When we moved to Fort Bragg 21 years ago, we brought along a three-month old golden retriever named Journey. He grew to be the perfect dog. He loved people and other dogs. We took him nearly everywhere—on leash, off leash, it didn’t matter. He knew that responding to our commands meant getting petted. And he loved to be petted.
He died from leukemia five years later. We suspected we’d never again have such a perfect dog.
We were right.
A year later, we got a Border collie/Labrador mix that our son Harrison named after a Wilson Jet basketball. Wilson’s response to our requests for appropriate behavior was the canine equivalent of flipping us off. He didn’t care about receiving affection. He cared about getting his own way, about climbing the ivy-covered fence in order to get out of the yard, about running as fast as he could away from us.
Each time I took him to Rose Memorial Park (a secluded cemetery not far from our house) for a run, I would cry because I missed Journey and felt guilty that I didn’t like Wilson. When he was five months old, I called dog trainer Sally Stevens to ask when she was starting a new obedience class. She said that she preferred dogs be at least nine months old before they began training.
“I want to kill him.”
“Bring him this Saturday.”
He was the worst dog in the class—barking and lunging at other dogs to herd them. However, during those six weeks, I learned how to live with a working dog. He needed a great deal of exercise and to be told what to do. We all tried to be consistent in redirecting his energy, but it was exhausting and we often failed.
After Tucker died in late 2011, Wilson and I moved our daily walks from Rose Memorial Park to the streets of Fort Bragg. By that time he was 13-years old—ancient by large dog standards—yet would race to the front gate each time I picked up the leash and opened the door.
A few weeks ago, we sauntered by Bainbridge Park on the home stretch of our walk. A young couple (who looked like tourists) sat at the picnic bench near Laurel Street. They were eating sandwiches while their daughter did what most toddlers do—explored the area nearby in lieu of sitting at the table.
About 100 feet away, a 60-something woman with long white hair sat in a folding lawn chair reading a book. At her feet lay an Australian Shepard with coloring reflective of his mistress.
The toddler started to walk toward the dog. The father yelled a rapid-fire series of “NO! NO! NO!” The toddler sprinted—like toddlers tend to do—away from the command. “No” to a toddler translates into “Must hurry before they catch me.”
The reader looked up. The dog rose to his feet. The toddler was on a collision course with the dog’s mouth. The father and mother untangled themselves from the picnic table, both screaming “NO!” and raced to save their child.
The reader was frozen, yet managed to tighten her hold on the leash. The dog was poised to fend off attack by the creature rapidly closing in on him. A mere three feet before the toddler reached the dog, the reader bent forward, chair and all, and collapsed to pin him to the ground.
A second later, the father grabbed the toddler and lifted her to his chest. He walked back to the picnic table, continuing to yell NO! NO! NO! The toddler screamed as only a toddler can do.
A shaggy street person crossed Laurel Street from the library. He smiled at the father. “Hey man, that was a good save.” The father did not smile back.
This was to be the last of Wilson and my adventures on the streets of Fort Bragg.
The following day, my husband Gary and I went out of town for a short vacation. We left Wilson in the care of our loving friend Marcia who has been our dog sitter for the past six years. The night before we returned home, Marcia called to say Wilson could not stand and his breathing was labored. We made the decision to end his suffering. My pain was amplified by not being able to be with my ninja buddy during his last moments.
Gary and I returned from our trip to enter a house where—for the first time in nearly 15 years—we were not greeted by a dog. It felt empty. And sad. Very, very sad.