CHAPTER 1: THE DOG HOUSE
I had always been afraid of dogs. Until I met Vicki. Vicki is a dog trainer, and when she lived up the street, she often boarded dogs. And of course she had several dogs of her own. Our houses were small, and when I walked up to visit, there would be a dog behind every door. The front door to start. And then the bathroom door. If I went into her bedroom to try the other bathroom, there was a dog behind that door as well. So I finally gave up. And with Vicki’s reassurance and patience, I learned to like dogs. Mind you, not love dogs, but like them and feel comfortable with them. But Vicki didn’t give up. She decided I should have a dog of my own and found a six-month old English lab from a local breeder who could not be trained for field work because he was prone to hip dysplasia but who would be the perfect pet. His name was Bronco, and she agreed to help me train him. And so began my love of dogs.
CHAPTER 2: WHERE’S BRONCO
But Bronco had a mind of his own. I started taking him to the local community park where he could run around. A good outing at first. Until he stole a steak off someone’s barbecue. Being Marin, it turned out to be eggplant. But still. Then there was the yogurt incident. A group of children were celebrating a birthday, and one little boy put his yogurt container down on the lawn. Big mistake. Bronco ran over and stuck his nose in it but then couldn’t get it out, so he ran around the park with the yogurt container on his nose. Fortunately the children thought it was hilarious. That was the last time I took Bronco to the park off leash.
Bronco was also an escape artist. I was working full time back then, and Bronco hung out in the gated back yard. I can’t remember how many times I got a call from a neighbor telling me she had found Bronco wandering around the neighborhood or from a middle schooler saying, “I have your dog.” Luckily my phone number was stitched on his collar. So I reinforced the gate. But that didn’t help when the painters were there. I warned them not to leave the gate open. This time I got a call from Vicki. “I looked out my window,” she said, “and there was Bronco in my front yard, and a painter was running up the street after him.” The painter was clearly distressed. “Dog fast, dog fast,” he said, gasping for breath. Vicki told him not to worry and that Bronco could stay with her until I got home.
Bronco loved going up to Tahoe. He was our first mountain dog. We hiked the trails, swam in the lake, and he came with me when I went snowshoeing. One Thanksgiving we hiked the four miles up to Five Lakes and back with Vicki, her husband Don, and their two dogs. There was a lot of snow. For some reason, on the way down, a couple had laid out their Thanksgiving feast right on the trail. I guess they thought there was nobody else around. They didn’t count on Bronco, who suddenly got very excited. I ran ahead waving my arms, warning them that three hungry dogs were right behind me. Disaster avoided. Barely.
Bronco and I also ran the neighborhood trails in Marin every morning at 5am before I went to work. When I was training for the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska in 1999, we upped the distance every week. He did a better job of training me than I did of training him.
When he was 10, we adopted Aspen, a career change dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Aspen was one and a half. They played together, hiked together, and swam together. They were best buddies. On Thanksgiving in 2007, we all hiked up to Five Lakes. It was to be Bronco’s last long hike as his hips were becoming painful. But you would never have known it. The snow always invigorated him. He had a great time and was happy to be with his family. He passed away on Christmas day. He was 13.
CHAPTER 3: ASPEN, CHANGING CAREERS
When Vicki’s husband, Don, who worked for Guide Dogs for the Blind, told me he had a dog for me, I was thrilled. Bronco was getting on in age, and I felt he needed a buddy. Aspen was a career change American lab that Don had taken under his wing. Guide dogs need to be able to do their job in a variety of environments with constant sudden noises and activities. Aspen was simply not that dog. He was happy to sit in Don’s office and interact with the many visitors who came and went, and he got along well with Don’s German Shepherd. “Aspen is so willing to please,” Don told me. “He will be the perfect addition to your family.” And so we adopted him. He was one and a half.
Although challenging at times, it was fun having two dogs. We ran the trails at 5am before work, walked the neighborhood with Vicki’s dogs, hiked the Tahoe trails, swam in the local pond, and snowshoed together. Aspen was a very loving dog, albeit a bit skittish at times. When hiking in Tahoe, we had to cross several bridges. Aspen didn’t like bridges. A large Malamute guarded the one up the street, the bridge crossing the creek was slippery, and another on the trail to Five Lakes had a rough, uneven surface. We either had to find alternate routes or lure him with treats.
Then there was the bear incident. Mike and I and the two dogs were hiking from Squaw Valley to Alpine Meadows on the Pacific Crest Trail. Suddenly Aspen got very agitated. Bronco, on the other hand, was just meandering along. Mike crested the hill and looked around. “I think we have a problem,” he said. “There’s a bear down there. A large bear.” But on we went. Carefully. Very carefully. With one dog on high alert and the other dog simply ready to go home.
Bronco passed away when Aspen was six. I liked having two dogs, and knew Aspen missed his buddy, So I asked Vicki to find me another dog. A year later Shasta, an English lab, joined our family.
For the next four years Aspen and Shasta had many adventures together, especially swimming in Lake Tahoe the first summer they were together. As Aspen got older, he developed diabetes, and Mike had to give him insulin shots. Eventually he slowed down. He was 10 when he passed away, but he lived a good life. He was the only one of my dogs who had two best buddies.
To be continued…