The other day I got the dogs out early for a hike down an abandoned rail bed to the quarry where they love to swim. I like to hike early, especially in the summer before the heat knocks the wind out of my sails, and when trail traffic is at a minimum. This morning was cool but humid, you could smell the promise of an afternoon thunderstorm in the damp air. A delicate mist hung off the trees and swirled along the cinders, hushing morning sounds. The ethereal echo of the Wood Thrush penetrated the dense air like a siren song, beckoning one forward, always just a little further. A few Eastern Newts warmed themselves on the cinder bed, breakfasting on tiny gnats who gathered on clumps of horse manure left by riders over the weekend. A peaceful morning, contemplative and solitary.
My three dogs, Casey, Piper and Quinn always take point on the way out. Sharing discovered scents and performing general reconnaissance. Casey is the oldest of the three, she just turned 11, and was my first K9 SAR partner. She is retired now, mile upon mile of hiking, training and searching have left their stamp on her still fit, but older body. She will walk quietly beside me on our way back, letting her younger pack mates run ahead to clear the way back to our jeep. But for now, she is up front as usual, though lagging a bit behind the others.
I notice the stiffness in her left hip, how she doesn’t dart off the trail much anymore after some interesting sound or movement. I also notice how she is still supremely alert, her senses and awareness of her surroundings not diminished by age or discomfort. We’ve been together 10 years, she was 9 months old when we met and the connection was immediate and powerful. She came with some “stuff”, which we worked past with love and mutual respect. She is, without a doubt, the most intelligent dog I have ever met. Her ability to understand the slightest nuance, problem solve independently from me, and communicate where she stands on things has always made me feel like her assistant, not her handler. She is a feisty redhead with strong opinions, and equally strong loyalty to her chosen people (which isn’t just anyone). I get her and she knows it, she has given me her trust, amazing work ethic and most importantly, her love and regard.
How swiftly 10 years go by. It seems only a couple of years ago Casey and I were training together for our certification exams. She was with me as I learned to navigate, hike at night, build an impromptu shelter and make a fire in the snow. She rode beside me in our Tacoma pickup with the bench seat, curled up calmly while we drove into the White Mountains or Vermont for a search, waking when we got to base, searching obsessively through the night and sleeping beside me on the way home as dawn lightened the sky. She took to searching as if she was born to do it, she certified in 14 months (we are given 24) and moved quickly on to more and more sophisticated work – older, smaller, fainter. Between her intellect and intensity, there was little that escaped her and she loved her work. Her longest time in the field was 8 hours of non-stop searching, her quickest find was 18 minutes. All the things we encountered together – good, bad and just plain weird.
Then, earlier this year, she let me know she needed to be done. It wasn’t the older, stiffer joints, or not being able to do the distance she used to. It was more of a mellowing, she wanted to have her walks and her ball, but also wanted to just be with us. She began to come into my music room while I practiced, falling into a deep sleep to the sound of my harp. She would spend time with my husband while he read, or just find a nice shady spot in the grass. She was ready for a more peaceful phase to her life. After all the adventures, it was nice to just be home.
Piper is in his prime, living in full high-octane adventure mode at 6 years old and has taken over the search work. Quinn never took to searching but herds livestock like a boss. Casey lives secure in her rank as Matriarch in our little pack, adored by Piper and Quinn (and us) and, as dogs exist completely without guile, unaware of the influence and impact she has had on my life. How her presence and partnership has shaped my life choices and decisions. How one little red dog made all the difference in the world to me when I needed it the most. Everything I do from this point on, is dedicated to Casey.