Thanks to daylight savings time I actually have an EXTRA HOUR to write today! And since I started NaNoWriMo a day early, it feels like I’m really ahead of the pack! WOOF!
Life can be a balancing act when you’re out in the woods with a bunch of off-leash dogs. It doesn’t really matter how many there are…three, four, five…once you get a group they go wild. When I started dog walking I didn’t really know what to expect on these pack walks. Much like parenting, I figured it would be a learn-on-the-job, just roll-with-it-adventure. Most things are better when you don’t over think them, and dog walking is definitely one of them.
It’s mid-day, and I’m in the car with five dogs. A few have started whining because they know we’re close and it’s been hours since they were last walked. We pull into the parking lot and the frenzied barking begins, furry bodies slamming against the doors. In my most soothing voice I say, “Okay buddies…just one sec…hold on…” I quickly squeeze out the driver’s side without them shoving out behind me. I open the rear door a crack, gathering up leashes and holding tight before the tidal wave of dogs rushes forth. Wizzing, fizzing, running every which way. They’re absolute ANIMALS.
It can be intimidating taking more than one dog for a walk, but when you’re with five of them it can be downright bedlam. Until you assert control over those dogs and let them know who’s boss, you’re just another dogsbody. The greatest way of establishing dominance in the face of chaos is to simply stay cool. Ignore the amped up barking and hyper behavior. Just let it go. Replace all of that crazy energy with a sense of super calm. Dogs feed off of your vibes. It doesn’t matter what you’re giving off, whether you’re tense, angry, anxious; they will sense it. Exude your inner Dude. Be relaxed and the dogs will respond in kind. Self-assurance is attractive to dogs (and humans!) and your demeanor speaks volumes without saying a word. Believe in yourself and your ability to lead, and the pack will indeed follow.
My family often jokingly refer to me as bossy. I prefer, “I’m not bossy. I’m THE BOSS.” In truth, I am a bit demanding. I have high expectations of myself and others, but I’m not unreasonable. There’s a big difference between being an alphabitch or just being a bitch. People respect the first and resent the latter. Dog walking to me is a lot like parenting; it’s important to set bounds, have a basic routine, and in general stick to it. And just as important! Be fun, loving, and kind. No one wants to be helicoptered, not even dogs. If you’re a worrywart your dog (or kid) will be too. Don’t hover; let them FLY! I don’t need to keep a dog (or kid) on a short leash unless they’re having a problem and need guidance. Otherwise, it’s good to let them go! Trust them to come back and they will. I haven’t lost a dog (or kid!) yet.
This spring though I came pretty close. I had a pack of three dogs at a local park. It was April 3rd. The time of year when the ice is just beginning to melt, and the dogs are running extra wild. We’d been out on the trail for a while and we were just coming to a spot where the woods open onto one of two very large ponds. The ice at the edge around us was still semi-solid, but further out it was dissipating, and a black ring of water edged the far side. Before I could stop her, one of the dogs, Betty, shot off onto the ice, her face filled with joy. She was 50 feet out before the surface broke beneath her and she dropped like a stone.
I SCREAMED. This couldn’t be happening. She’d been safe a second before and now I was watching her scramble, unable to free herself. I howled her name, begging her to help herself. BETTTTTY!!!!! PLLLEASSSEEEE!! COMMMME!!! Her dark eyes shone with fear. She was panicking. The ice was breaking around her. She couldn’t gain traction. I knew in that moment that she would die if I didn’t do something. She was 50 feet away and all that stood between us was a thin sheet of ice that wouldn’t hold a dog. WHAT THE FUCK.
I was completely alone. There hadn’t been a single car in the parking lot when we’d arrived and we hadn’t seen anyone else on our walk. For all I knew no one even knew where I was. HOLY HELL. In a split second I made the decision to go after Betty. I knew that if I didn’t I’d be watching her die. I quickly leashed the other two dogs, tied them to a nearby tree and told them to wait. Then I texted my boss. Just a few words letting her know happened. I stuck my phone in an upper pocket and made for the pond.
Betty was still in the ice, desperately trying to gain footing but getting nothing. I called to her over and over, begging her to free herself. The surface at the edge of the pond was melting, but still fairly solid. I stepped out onto it, squatting down slightly and sticking out my arms. Slowly I began inching my way towards Betty, our eyes locked. The ice beneath me cracked softly with each step. When I was about 10 feet away from Betty I could see a distinct change in the surface of the ice. It looked even more granular and slushy than from the shore. There was a line here, a visible warning of STAY BACK. Inching ever closer I could feel my weight shift, the ice amping up its audible crack. I called desperately for Betty to come. PLEEASSE!!!!
I can still see her eyes, their dark depths pleading for help. Somehow I propelled myself forward. Looking back now it’s like the reel of a film, each frame proceeding in slow motion. I continued creeping with the ice cracking beneath me, trying to stay calm. I was less than 5 feet away from Betty when my feet started sinking into the surface. It felt like I was walking on slush and I began to panic. I HAVE TO GET OFF OF THIS ICE. But I was close enough now almost to touch her. I HAVE TO GET HER OUT. I inched ever closer, until I thought I could reach her fur. I knew she had her harness on. If only I could reaaaach. I was squatting down now, trying my hardest to spread and shift my weight. The ice was so unbelievably soft. Somehow, I managed to lean forward just enough to grab her harness and yank her out of that hole. I foisted her up with all my strength, pulling her mass onto the slushy surface, simultaneously backing up as much as I possibly could. The ice there wouldn’t hold either of us for long, and not if we were together.
Betty was in absolute SHOCK. She sat there squatting on the ice, unable to move. I SCREAMED HER NAME. BETTY!! BETTY! Willing her to snap out of it. BETTY!! WE HAVE TO GO NOW. PLEASE!! PLEEASE!! I was almost crying with fear. Betty squatted there, stock still. And then she looked at me. Finally. And at that moment I realized. If she came towards me, we would both go in. And no one would be able to save us. I turned quickly, immediately and reached out as far as I could to her. I gave her harness a yank, propelling her forward towards the shore. She seemed to finally understand and started moving forward. But it was too late. The ice beneath me gave way, and I was in the water.
The ice was disintegrating around me. I begged for help. PLEASE GOD. PLEASE GOD!! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!! I was in the water up to my waist. I threw my stomach forward as much as I could, slug style, trying to squirm my way back onto the surface, slush scraping off with each grapple. With every ounce of strength I squirmed, yanking slushy handfuls of ice, trying to keep hold as the surface cracked all around me. I was so terrified that Betty would come over at that point and try to help me, that she would fall in too, and we would both drown. Thankfully she was still so scared she stayed right where she was, just squatting. Somehow I scrambled my way out of that hole. By the grace of God, a guardian angel, or BOTH, I grabbed Betty, yanked her as hard as I could and HAULED ASS. I ran as fast as I could with her behind me, ice cracking beneath our feet and giving way like some crazy scene from Indiana Jones. IT WAS INSANE.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I COULDN’T BELIEVE WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED. Back on the shore I ran and got Betty’s leash, grabbed the other two dogs, and had just stepped out onto the trail when a man appeared before us. His face was white. “ARE YOU OKAY????” He stood there staring at me, his dog following. “We were over there.” He pointed towards the other side of the pond. “I saw everything.” He seemed to be in shock. “I didn’t want to call for fear it’d distract you and make things worse. PLEASE, can I get you anything? Can I help you to your car? Can I get you a towel? ARE YOU OKAY????”
YOU COULD HAVE DIED. I know he was thinking it. His face spoke nothing else. I thanked him quickly and left, hightailing it to the car. I found my phone in my upper chest pocket. It’d had the forethought to zipper it as high up as I could. I texted two lines to my boss. “Got Betty. Car now.” It was all I could manage.
The parking lot was empty, save for two cars. I put the dogs safely into the back of mine, opened the driver’s side door and sat down, half in-half out, for a moment. I removed my boots, wrung out my socks, and called my boss to tell her what happened. I left the park, dropped off all three dogs, and then finished the rest of the walks I had that day. Because that is how I roll. My clothes were soaking wet. But I was alive. And I am still grateful.