It started out as an ordinary neighborhood adventure. Billie called this afternoon to see if I might know whose dog was wailing in the cattails at the bottom of our canyon, directly below their deck. Big dog, red collar, tangled in the cattails. They were both sick, and Ken couldn’t go down there today.
He looked pale and drawn when Fred and I pulled up in front of their house. Not the hearty lumberjack who just weeks ago spent three days trimming junipers around my house. He showed us through the gate and to the path down the steep slope from their house to the creek below. I followed Fred, planting my walking poles below me and cautiously clambering down the slippery slope, soft dirt and small rocks sliding, big rocks and bushes, deadfall.
Fred went on and I stopped near the bottom to call Ken. Can you see the dog?
I can’t believe he’s quiet, Ken said. He’s been barking for a loooong time… From his vantage on the deck far above, and from ours, no one could see a sign of the dog, and there was no sound. I stayed on the phone with Ken, while Fred looked for a crossing.
Eventually he just waded ankle deep through the rusty muck of the creek, and walked into the oak brush alongside the cattails. Shhh ~ he held up his hand. A faint whine. He moved along the back side of the cattails. Where are ya, buddy? Ah! He found him, and spent a few minutes unwinding the 20 feet of thick rope attached to him. I could see the dog through the thicket wiggling happily as Fred moved among the cattails. I was suffused with good feelings of neighbors coming together to help neighbors.
We both knew the dog and where he lives. I got in the back of the truck with the dog, and checked his tag for the phone number. I called to make sure someone was home. Have you been looking for a dog? We’ve got him. He was tangled up in the bottom of the canyon.
“He broke his leash,” the guy said. Leash? Broke? The rope was sound, brass fittings on each end.
I know, I didn’t need to say to him, He would have died— Anyway, he interrupted me before I could finish the sentence, with No he wouldn’t! I would’ve found him! (Really? Before dark? When you weren’t even outside looking? Before he froze to death stuck in the mud overnight? Before a lion came for the siren song of his helpless whimper? Would you have known right where to look? Could you have seen him in that thicket if he couldn’t come to you? What if he went quiet then?)
When we dropped the dog off the man offered us another hostile thank you. Fred is a much better Buddhist than I am, and he doesn’t even try. He affably handed over the dog, No trouble. [oh yeah? I’ll be feeling that climb later tonight.] Chatting cheerily about the dogs by name. Being neighborly.
Hey, I said, trying to smooth things over. I wasn’t being critical— He cut me off again so I couldn’t finish the thought. Well that’s what it felt like! he snapped. It’s not like I don’t take care of my dogs! I love my dogs more than I like most people around here!
So do I, I said levelly, looking him in the eye.
I still feel that old urge for vengeance. I want him to realize he was a prick. At the same time that I try to hold compassion for whatever conditions led to him acting so defensive, I still feel angry about him being so snotty, and also for not solving this containment problem a long time ago.
He kept saying that he appreciated our bringing his dog home. But he never asked one question. Where exactly in the canyon did you find him? His rope was tangled up? in the cattails? Oh dear. How did you happen to find him? Oh, it wasn’t you? Who did find him? He didn’t want to know who either of us was. He said, You don’t know me and you don’t know my dogs.
In fact we’ve met several times; it appears you don’t know me, is all. And I do know your dogs. Everybody in the neighborhood knows you can’t let them both loose at the same time. If either one is tied they both stay home. If they’re both loose they run away. Three separate neighbors told me the same thing later, as if I hadn’t heard.
I tried to bring them home to you six or eight years ago, or more, when they’d been wandering that canyon all day and I found them at the mouth of it, panting, dragging. I got the bulldog in the car but the lab ran up the hill and turned down a driveway to nowhere. I sat in that driveway with the bulldog, big red collar with no tag, agonizing over what to do: Do I take the bulldog home with me, go through the rigamarole of radio, shopper, posters, trying to find the owner of the one dog, while the spooky thin dog remains lost in the woods? Or do I turn loose the companionable fat bulldog to go with his buddy, because they’re a team, and they need to be together?
I put him out and sent him after his black lab buddy down that driveway at the top of the canyon. Years later I met their owner, the wife, who thanked me for trying, who explained they can’t let them both loose at the same time, because etc.
No, I did not need to say He would’ve died down there… it just came out. But he would have if he’d had to spend the night out there. I can’t blame the guy for being defensive, though. I can only blame myself, for not dwelling in compassion right in that moment, and just giving the guy the good news that we were bringing his dog home. (But clearly, I argue with myself even now, the rope is not working: These dogs have been getting away for years. Someone who really loves his dogs more than most people would have come up by now with something that works.)
But, as I keep learning over and over, let me look to my own deficiencies, reactions, and conditionings, and not dwell on the behavior of others. I could have taken a different tone, and maybe the adventure would not have ended on a sour note. I’ll leave that behind now, though. The dog is safe, and I’m a little wiser with yet another painful insight about my own tendencies.