River Diaries: Afternoon Excursions with the Dog
A time comes at the end of each day, usually between 3:11 and 3:37, when I get a visit from the dog. After laying dutifully on the rug behind my desk, or on guard outside the boat shed door, she makes herself known. This routine usually involves a long, loud groan from the rug, or the tap, tap, tap of toes on floorboards as she comes in to my studio to see what on earth could be occupying me. A head scratch and some apologetic words on my part usually buys me 15 minutes, maybe half an hour. Stretching, taking off of a jacket or any other subtle movement inspires immediate canine action. She appears at my desk again, tail wagging, eyes searching and ears pricked.
Eventually I give in. Oh, wonder of all wonders! She zips up to the house ahead of me, propelled by the extra-special-extra-excited tail wag (circular, not simply side-to-side), and stands on the deck looking out to the bush, looking to me, looking out again. My moves to go inside the house are met with a disappointed stare. I’m just going to the bathroom, I tell her quickly, so as not to break her heart. She stares, tail still.
Finally, we’re off. ‘Let’s go,’ I say and she darts up the hill. Off she runs, down the path behind the houses. Soon she’ll duck off to the side for a poo before running back to me then running off again. This is her way. She needs to know where I am at all times. Except when she’s on the hunt.
Occasionally she stumbles across the scent of a fox, rabbit or wallaby. Her nose drives her into a frenzy. Off she goes, torpedoing through the bush madly. Left, right, here, there. She makes a lot of a noise for a little dog. I used to worry she’d actually catch something, but not anymore. Her legs are too short to begin with, and often she’s not actually chasing anything physical, just a trace, a smell.
There’s usually a point where I stop hearing her manic, mythical chasing through the bush. All is silent. This time she’s fallen off a cliff. She’s tripped and broken her leg on a log, I think to myself. Just when my heart starts rattling a little louder than usual, I hear her a rustle and her familiar heavy panting. She emerges from the fringed skirt of a grass tree looking pleased as punch but a little bashful. She knows I don’t approve of her excursions.
We turn left, off the pathway and up the hill. It’s a steep climb. We scramble over large sandstone boulders, weave between gum trees and grass trees, and squeeze between closely wedged rocks. She knows the way. Always in the lead. I follow.
Even when we explore patches of bush we’ve never been before, I follow her. I like seeing where she takes me. She is usually following wallaby tracks, and I like seeing where they go too.”
She’s getting old. Nine years. Her front legs are stiff from arthritis. I lift her down a few high drops, and up some others. She knows which ones. I scramble down first, then stand, arms wide. She edges up tentatively and leans into me. I pick her up and decide she needs to go on a diet. I squat down to the ground with her in my arms. She’s desperate to be free, and I don’t want to let her go. I squeeze her for just a few seconds longer than she likes.
Each time we do this, each time she leans into me, my heart swells. She trusts me. A scared dog, rescued from an unhappy life seven years ago, she still shakes every time I pick her up. It terrifies her, but she trusts me.
Once released from my clutches she’s off again. Ears pricked. Alert. Every 10 meters or so she stops and looks back, making sure I’m still behind her. We turn towards home. She’s a little slower now. I watch her as she trots down the hill, sniffing trees and scats along the way. I watch her, with her ears alert, her black fur eye-patches and caramel brown eyebrows, turning to check on me. Always checking on me.
I watch her as her short legs lead us home and wonder how it happened that she chose to love me.”
She’s asleep in the living room now. I watch her, feeling like the luckiest woman on Earth. I’d give her a hug but she’s not into them. Tomorrow, she’ll take me for a walk.