My good friend Lisa asked me to dog-sit this week. Of course I jumped at the chance. Her dog, Ari, is the spitting image of the late, great Rocket, my ski patrolling partner and companion that passed away five years ago. They are both small black labs, with jet-black noses and big hearts.
While hiking with Ari yesterday at Crystal, I was reminded why I miss my dog so much. I loved the way he would run ahead a few yards and look back at me, his pink tongue glistening against his teeth. Being an avalanche rescue dog just like Rocket, Ari doesn’t stray too far from the trail either.
They are alike in other ways. Just like Rock, Ari has an on/off switch. Enthusiastic one minute, he knows how to listen and sit and stay when necessary. When he finds a patch of snow, he rubs his nose against it, rolls on his back and slides down like a skier. He walks so close to me that I mistake him for my shadow. And when he looks at me and cocks his head, shakes his tail back and forth in a long, slow wag, it almost breaks my heart.
I’m not ready for another dog. Rocket ruined me. Not once in his 8 years did he ever do anything wrong. Well, there was that one time when he jumped on the counter and devoured an entire loaf of bread. I was dumbfounded when I got home. How could he do such a thing? The dog hardly breathed without permission. It was just a few months before he died, and I realized later that this erratic behavior was the build-up to the inevitable.
Besides that, he was the perfect avalanche dog. (I even sang to him and for those of you following along, “Who’s the best dog in the United States? It’s you Rocket-dog. It’s you.”)
But I digress.
When training him, I often expected that he would someday be a hero. He would find a person buried in the snow, bark and dig in just the right spot so I knew where to search. The victim would emerge whole and alive.
But that’s not how it happened in real life.
When Rocket did find his victim, the man was already dead. He’d been swept through trees at a tremendous speed. As the group of patrollers that collected around the body waited for the toboggan, not one of us looked at him. We avoided eye contact and focused on our ski boots, gathered emergency gear and disconnected the probes and shovels.
But not Rocket.
He stared at the body. I couldn’t divert his attention. I brought out the toy used only when he found a victim, something he loved more than anything else in the world, and he looked at me with a pitiable look. He seemed to say, “This is serious. This is not play time.”
He watched the body until the toboggan arrived, and I did too. It seemed the right thing to do.
The best lessons I’ve ever learned I got from my dog. He loved snow more than anything else, he said hello with enthusiasm and hardly acknowledged goodbyes, and most importantly, he knew when to play and when to be serious.
Having Ari here is a little blessing—a reminder about the greatness of dogs.
Part of this post is excerpted from my forthcoming memoir The Next 15 Minutes.