Some say life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. I say life is what happens to you when your wife goes out for a morning walk and returns with a stray dog that looks like a wolf and stays on the porch until your kids feed it, let it into the house, and name it Nick. Life is what happens later on when you tell your family, "There is no way we're keeping the dog," and they smile and hand you a collar with a tag that has your cell phone number on it. "We'll keep him until we find the owner," I said to the kids, who hissed a collective Yesssss!! and ran up the lawn with him. "I am totally not up for this," I told my wife, Susan. "Look how good he is with the kids," she said. The dog was prancing and jumping at their heels as if he'd always been with them. It was a sweet scene—a sweet scene that I was totally not up for.
"He's obviously a great dog," I said. "So he belongs to someone who is heartbroken that he ran away." Susan agreed. She drove him around the neighborhood and beyond to see if anyone knew him, while I called the animal rescue center, the newspaper, local vets, pet stores, dog groomers, even the police. After this search, we were sure that he had either materialized out of a nonzero probability quantum fluctuation, or was abandoned on the road by aliens. No one had ever seen him. No one wanted him.
He spent the next three nights on our porch. On the fourth night, after the kids were in bed, Susan let him inside for the night. "I think he's ours," she said as he watched us from the base of the couch, curled up in a ball of fur with his snout nestled into his side and his tail thumping against the floor.
"A dog," I sighed—the sound a man makes when he's given up, somewhere deep inside.
"A husky!" Susan corrected. "He'll be able to run with you!" Something like a husky, anyway. The vet told us he was part husky and part everything else, and that gave me permission to change his pedigree to suit the situation. I'd tell my real friends he was a mutt. With casual acquaintances, I'd hazard a guess and call him a shepherd/husky mix. To strangers in nice clothes, he became the newest, hottest designer breed: a "shusky." When I really felt the need to pour it on, I'd throw in a poodle for a little polish. On those occasions, our old mutt Nick became a shepherd/husky/poodle mix—the venerable shuskydoodle: brave, cold-weather tolerant, intelligence at its finest.
The first time I ran with Nick, I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing. Since I hadn't gotten him a leash yet, I had to loop a rope around his collar to take him out. As soon as we hit the road, he crossed to my left and dropped into the shoulder, settling into a happy trot. When a car approached, he veered farther left into the grass until I was safely on the shoulder, and then he pushed me back onto the road and retook his position when the car passed. He edged slightly ahead of me as my speed slowed on the first hill, but then he glanced back and slowed until he was again at my side.
Running with Nick felt different from running without him. It felt primal somehow. As we went along, his wolflike qualities seemed to magnify with our speed. His ears flattened, his shoulders grew large, and his head hung out low in front of him. Some of that same wolf rubbed off on me. I suddenly felt like a tough guy—like I should be in leather pants with a rifle slung across my back, a coonskin cap on my head, a small cast-iron pan dangling at my side, and an adventure, man, an adventure out ahead of me!
By the last half-mile, we were going twice my normal speed. I nearly killed myself maintaining a pace that would hold him at a casual gallop. At the slightest slowdown, he would fall into a little trot that looked unsatisfying for him and was demoralizing for me. Although he never pulled on the rope, he'd shoot a glance that seemed to say, Pick it up, dude! In just one run, Nick had become my new favorite fitness parameter. Forget pace and mileage and heart rate, just tell me how long you can keep a husky at a gallop.
When we finally stopped at the driveway, I hunched over to catch my breath, and he nudged my knee with his snout as a kind of husky high five. Susan joined us on the road and immediately took him on her brisk, hilly, four-mile walk. Then she did a hand-off to the boys, who ran him back and forth through the woods for the rest of the afternoon. He would keep us all moving at least. If he did nothing else for us, that would be enough.
Then one day, after two perfect months with him, he ran away. He slipped through an open door and took off down the road and never looked back, even with all of us hollering after him. We split up in two cars and looked for him, yelling his name and throwing treats out the windows until dark. After a long, fretful night, we woke up the next morning to a phone call. "I've found your Nick, " the woman at the other end of the line said. The boys cheered. The woman continued, "He used to be our Brutus." So he wasn't a Nick that ran away, but a Brutus that ran home. I told the woman that we loved him and enjoyed his visit very much. She said she was glad to hear that because she wanted to know if we would keep him. She lived in a small house with three children younger than 4, and Nick/Brutus ate all their pizza.
After that, we fully incorporated Nick into the fabric of our lives. He awoke me with a nudge on most mornings and hovered around my running shoes until I put them on and took him out. On the hottest days, I'd walk him down to a stream for a drink at our turnaround. On the coldest days, he was in his full glory with bursts of steam shooting rhythmically from his nostrils and frosty, white crystals clinging to every hair and whisker on his body. In the house with the boys, he was a clown. On the road with me, he was all business—a real runner. He was an outstanding companion, a real head turner, an accomplished bread thief, a gentle giant with children, a foot warmer at night, a perfect dog in every way, except for one thing. Our dear Nick was old.
One morning, a little less than a year after he had joined us, we woke to the cries of our youngest son. I ran downstairs and found him in the living room next to Nick, who was sprawled sideways, stiff on his back, with his eyes rolling rhythmically in his head. I lifted him into another room, closed the door, and held him for 20 minutes before he sat up and shook the whole thing off. After a visit to the vet, he took a run with me that evening. Then several months later, he had another episode that he never recovered from. That morning, before they left for school, Susan and each of the boys knelt down one by one to say goodbye. Once they had left, I knelt down myself and put my hand on his forehead. His ears flattened the way they always had during our runs. It had only been days since we'd been out together, an easy three-miler that seemed to leave him wanting more. Now he couldn't lift his head from the carpet. I smoothed my palm over his brow. His lips smacked and he began panting weakly. I told him he was a good boy. Good for just being there. Good because his tail swayed when I said his name. Good because he took that name in the last year of his long life, the same way he took this family—as if both had always been his.
(For more articles pertaining to running with dogs visit the www.runnersworld.com website)