Reading quotes on the internet about dogs is painful, though I’m not exactly sure why I expected it to be anything else. Call it optimism, call it a belief in humanity’s ability to say something true and touching. To be real. Call it hope for some poetry. But the pithy statements are just trite and all too often they’re polarized to boot, either emptily waxing about unconditional love of the beast, or glorifying/ bemoaning the ‘fight in the dog’ . The reality is just so much heavier. It’s not so different really from asking people about kids ; that is, they’re either little darlings or they’re snot-nosed brats. Full stop. And yes, having a dog is like having a kid and it’s okay for me to say that because I have three of those too and they all, very much, see our buddy Tuck, a mix breed Shepherd, as another member of the family. How could we not? He rescued us.
Rewind to September 1st, 2013: the family and I were out to brunch at a local diner, the phone rang, my wife answered and literally in the blink of an eye everything changed. Our house was on fire, we bolted out the door and drove as fast as we could back home. Around the corner, I dropped off the kids at a neighbour’s so they wouldn’t have to see it and ran for the fire. The scene was as surreal as you would expect — firefighters working the blaze into submission, a crowd gathered and talking in hushed tones, black smoke curling like an ugly industry up around the collapsing eves. I yelled at them that this was my house and where was the dog? Had they seen the dog? A group of local kids caught wind and I sent them away — see if you can find her in the neighbourhood, I said. One firefighter passed the word to another and another, eventually the chief, a tall and strong woman with blackened hands, brought me out back. Wrapped in a tarp, our dear friend laid out on the lawn. I asked the chief what I should do. ‘Bury her’, she said, ‘what was her name?’ Poette, I said, shocked and falling. ‘Bury the Poette in the back yard’, she said. And as they tamed the blaze and the smoke filled the sky, a kind neighbour and my father and oldest son and I did exactly that.
For six months we lived in a house loaned to us by a family friend. The kindness that surrounded us was remarkable and as we rebuilt our home we tried desperately to also rebuild the sense of security and wellness that a tight knit small family is made of. But it was hard — we were still working and going to school and with what time was left it was a slow and arduous process to settle ourselves emotionally. Building a house with planks and beams and wires and plans is easy — taking care of the delicate business of rebuttressing your life takes tact and strength, compassion and tenacity and love. As the weeks went by things seemed to be healing, but…
Towards the middle of November, though my wife and I had discussed it and had come to the mutual conclusion that we should wait until we were back home, I started actively looking for a dog. I dropped in on the local SPCA and checked out photos online. Some days I dropped in on the pound and took one out for a walk. Then one day, there he was. I picked the kids up from school, went out with them, paid the folks their money and then told my wife. Generally speaking, I don’t condone this kind of approach — a strong marriage is built on a solid foundation of mutual ideas and beliefs… but sometimes you just have to go with your gut. Sometimes you know what’s needed far beyond anything that a reasonable decision can make sense of.
And then, all of sudden, we were a family again. Tuck wasn’t a replacement for Poette — I am 100% confident that he needed us as much as we needed him — but he certainly helped heal a deep wound.
It was right around that time that I started ramping up for my first 100k race and putting in some serious miles at seriously weird times of the day and night. The place that we were staying in was right across the street from a beautiful green space in the centre of our town and Tuck and I started logging the miles. Early morning snow days, late nights, long runs and sprints and hills hills hills. I did my research to see if his kind of dog could handle that kind of mileage and all I ever got back were variations on ‘you’ll never run this dog down.’ And that’s a fact — in utter irony to his name, I simply cannot tucker him out.
More than just clocking the mileage though, we trade looking out for one another; he has taught me the real value of living in a pack. When I was young I saw a neighbourhood dog chase down and clamp onto a young friend of mine and, quite literally, more or less pull the calf muscle out of his leg. Turns out that the kid had been chucking rocks at the dog daily for some months on his way home off the bus, but needless to say that the whole thing scared the living bejesus out of me, so I have had to learn to love and trust dogs on my own. And, in Tuck’s case, stand up for him — see, being the alpha is more than being the one in control, it’s being the one that can be stood behind, that the others come running for if the tides of the fight turn, and I have, on more than one occasion, inserted myself between Tuck and other dogs who were looking to have a go at him and physically pushed them aside. That’s what dads do. And he’s always on the lookout for me too, scanning the woods and watching for bears or coyotes or whatever else is in there. Truly, even a country boy like me gets freaked in the forest at night; unless, that is, I have him with me. Alone we are each vulnerable, but together we are a pack.
It’s funny too, how people will come up to you and talk if you have a dog off leash in the woods. They pet the dog and ask his name. We exchange pleasantries and I am reminded that even though the world often seems filled with pain and violence and saccharine statements about immeasurable value, I believe humanity to be good. It is true that atrocities and neglect and ignorance are far more rampant than makes any sense at all, but I have met far more people, from the person behind the counter of a corner store in New York to a doctor who’s there to deliver my child, that are kind and gentle and sincere than are truly malevolent. Tuck isn’t just an excellent running mate, though having racked up some 6000 kms together he’s definitely that too, he is a compassionate and patient teacher. He has taught me about optimism, he has shown me something touching and true about humanity. He has shown me what it is to be real. He has been a fast friend and fine poet. In the world of trail running we often talk about how we don’t do it (just) to win races, but to become better people — and what irony, I need add, that a dog should teach me that most.