My daughter chose him.
Of all the puppies at the shelter, he seemed the sweetest and kindest — big floppy ears, gangly legs and big paws, covered in beautiful brindle fur. He was a stray by the side of the road somewhere in the South, picked up and shipped north.
She named him Scout.
He was an exceptionally even-tempered little hound, and ruined only two pieces of furniture when he teethed. One of them was the sofa, which gave my wife an excuse to get that new piece she’d been eyeing. The other was an outdoor sofa in the gazebo, where he would gnaw on the wood between springing up to chase rabbits.
Those damned rabbits.
The first summer he burrowed under the fence to chase bunnies. We found him a few blocks away, and I filled in the hole. He made another, and another, because those rabbits needed to learn a lesson. So I pounded 120 galvanized iron spikes under the fence, spaced 6 inches apart, all around the property. No weak spots except for one in the back under some bushes. He found it, of course, and got out.
We couldn’t find him, and feared for the worst. After five hours he came home exhausted and dropped in the corner, having run his paw pads ragged in a night of pure joy, the details of which no human would ever know, or understand.
When he wasn’t waiting for a hunt — he was a treeing cur, born to chase critters — he loved to play-fight. He boxed well. Most of all he loved to run, and my wife took him to the woody off-leash park by the Mississippi River, where dozens of dogs cavort in the woods. A few times she told about some worrisome moments at the park, when he ran into the woods and didn’t come out right away.
But he always came back.
Until he didn’t.
It was a warm night, early August. Twilight on the banks of the Mississippi. Across the shallows the woods thicken, and there are often deer in there. He saw one. He ran. He didn’t come back.
When my wife called me to come to the park with flashlights I had the horrible feeling he was gone for good, lost in a place on the other side of town.
But you have to look. So we headed into the woods, down to the water in the dark, and I can’t tell you how empty it felt: I couldn’t sense him. Sometimes you can; sometimes you know. But there was this horrible vacancy.
What followed was three weeks of searching, aided by the Retrievers, a wonderful volunteer organization that whips you into shape and sends you out with a mission. We gathered stray dog sightings, set up Facebook pages, pinpointed where we thought he might be and posted big neon-paper signs on street corners.
We plastered 65 signs across six Minneapolis neighborhoods. We made daily trips to check the condition of the signs and swap the rain-ruined images with new ones. We got dozens of calls about positive sightings that turned out to be nothing. Pet psychics called. Two men tried to lure me to the area for a robbery under the guise of a reunion.
And then, nothing.
After about a month, we got the call.
The Department of Transportation had been cutting the grass by the highway when they found him: Scant remains. A collar.
In all likelihood he’d been hit the night he fled. We’d been chasing a ghost; he’d never been anywhere. He’d always been there.
We consoled ourselves. At least he hadn’t been cold and wet and alone. He died on a night when our scent was still fresh on him, so, in a way, we were with him when he passed.
I couldn’t help but remember him when he was a puppy and I carried him upstairs, his paws around my shoulders, his wet nose on my neck. I always thought that he would be around when our daughter came back from college, wagging his tail, reminding her of the home she’d left for the big world.
But there are no guarantees. Ask any dog that’s run after a squirrel.
Can you blame them? You have to do what you’re born to do — to sniff, to stop, to brace yourself for a second — and then run.
He didn’t mean to leave us behind when he caught the scent of the deer across the dark water. There was just so much joy in the moment that he had to go.