“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne
Darwin was my first dog as an adult. I was 21 and living on my own when I got him. He was a big, black lab mix with a penchant for trouble, but I adored him.
Every day Darwin would patiently wait for me while I was at work, but the second I got home, he knew if was “our” time. I’d grab his leash, cram him into my Eclipse, and we’d be off on some jaunt, typically the Metroparks. He was the perfect hiking dog: he always stayed with me off-leash, didn’t get into too much trouble, and could keep up. The only downside was the water. Darwin was a water dog.
It wasn’t such a bad thing in the summer time. On some hikes, he even knew where he was allowed to go off-path, head toward the river, take a dunk, and then catch up to me. I still get misty-eyed hiking past these points now, as I can almost see Darwin giving me the “Can I go swim?” look. All I had to do was nod, and he’d shoot off toward the river.
No, the problem wasn’t in the summer time, when the river water would be meandering slowing through the forest, cool and fresh. The problem was the first few hikes we took in the springtime.
I’m not a cold-weather person. I don’t hike in the winter. Darwin would usually only get a perfunctory walk around the block and then we’d go inside and play fetch or do agility. However, I always felt just as pent up as he did, so the first mediocre day (usually around the end of March), we would go on our usual hike through the Metroparks.
The river would still be too cold for him to swim in, so I wouldn’t let him. However, typically along the path would be a rare treasure: a mud puddle. But not just any mud puddle. Oh, no….this one was warmed by the first sunshine of spring. It would be long, about 8 feet, and maybe 4 feet wide. Not deep enough to swim in, but perfect for wallowing.
Obviously the last place I wanted him to be before getting into my car.
Now, as a dog trainer, I take pride in my ability to handle a situation. After all, I work with “aggressive” dogs, separation anxiety issues…everything. My dog was no exception. Darwin was a good dog. As long as there was no mud involved.
As we’d be coming up to the mud spa, as he probably thought of it, he’d give me that look “Can I go swim?” Of course my answer was a negative. I didn’t relish the thought of cleaning him, and my car after his roundabout through the muck.
But he’d just pop me the middle paw and do it anyway.
One big swan dive into the center of the pooled slime, then racing back and forth, play bow, race across the filth again before finally plopping down in the center with nothing less than a grin on his face. He was a mess.
At first, I used to try to stop him, and then I’d be furious that he didn’t listen to me. Then I’d fume as I tried as best I could to clean him with towels I had brought before dumping him into the car. Then came the tediousness of bathing a 60 lb dog in an apartment bathtub. All so he could have his little swim.
Then he started to slow down a little. He would still keep up on hikes, but there was a little less pep in his step. He wasn’t old yet, but he was definitely past his prime. I started to wonder how many more of these hikes we would be able to do.
One day, when he was about 7, we came up on the same mud puddle on our first hike of the year. He gave me The Look. I knew he’d run off anyway, but instead of trying to hold him back, I encouraged him. He took his flying leap and did a beautiful pirouette into the mud as he landed. He turned the mud puddle into a stage upon which he did his interpretive dance: The Rite of Spring. I started laughing an couldn’t stop. I cheered him on. He did another victory lap. Finally, gassed, he sunk down into the mud. He was filthy, of course, but his smiling white teeth showed brilliantly against the black, well, now brown of his coat.
I never forgot the lesson he taught me. Yes, I still had to clean him, and it was still a pain, but while he had been making a mess of himself, he had me laughing hysterically. For ten minutes straight. I had forgotten the simple joy that mud on the first warm day of spring can bring. I vowed never to forget. Ever after that day, I allowed him his freedom in the sludge, and never regretted it (much).
Darwin passed away 6 years later. I miss him terribly. I now have Sparta and Orion in my pack, but neither of them is a water dog. I’ve actually tried to encourage both of them to run through Darwin’s mud puddle, but my 5 lb. Orion is actually small enough to drown in it, and my beastly 100 lb rottie/shep mix doesn’t like to get her feet muddy.
That’s okay, though. Darwin, that spot will always be ours. Thank you for the laughs you gave me. And do you know what Darwin? I think this year I’ll take off my shoes on my hike, and run though the mud puddle until I’m a mess, and then just smile, thinking of you. Miss you!