all the way across the field to the parking lot by the lighthouse. I folded her into her mom's waiting lap and raced around to the driver's side. I drove directly to the animal hospital across town and spoke in a reassuring tone to both my wife and my poor baby. "She'll be alright," I told myself, "she'll be just fine." How could I have let this happen?!?
The animal hospital received her directly and we never left her side. We cooed in soft tones while the vet examined her, and to our immense relief he told us that no bones were broken, not even a sprain, just a bad bruise on the shoulder and she was up and good as new in a few days. He gave us something for the pain and swelling, and we were happy to pay any cost for their services.
I drove us home, carried Misha inside, and left her snug on her sleeping bag with her very loving mother, then drove back over to Lighthouse Field to let people know how it went. There were still many people left, and everyone was relieved to find it had turned out as well as it did. It was sober lesson for us all, but most of all for me, and I have never dropped my vigilance since. Running off leash is a delightful privilege, but also a responsibility. I never took action against the van. Maybe he shouldn't have run away after the collision, but I knew where the true responsibility lay. It was a Merry Christmas after all, and I was truly grateful.
Misha's Sister is a Cat
Misha's strictest puppy-trainer was her sister, an ancient black cat...
It can be devastating to lose a beloved pet. It certainly was for my wife and me when our blond labrador passed on due to advanced age. A year and more passed before we could bring ourselves to consider letting canine energy back into our lives again. We always knew that day would come, eventually. For Tasha, however, things were fine, just the way they were.
Tasha was an ancient black cat who had been abandoned by a previous tenant. No one knew much about her, except her name, but everyone agreed she was very old. Poor Tasha lived under the porch steps of the bungalow behind our own little cottage, and she had been ill-used. She was very thin and unkempt and carefully kept out of the reach of human hands. Though it was pouring rain every day, for the famous California draught had finally broken with a vengeance, Tasha refused my wife's offer of a dry place to stay. The door was left open a crack, but Tasha remained outside, miserable and wet and lonely.
But my wife has a heart that cannot bear to see an animal in distress. She put out bowls of food and water every day and spent hours talking softly to the frightened pair of eyes that peeked out from under the damp, rotting porch. She made sure everyone left Tasha in peace. "Everyone" included our neighbor's many visitors and their mobs of unruly children, and especially our friendly, well-meaning blond labrador retriever, Jasmine. Eventually Tasha felt secure enough to come out from under the porch; she tolerated the distant presence of Jasmine, and even seemed to enjoy the nearer company of my wife. It was not long before Tasha allowed my wife to touch her, then hold her in her lap, then sleep indoors, and at length Tasha even felt comfortable enough to sleep head to head with the blond lab (we have photos!). The crowning day came when Tasha proudly presented my wife with a freshly blooded dead mouse. My wife screamed and slammed the door, and Tasha probably wondered at the wisdom of her interacting with crazy humans once again. But from that day forward Tasha was a member of the family.
In time we moved around the corner to a larger house, and Jasmine passed away, and Tasha continued to enjoy a life of warmth and safety and grooming. And then her people began to exhibit signs of baby pangs. We made preparations around the house and yard. We bought toys that no self-respecting cat would ever play with. She began to suspect the unthinkable: the humans were going to bring another dog into the house. It was worse: we were going to bring home a puppy!
Misha wasn't found the first time we went to the shelter or even the tenth. There were many intelligent and adorable puppies and full grown dogs who pulled on our heart stings, but we had always felt that we would recognize our Misha when we saw her. After a dozen visits someone from the Santa Cruz SPCA asked if we had tried the Watsonville Shelter. The what? We drove there directly, saw a little sad face looking back from the first cage we looked into, and it was love at first sight. We brought Misha home that very day, a tiny ball of squirming brown fir who was weightless on my wife's lap. We took her for her first walk in her new neighborhood, and then we entered the house to introduce Misha to her new sister, Tasha. Far from feeling any fear, Tasha pointedly ignored the new invader, until Misha smelled the bowl of dry cat food in the kitchen. It was a race to see who would get there first, and it ended in a tie, but Tasha trumped the game by giving Misha a swift and savage swipe across the nose with her claws. Yow! Misha didn't know these creatures came armed! They were roughly the same size, one brown and one black, but Tasha left no doubt who was boss in this house. I don't think Misha even considered the thought, one way or another. She carries a white scar on her black muzzle to this very day.
In the days that followed Tasha tolerated the newcomer and gave instruction as needed. When Tasha was given her wet food each morning, Misha was not to enter the room. Tasha had her own, delicate water bowl; Misha had her huge, gaudy, plastic dish. Misha could play with Tasha, but only after Tasha was finished stalking Misha first. It wasn't love, it wasn't even affection, but it wasn't war, either. Misha was busy learning about her world, and Tasha helped her learn certain fine points. "Okay, boss, whatever you say."
Misha would not have minded sharing her thin strip of rawhide with Tasha, but the cat didn't seem interested in a good chew. On the other hand, Misha couldn't see why a catnip bag held any attraction for anyone. At bedtime Tasha remained on the back of the couch, where she spent most of her evenings, at window level, while Misha trooped into the bedroom with Mom and Dad. She often needed a visit outside in the course of the night, and Tasha barely spared us a sleepy glance as we passed. "Go do what you have to do, you savages," Tasha seemed to say with her body language. "Civilized felines use a litter box, of course." I think Tasha ranked me with Misha as very uncivilized, but I was only out there on the lawn looking up at the stars and moon.
They maintained a peaceful coexistence for the first year that Misha was with us, and then Tasha began to show the effects of her advanced age. She didn't want to go outside much, and she stayed on the floor more often, perhaps by choice, or maybe due to an inability to climb up the side of the couch as of old. Misha was very respectful to her sister, and didn't play with her unless invited. Her normal puppy enthusiasm knew when to reign itself in when it wasn't appreciated. Misha did her part, keeping the yard clear of skunks and gophers and younger cats, simply by being there, and sometimes they would hang out on the lawn together in the warm sunshine. I think, in her own way, Tasha appreciated the company. She now preferred to spend most of her time in the office, under the desk, lying on or near the bare feet of my wife as she worked, sleeping.
Finally, one day, the inevitable happened, as we knew it would one day soon. I buried Tasha in the backyard, and left a large piece of slate to mark the spot. Misha was respectful of the grave and never bothered it. I wonder sometimes if Misha knew what had happened, if she had some concept of here, and then gone. I guess I will never know. Misha was now queen of the house. Yet, for a period afterwards I wondered: did I just see her pause and listen for someone; did she just look at the office door as if waiting for an appearance? Was the princess just ruling until the rightful queen returned? I wonder.
Misha Has a Swim Date
It's a lucky dog that has a favorite playmate living right next door...
By happy coincidence, Misha had a ready-made playmate when our next door neighbor brought home a German shepherd puppy who was just a little younger than Misha. They got along famously from the very first, and became fast friends, and we two-leggeds decided to remove a section of the wooden slat fence that separated our backyards and let the pups visit one another at will.
Prince, the new neighbor, was a constant visitor in our house, and I am sure our neighbors said the same of Misha. They played very well together, and they now had the complete run of two yards. What lucky, lucky puppies!
It was through Prince that Misha discovered the joy of squeak toys.
One day she "borrowed" a squeaking stuffed animal from next door and brought it over to our yard for a concert. Misha quickly discovered that she could "talk" through the squeak toy. The toy is very simple: every bite puts pressure on a small plastic bulb inside the stuffed animal, and Misha found that the harder she bites, the more emphatic the sound of the squeak. So in addition to a rapid cadence of squeaks: squeak, squeak, squeak, pause, squeak squeak; Misha could also add emphasis to certain squeaks: squeak, squeak, SQUEAK, SQUEAK! squeak. She was in heaven. And I have to admit, she got a lot of range and nuance out of that plastic squeak bulb.
It was terribly annoying, of course, but she seemed to be having so much fun that I just couldn't take it away. I said to myself, who knows, maybe this is all research that might lead to an article I could publish in a prestigious scientific journal: "dog uses tool to invent a new language, says dad should buy more doggy toys." In fact, now that I think about it, most of Prince's toys found their way over to our yard, and I often came home from work to find a new flying disc or kong or tug-of-war rope to step over. I wonder if our neighbor ever noticed how her doggy toy purchases kept disappearing?
One summer day my neighbor Lisa, otherwise known in the neighborhood as "Prince's mom," invited Misha and me to join them for a swim. Oh, no thanks, I replied, the undertow is much too strong and anyway, we've discouraged Misha from going out into the surf.
"No, no," Lisa answered, "not the ocean. We swim in the reservoir." The reservoir. I had never thought of going up there. I wasn't even sure dogs were allowed up there, but it wasn't a bad idea and today was a pretty warm day.
"We've gone up there a few times. Prince loves it. We float around on this large raft I have."
"Okay." I made a snap decision. "Let's do it!"
The reservoir is high in the mountains that separated coastal Santa Cruz from inland San Jose. It had been built during the Depression years to supply drinking water to the city. I knew motor boats are not allowed, but the authorities apparently didn't mind rafts and swimmers and the swimmers' dogs splashing around in their drinking water. Of course, the water is subject to extensive treatment. Filters and reverse osmosis and all sorts of safety precautions are faithfully employed before ever a baby's bottle is filled with the stuff, I presumed. I hoped.
Lisa had the raft and a device to inflate the raft already loaded in her SUV. I changed to swim trunks and Misha also changed, from a bandana to a real collar - both have a complete set of tags - and we were ready to go. The dogs hopped in the back and we headed up Highway 17 to the summit. The reservoir sits in a saddle of the mountains, and in the valley beyond you see the flat sprawl of San Jose shimmering in the afternoon heat. The southern tip of San Francisco Bay sparkles in the far distance. Parking is easy: anywhere along the dirt road that flanks the reservoir, and today the road was pretty empty. The reservoir is long but narrow, and not very deep at this time of year. In the winter months the reservoir fills with rain runoff from the surrounding mountains until it spills over a dam and runs down a culvert to irrigate the orchards below.
The dogs were released from the back of the van and raced each other along the waterline and back, while Lisa filled up the raft. It was made of heavy gray canvas and rubber, and was surprisingly large. Lisa told me it was the type of raft used for white-water rafting, made of a very durable material that could stand up to the claws of eager doggy paws. We pushed it into the water and lifted each pup into center, then climbed in ourselves. Both Prince and Misha were more than a year old by now and each weighed a hefty fifty pounds. The water was greenish in color and warm, being fairly shallow and heated by the sun. As we paddled out into the center I took it all in: the swaying evergreens surrounding the reservoir, the radiant sun pushing hot and heavy against our shoulders, the occasional burst of laughter from a few swimmers at the far end, and an overall sense of soothing stillness, underscored by the steady shush of cars streaming along the nearby highway.
The dogs were hesitant to get into the water until we did; but after we jumped overboard we couldn't keep them out. We splashed them and they paddled furiously in our pursuit, clawing at us to provide them with a resting post. The water in the center was over my head, but as I drifted closer to the shore I could stand on the bottom and hold Misha up as well. Anything was better than being shredded by her sharp little claws. When we were tired we helped the dogs up onto the raft and then climbed aboard ourselves for a brief rest. The hot sun forced us back into the water again, and the dogs followed us immediately. At one point we tried to give them a ride on the raft, but they insisted on standing, lost their balance, and fell into the water again. Lisa and I swam away from those deadly claws and our tormentors followed us wherever we went. Everyone was having a grand time.
Unlike the ocean, there was no salt to wash out of their coats; they simply shook their bodies and air dried. I imagined the drivers sweltering in their cars as they passed us on the highway, watching us walk back to the truck with our wet dogs running ahead and longing for their own pools. I sometimes passed kids running through a sprinkler and wished I could return to those simple, happy days of childhood. Everything to its season, I suppose, and this was a time when swimming with my pup was all the satisfaction I could desire. Maybe someday I would have my own pool, too. But for now, the reservoir was a joyous discovery.
I thanked Lisa when we returned home and Misha spent the rest of the evening in happy contentment, singing out her elation in a squeak-toy concert. And tonight, I didn't mind all the racket. I wanted to sing out, too.
Misha Finds the Path Home
When are lost in the deep woods, who are you going to call?
Misha has a terrific instinct for finding the path. She can discern a way through a thick patch of high grass and, sure enough, we soon find ourselves walking on an animal trail that mere humans would never have guessed was there beyond the cover.
Not unlike my pup, I have a pretty good sense of direction, too. In my mind's eye I rise above the landscape like an eagle on the wing, and from that lofty height I can sense the make-up of the territory around us in every direction.
My wife has many gifts and talents, but in this lifetime the directional chip does not seem to be wired into her circuits. She was very happy to see the development of global positioning satellites, and you can be sure we have a GPS in our car. Unfortunately, a GPS is not much good when you are in the deep woods. Fortunately, we always have Misha with us.
We moved from Santa Cruz, California to Albany, New York, a region the Iroquois called "the endless forest." Why we moved from the paradise that is Santa Cruz is another story, but one of our inducements was the well-watered expanses of upstate New York. We love the lakes and forests and miles upon miles of spacious, fruitful farmland. There is room to breathe here, and land costs one-tenth what it would bring on the west coast.
Behind our house there runs a tree-lined path, and beyond the path there is a field that a dentist plants with corn. He doesn't harvest the corn - he just likes riding around on his tractor. He leaves the corn on the stalk for the deer, birds, wild turkey and other wildlife. Beyond the field lies many acres of forest, and we have dedicated many afternoons to following the animal trails that run throughout the forest. To this very day, there are sections of the forest that we have not yet explored.
One afternoon we discovered an old overgrown dirt road running through the forest that we followed for several hours. It twisted around in the greater part of a full circle, then twisted away again, and we followed it wherever it went, hoping to see a familiar landmark that would lead us home again. But the road just seemed to lead us further afield, and the sun was nearing the horizon. We were lost. And I was beginning to feel that we might just be spending our first night alone in the woods.
Fortunately, the sun always sets in the west, and my sense of direction told me our home was somewhere to the west of us, so we set off through the dense woods, pushing through the thick bramble when Misha could not find us a trail heading towards the setting sun. We had an ample supply of bug spray, but no water, no compass, no way of making fire, and on many summer nights we had heard coyotes howling in the distance. (Really! We later saw the coyotes on the path behind the house in the lean winter months.)
I projected a confidence I didn't entirely feel. With twilight descending, we cut across our familiar path from an entirely new direction, and followed it back to the house, happy to spend the night in our safe and comfortable beds. The next weekend we bought a walking stick at a crafts fair that had a compass embedded in the top. This land hadn't changed much since the Iroquois walked these same trails, and we had better adapt to our new surroundings.
One day my wife and Misha were hiking along one the trails we had come to know very well. All of the trails near our home had been tramped many times, as we followed them out towards the more remote stretches of the forest. They walked in the cool shade and listened to a chorus of birdcalls that resembled the soundtrack of a Tarzan movie. Misha's mom carried enough water for both of them and she also carried the walking stick with the compass in its head. She felt confident and secure: the compass would always point the way home. But which way was home? Was it west? Or south? The forest looked the same in every direction. Oh-oh.
They wandered for several hours looking for recognizable landmarks, but nothing looked familiar. My wife was starting to become concerned, and she noticed that Misha picked up on her agitation. Misha was usually more protective of 'mommy' than she was of 'daddy' but now she was almost underfoot. My wife stopped and got down on one knee, drawing Misha closer and looking deep into her liquid brown eyes. Feeling a bit self-conscious, like a character in a Lassie movie, she projected her thoughts into that little puppy brain and said in words, "Find daddy. Go to daddy. Find daddy. Now."
Misha got the message. She immediately set off in a certain direction, and her mom followed. They went up one trail, then cut over to another trail, always pointing roughly in the same direction. They passed through a copse of evergreens that was vaguely familiar. Evergreens are rare in these woods, and generally grow in small patches scattered throughout the forest. The rest of the forest is made up of the same combination of oaks, maples, birch and elm; no matter where you are, it all looks the same, and the ground is relatively level and indistinct - no hilltops to provide a ready landmark in your journey.
Misha and her mom walked a long distance, pausing for rest and water breaks along the journey, and at length Misha led her mom to the northern edge of the cornfield. There, on the far side of the field, she made out a long line of tall trees that provided shade to a wide path, and hidden on the other side of the trees was our house. Misha had brought her mom safely home.
Of course, from the start you knew this story was going to have a happy ending. These days they make a variety of packs for dogs and we are tempted to make Misha carry her own water, but we hesitate to strap a harness on our little heroine. We don't even restrict her with a collar; we attach her tags to a colorful bandana tied around her neck. She is not a beast of burden; she is our baby, our partner, our guide, and we honor that. She can hear what we cannot hear; she can smell what we cannot smell, and she has an instinct that brings us home every time.
There are many stories of dogs finding their way home from hundreds of miles away, traveling great distances to be reunited with their families. I hope we never have to live through such a story, one that is much more fun to read about than experience. But clearly, there is more at work in our canines than can be measured by our scientific machines. They guard, they herd, they rescue us, they pull our sleighs, they love us, and we love them. My wife and I know deep in our hearts what they mean when they describe man and dog as the world's oldest friendship. We cannot think of a life without our Misha being part of it.