The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
A little story about a dog.
The fear came in a flash. I was outside our guest house with our older dog, Maybe. As soon as we rounded the corner at the back of the house, I saw our other dog, Piper, dash into the woods from other side of the house without a leash. In an instant, Piper was gone.
I’ve never had a dog like her. At home, she is the most domesticated animal possible; a fifty pound stuffed animal who loves to lie upside down in your lap. But she has a wild streak when she steps outdoors, possibly the streak of a hunter. She trembles at the sight of deer that are constantly on the property. They must be chased and this instinct seems to override any kind of training we’ve tried. Our voices are clearly not enough to keep her close.
Even as a small puppy, she loved the game of staying just out of our reach when outside. She was prone to running out of sight and then coming back, just when we’d start to worry. Living in a place with no traffic or predators meant we didn’t have to worry too much. I figured she’d grow out of it. Maybe loves chasing deer too, but she usually gets to the edge of the yard and stops. That’s what I expect dogs to do. Not Piper.
She’s disappeared into the woods on a couple of occasions. The last time, she seemed to stay in the vicinity. She’d disappear for ten minutes, then you’d see her move through the trees at a radius that kept us from tracking her reliably. We’d stop and listen to leaves rustle and, often, hear very little. I’m sure the little jerk was standing still, watching us panic.
In one instance, she ran toward my outstretched arms and then veered off course at the last second to check another side of the property for deer. Not knowing what else to do, we remembered that Piper loves car rides. We moved the car down the driveway, opened the back hatch and she eventually jumped in, exhausted. The freedom she craved for months had finally been satisfied. Relieved, we vowed not to let it happen again.
Piper is not the kind of dog who wants to run away for days or end up miles from the pack. She seems to be oriented around home, but that doesn’t soothe our worry. Orcas Island is a rocky place with hills, valleys, and cliffs. We’ve heard multiple stories of dogs chasing deer off of cliffs and being seriously injured. That’s one of the biggest fears… in the rush of excitement, she injures herself and can’t move, or be found by us. In the past year, a neighbor’s dog chased a deer and came back with a knee that required surgery.
When we both saw Piper disappear into the woods, we knew that we had stepped into the unknown again and nothing would be okay until she returned safely. It’s a terrifying feeling. There are no houses within a fifteen-minute walk and over 100 acres of moss-covered forest.
Looking back, I know exactly what led to her finding this freedom. It was a very windy day, the kind that drowns out sound and causes small branches to litter the driveway. I intended to take Maybe outside and attached her leash as Piper watched by the door. I stepped out with Maybe and pulled the door closed behind me, I thought. Then, just before stepping off the porch, I looked back and saw the wind had blown the door open about 18 inches. I looked inside and there was no sign of Piper. I figured she had gone back to Sachi inside and I closed the door. I can now see that she, instead, sprang to action the moment the door blew open and I had no idea. Sneaky.
It’s an utterly powerless feeling to yell Piper’s name into the woods. She’s out there living her best life and seems to care little about our needs at the moment. With the wind blowing at thirty miles per hour, our voices were virtually camouflaged. What else could we do?
The property sits on the top of a hill and we both walked around all sides of the property, yelling for Piper. I grabbed Maybe and we walked deep into the woods on the side where she ventured out. I got Maybe excited so she would bark and possibly attract Piper. Sachi parked the car at the edge of the forest with the hatchback open. She slammed the car doors and honked the horn. Watching from afar, I could tell it was futile. The roar of the wind was too much. I checked my phone incessantly, hoping to see a text from Sachi with good news.
It was about 3:45 when Piper disappeared and as we searched, I started to do mental calculations. It gets dark at about 6pm, so we have a little over two hours to find her. She is used to having dinner at 5, so maybe that will bring her home. I looked at the weather and saw low temperatures in the upper thirties. These little calculations led to a series of questions I didn’t want to have to face. What if she’s not home when it gets dark? What if she’s not home when it’s time to go to bed? What about two days from now? A week? Is it too cold? Are we going to have to make signs? I imagined Sachi spending the night by the front door, waiting.
Unlike our previous experience, Piper never popped up to make an appearance once she entered the woods. It was like she vanished. We both took turns driving around the area. I texted a couple of friends to look out for her. After returning from a drive, I met Sachi in the driveway with a look on her face that seemed like deep concentration. Sachi doesn’t ever lose her cool. In a situation like this, she thinks her way through. About thirty minutes had passed and I wanted to comfort her.
“She’s going to be fine,” I said. “It’s dinner time soon and she’ll come back for that.”
“Not if she’s fallen off a cliff and broken her leg”, she replied. Point taken.
Not knowing what else to do, I put Maybe back inside and I drove down to a trailhead that leads by the property. If Piper had run straight downhill she would eventually hit the trail. About ten minutes down the trail, I met a neighbor whose property borders the woods of the property and showed him a photo of Piper. I got his number, just in case.
A bit further down the trail, I veered off into the thickness and tried to get a higher vantage point. After scrambling thirty yards uphill, I ended up on a small knob and surveyed the area. I called for Piper and looked for movement. Nothing. Then I checked my phone, expecting the disappointment of silence. But there in my text messages were two words from Sachi that made everything okay. “Have her!” I let out a big sigh and sat down for a moment to collect myself. It was over. I made my way down the trail toward the car. Just in case, I read Sachi’s text message again. What if it was a question instead of a statement? Nope. She’s home. It was 4:30.
I arrived at the guest house to find Sachi washing Piper in the tub. She was muddy and full of thorny sticks and branches. Being a doodle, with hair instead of fur, she collected tangles of the forest. It’s plausible that she could get permanently stuck in a bramble. But she didn’t.
Sachi said Piper simply appeared from the forest at the point where she entered. Once she saw Sachi, she ran at full speed to her, as if she was a little panicked herself. Who knows what she had been doing all that time? What was that little canine brain thinking while on the lam?
As Sachi washed Piper, she said to look at the kitchen table to see evidence of Maybe’s poor behavior. Confused, I looked around and there it was, a freshly baked loaf of bread, still warm, 80% gone. While we were chasing Piper, Maybe was feasting. Bad dog.
By the time it was all over, nothing really mattered but the pack being together again. We wish that Piper was better off-leash and that Maybe was less of a pilferer, but it goes with the territory. The positive role the beasts play in our lives far outweighs the moments of disappointment, worry, and exasperation. They may not be perfect dogs, but they are ours.