But this isn't a story about dog behavior . . . not really . . . although it factors in mightily, because I'm completely convinced that God uses my naughty dogs to teach me life lessons. . . about faith and mercy. . . and last summer, about Grace . . . and her little dog, too.
One afternoon, I decided to take the dogs for a walk. Not a little walk, but a bold, adventurous walk. Adventurous because we'd go down a wooded trail that paralleled the Rouge River (they'd love the earthy smells and the occasional foolish squirrel or rabbit that might cross our path) and then swing by the local Dairy Queen for a doggy cone before taking the long way home. And bold because we usually only did this with my husband because of the leash aggression. Long walks were easier when he handled that. But I was feeling ambitious.
Things went well until we got to Dairy Queen. I had stuffed three dollars into my pocket before leaving the house, but a single doggy cone with a cute bone-shaped treat sticking out the top was $2.89. Ridiculous. But not to be deterred, I bought one for them to split.
Dumb. Really dumb. Dumb love.
I let Merlot have a few licks (the alpha dog) and gave him the treat before shifting the cone a foot to the left for Riesling to have a go. Merlot was too busy chewing and licking his droopy chops to notice. But when I swung it back for his second turn, Riesling followed, snout first. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. People that had been watching the charming scene with their children began backing away in fear as my dogs swirled and snarled like a pack of wolverines fighting over . . . an ice-cream cone.
I was embarrassed and MAD. You know that feeling you get when you've planned a great vacation for your kids, and all they can do is fight in the back seat the whole way there? That's where I was. I jerked them apart, tossed the ice-cream cone into the nearest trash can, and marched them in the direction of home. I was turning that car around, baby.
I was still huffing and puffing and muttering under my breath as we approached the last block before home. And that's when the REALLY horrible thing happened.
Up ahead I spied an old lady walking towards us with a fluffy, little dog. For some reason, that's the exact kind that makes Merlot crazy. I saw before he did, and anticipating his reaction, tightened my grip on the leash, swung wide into the street, and stopped. We'd give them the right of way. Except that they didn't seem to be moving. She was just kind of lingering with the dog and smiling in our direction. Come on, lady! Do something! I waited . . . and waited . . . and finally decided she must be standing in her own front yard. I couldn't just stay there. So I signaled the dogs to begin walking again, determined to plow through with as little incident as possible. But Merlot immediately began lunging toward the little dog, and maddeningly, gentle Riesling followed her leader.
I was now wrestling with a hundred pounds of dog who had left what little sensibilities they had back at the Dairy Queen. This was turning into a very bad walk. But I was determined. Home was within sight. I pressed on . . . and then, inexplicably, felt my load lighten. I looked down at an empty blue collar. To my horror, Merlot had lunged backwards out of it and was rocketing towards the little dog faster than I could fathom how it happened. And before I even had a chance to scream a warning, Riesling copied the trick to perfection. An empty pink collar lay inert on the sidewalk next to the blue one.
Oh, God, what was I thinking not getting the choke chains? I'm not blaspheming. I really asked God this question as I hurled myself forward after my horribly ungrateful dogs as
they took turns pommeling the ragged little dog at the old lady's feet. As quickly as I threw one off, the other jumped in. I barked commands at them in a language that they could understand, and against all odds they backed off sufficiently enough for me to wrestle them back into the errant collars still attached to the leashes I had dragged along behind me as I ran toward the mayhem.
And still, the old lady stood there, ineffectually looking on. But her little dog, appearing unscathed, but trembling, got up and calmly walked over to her and huddled against her ankles. Which seemed to anger my little canine bullies all over again. They commenced their lunging even as I moved to put some distance between them . . . and the old lady and her dog. Do something, I thought at her . . . pick up the dog! Instead, she began to wail. Oooooh! I hope he's okay, she lamented, barely looking down. I hope he's not hurt.
And I thought, What is WRONG with you?
Ma'am, I said, Can you pick up your dog and take him into the house?
But what if he's hurt? she asked.
Let me take my dogs home and I'll come back and check on you.
She looked dubious, but I did come back. I could see her through the window, pacing and talking to someone on the phone with that hunched something horrible has happened demeanor. And to my relief, I could see the little brown, wiry-furred dog padding around at her feet. I knocked on the door and she answered as she was hanging up, a stricken look on her face. She was visibly shaking and the odd plastered smile was gone, replaced with watery eyes and a quivering bottom lip.
Are you okay? I asked.
I don't know. She was wailing again.
Is your dog okay?
I think so. She looked down, as if remembering why I was there.
Do you need a hug?
I don't know. She kept her distance.
I'm really sorry that happened. I said.
Why don't you keep your dogs on a leash?! she half wailed - half demanded.
I wanted to laugh, but I stifled it. And then I thought that maybe the watery, vacant eyes were cataracts. I did, I said, regretfully, somberly. They got off. And I asked again, deep compassion welling up, Can I give you a hug? She let me hug her. And I asked her name. Grace, she said. And I began to cry because that was my grandmother's name. Grace. And then she said it. Wailed it in half-choked words.
And I just buried my husband this morning.
AND. I. JUST. BURIED. MY. HUSBAND. THIS. MORNING.
I stayed for over an hour, the little dog leaning against my ankles this time. I imagined a slight limp, but Grace insisted he was okay. Her eyes stayed clouded, but her face morphed through half a dozen emotions as she began to tell me her about her five children. One son had died years earlier. Another had filed a lawsuit against his parents claiming ownership to their home several years before, and they were estranged. A daughter lived in Florida . . . one Up North couldn't get away from work. One of her grandsons lived with her, she told me, and it was evidenced by the men's tennis shoes I could see laying by the door. It wasn't clear who he belonged to, though, or where he was now. I thought I detected a spot of blood in the rusty brown fur around the dog's neck. I couldn't be sure, but surreptitiously tried to rub it in with my thumb.
I expressed regret that she was alone, and I listened, watching her struggle to contain shades of anger and grief. And then her face changed, softened.
You came back, she said. I didn't think you'd come back. Who would do that?
Who wouldn't? I thought. And then remembered her children.
Before I left, I asked her if she needed anything . . . Groceries? Can I run any errands for you? No, she said. I'm just so glad you came back.
Later, emotionally drained and feeling guilty, I told my husband everything that had happened. It was a God thing, he said. She needed someone. I was skeptical. She didn't need my dogs beating up her dog on the worst day of her life. God works things out in ways we can't understand, he reminded me. But I vowed that I would never make that mistake again.
I went out and bought choke chain collars. But I was jaded, afraid to walk them alone again. I took them to an isolated field near our house to run, but never beyond. And then in the fall, we moved away, into a great little house, but closer to the city and busy streets, on a charming little, unassuming sidestreet . . . where half a dozen fluffy little neighbor dogs lived. My fear grew, and Merlot and Riesling spent a lot of time playing in the backyard.
On a warm, winter afternoon, I gathered my courage, busted out the choke chains, checked to make sure the coast was clear, and marched my dogs confidently down to the end of my little dead end street . . . to the busy road where the cars whizzed and whooshed by in both directions. So far, so good. I turned them left, and we all came face to face with . . . would you believe it? . . . an old man and his little fluffy dog.
You can't make these things up (as I'm fond of saying).
No worries. Armed with my choke chains, I guided them off to the embankment of the busy road. We'd just simply wait for traffic to clear and cross to the other side. We'd wait. And we waited. And two of us lunged as the old man passed by with his fluffy dog. And wait. And lunge. And wait. And lunge. The cars kept whizzing by without a break, forcing me to face my fears and keep my resolve. Then the old man and his dog had reached what I thought was a safe enough distance for us to move back over to the sidewalk.
And that's when it happened. AGAIN.
Choke chains only work if you attach the leash to the correct link -- the one that pulls the collar tighter as the dog pulls against it - not the one that renders it a loose noose that the dog can back out of . . . AGAIN.
Riesling had discovered this "loophole" in the plan, and I watched in horror as she went bounding down the sidewalk towards the old man with the fluffy dog. Even Merlot seemed surprised by her defection, and stopped lunging, secure on his correctly linked leash, to see what would happen. I called to her, frantically, incessantly, but she ignored me, bouncing around the old man as if she was attached to an invisible pogo stick. But he had picked up his dog (sensibly) and kept walking, shooing her away. Sensing their disinterest, and appearing somewhat disappointed, she was bouncing her way back to us . . . when to my fresh horror, Riesling suddenly discovered FREEDOM. It was obviously intoxicating, and it would have been funny, if the situation wasn't so alarming. She bounced ever higher, with a look of pure, jubilant exhilaration on her face, and began a delightful bounce-run dance of increasingly concentric circles that was taking her closer and closer to the road and the heavy noon-day traffic. My calling turned frantic, but it was futile. She was completely, happily oblivious.
And in that final desperate moment, I knew exactly what to do. Right there, in the broad daylight of the afternoon sun, in view of the throngs of east west traffic drivers, on a public sidewalk in November . . . I hit my knees and began to pray. Oh, God! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please bring her back! Please don't let her die! ! begged (I think Merlot bowed his head complicitly).
And Riesling came back. Just trotted back over as if it had been her plan all along, sat down in front of me obediently, and let me put her leash back on. Correctly.
And in spite of my beating heart . . . my self-recrimination . . . that told me to just go home . . . just give it up . . . we finished our walk that afternoon.
Mercy. Faith. Perseverance. Grace.
I know what you're thinking . . . but she was just trying to walk her dogs. She made a mistake. . . and another. It was an accident. She didn't mean to. Okay, that was stupid, but . . . this is about WALKING DOGS.
No, it's not.
You see, I'll tell you my dog story, but I'm not going to give you the more intimate details of my life. I won't elaborate on the time I lied to extract information from someone, never imagining that lie would go any further and hurt someone else. But it did.
I'm not going to tell you about the flaw in my character I stumbled upon recently that I now understand has caused a rift in my marriage for thirty years. Now THAT'S a stubborn heart.
I'm not going explain how I confidently I could have told you at one time that I had mastered the art of forgiveness . . . and since then have had to acknowledge half a dozen situations where I've simply cut people out of my life.
And I won't go on about my daily struggles to use my God given strengths and talents for good, and not evil.
But I can tell you about grace that I've experienced up close and personal. I can tell you that whether I'm knee deep in mistakes . . . carelessness . . . callousness . . . or blatantly steeped in sin . . . that I've experienced more of God's grace and mercy and love than I'll ever deserve. I've seen that God can bring you to the exact place that he needs you, even on your worst days, and no matter what you've done. I've learned that you can call on God at the twelfth hour, and he'll stop traffic for you . . . or bring your dog back. I've learned to depend on second chances and serendipity no matter how many mistakes I make. And I've learned to just keep walking. Getting to a place of grace can sometimes be hard and scary and messy, but it's always worth the journey. Sometimes you get to witness the mystical, merciful, full power of God in all His strange glory.
I'm going to go walk my dogs now, and see what else I might learn.