For many of us outdoor enthusiasts, spending time with our dogs goes hand in hand (paw?) with spending time in the Great Outdoors. Hunters cherish their retrievers, hikers revel in their canine companions. For women who love the outdoors, dogs have a special additional function: they protect us. We can take back the solo trail, we can camp "alone" with an enhanced sense of safety.
Dogs I Have Known
I consider myself "a Dog Person," as opposed to "a Cat Person." Since the age of 5, I have always had a dog or two around. I grew up with a strikingly beautiful, snow-white Samoyed mix named Sugar Bear. Sugar Bear went camping, Sugar Bear went boating, and Sugar Bear went sledding. She taught my brothers and I the responsibility of caring for a pet and she protected us fiercely. Sugar Bear was later joined in our household by an equally stunning, but endearingly ditzy purebred Samoyed named Misty. Sugar's death was the most traumatic event of my teenage years; Misty remained with Mom when I went off to college.
After college, I had a brief but intense interlude with a strapping, handsome Irish Wolfhound called Blarney. Large breeds are my favorites, and this wire-haired, 140-pound pup was the epitome. Blarney was followed by Burly, a textbook example of a russet-red Chow Chow. He was massive, wrinkle-faced, and gorgeous. He joined in every outing, from cross-country skiing to sailboating. Burly outlasted my first marriage and was in fact the only contested item in the divorce. In the end, he and I rode off in the sunset to start a new life together.
Burley died shortly after I met the man who would become my current husband. His passing was devastating for me, but probably a good thing for my then-pending marriage, as Burly did not get along with my husband's dog. My new stepdog, Chimney, was my first experience with an "extremely mixed" breed. I quickly came to respect the concept of "hybrid vigor;" Chimney was as strong, smart, and quick a dog that ever lived. A fetching brindle mix of Shetland Sheepdog, Labrador Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, and God knows what-all, he was sensitive, loyal, and could leap a five-foot fence like it was a cinder block. He hated the mailman and loved having a stepmom.
Along Came Smudge
As often happens when couples come together, my husband and I soon decided we "needed a dog of our own." We both liked the giant breeds, so we sought something huge and cuddly and interesting. In December of 1991, I visited an Old English Sheepdog breeder with a litter of new puppies. Of the seven, six were females. The seventh, wrestling mightily with a tiny crocheted mouse in the corner of the whelping box, was a little boy with a dark saddle and a smudge of charcoal-gray over one eye. I paid my deposit and named Rian's Smudge of Autumn Blue that day. For Christmas, I presented his daddy with a video of Smudge, who would turn out to be, naturally, God's Perfect Sheepdog.
I made the mistake of holding Smudge on my lap a lot in his first weeks at home. Given that he would top 100 pounds in the first year, that may not have been a great idea. But we didn't care. We were in love.
But love had its boundaries. In the months that followed, Smudge made it clear that he was not my jogging buddy. He enjoyed a walk around the block as much as the next dog, but after a mile of running, even at a slow, caboose-swinging sheepdog pace, Smudge would simply sit down. He had had enough. Planting his derriere firmly on the pavement, he would stare off into space through the impenetrable veil of his shaggy "bangs," gazing at nothing in particular, simply content to be a sheepdog, sitting. Even in my frustration, I knew there was an inherent wisdom in this knowing when to quit.
So he wasn't my running partner, but he was always waiting for me when I got home. There is never any malice in a loyal dog's greeting. They don't care how long you've been gone -- ten minutes or ten months -- they're just glad to have you home. Tired, Mom? Come sit on the couch with me. Sweaty? No problem. Smelly? Great, so am I.
There's No Dog Like An Old Dog
But if we didn't run together, we did other things together in the Great Outdoors. Smudge "helped" his dad and I put in a garden, first one raised bed, then two, then four, then six over the years. Smudge loved the herb garden best; sometimes I'd find him simply standing with his great, hairy muzzle buried in the chamomile, enjoying the heady scent of the blossoms. He was secure in his manhood.
Old English Sheepdogs, with their shaggy hair and lumbering gait, appear comical, sort of like Teddy Bears. But make no mistake about it, this animal was bred for keeping wolves out of the flock; its jaws are like a bear trap. Even when Smudge's eyesight and hearing dimmed, even when his hips went stiff with arthritis, he was a force no intruder would want to reckon with. He was my buddy, my protector, my teacher. He kept the house safe and the bed warm. I know you're not supposed to let a dog sleep on the bed, but tell 107 pounds of unconditional love that. In his final months, he needed help getting up the stairs to our room at night. His final night, we put our mattress downstairs and saved him the trip. He protected us all those years; it was the least we could do.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer who lives, writes, and misses her dog in southeastern Washington State. She lost Smudge, God's Perfect Sheepdog, in August, 2004.