By Patrick Dean
I’m standing on a narrow wooden bridge on my favorite trail. The bridge is exactly 1.5 miles from my car, and my turnaround for this particular day’s run.
Below me, in the swift clear stream, is my best buddy, a chocolate Lab/something-else-big mix named Jackson. He’s belly-flopped in the water, the stream flowing around his nose before plunging off the nearby edge of this part of the Cumberland Plateau. When he does this I refer to him as the Giant Mountain River Otter.
J Dog is not built for running. Even at his healthiest, he goes between 95 and 100 pounds, with a thick torso, the head of a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and paws several inches across. But he loves to get out on the trails. And he loves to be with me, doing whatever I’m doing.
So this particular route is designed for him. It has some rollers, so I don’t mind stopping for him when he’s dragging, especially in warm weather (J is a total cold-weather guy). I pause my watch, stretch, enjoy the woods. He eventually gets to where I stand; I scratch his ear, tell him he’s a good boy, and off we go.
When it comes to running, as in so many other things about life, dogs are great teachers. Unless a dog is really focused, they seldom hold a steady pace. Instead, they’ll stop and sniff something, take an off-trail tangent after a squirrel, or get ahead and stop, waiting for their human. They sprint when they see something intriguing, lope along when they don’t.
And they take stream breaks.
J knows this route really well; he knows what’s next. I look at him from the bridge and say, “Let’s go!” He charges out of the water, back the way we came, up the rocky rootey slope. I follow him up and onto the flat. He knows where to to cut across through the woods, rejoining me on the trail. And he’ll walk the last uphill bit back to the car—what’s the rush?
I’ll never forget one winter’s day on this trail a few years ago. Conditions conspired to cover the trees in a magical layer of hoarfrost, the thin layer of ice on every leaf and branch glittering in the light. Jackson, who as I said loves winter, had a blast just being out there. I was elated for the entire lap. Just an unforgettable day.
It might be unfair to spring this on you, reader, but this essay is a tribute to Jackson. This past week, at just over eleven years old, his legs stopped working, and last Saturday we had to say goodbye. So this is one of the ways I’m dealing with that. Experts say that although crying is healthy and good, remembering good times is even better. And my times on the trail with Jackson were the best.
Do me a favor: if you have a pup, think about its favorite thing. It could be a chewy treat, a particular walk or run, or putting its head out of the car window. Whatever it is, please do that for them as soon as you can. For me, and for J Dog.