©Kaci Cronkhite All rights reserved. Published in the Watonga Republican March 2011
Never give up: A dog tale
Every time there’s a story about a lost dog, read it. Every time there’s a poster with a lost pet, try to remember the face and pay attention. Watch for it wherever you go.
A month ago, the owner of a big Rhodesian Ridgeback/Mastiff cross dog posted a photo on the Roman Nose State Park Facebook page. A dozen people commented or reposted. Hearts paid attention and for the next few days and weeks, people looked everyday, taking care to walk dogs in different areas of the park hoping that maybe, just maybe they’d see a sign.
Gone two weeks for a research trip (that’s another story), a neighbor left a note with a pack of mail saying there’d been a “big cat” near the faucet where she watered the plants. There it was. One big paw print, maybe three inches wide. We’d both read the story about the 130 pound mountain lion hit by a car near Minco last month and have listened to stories from Cat Canyon, next ridge west, for most of our lives.
First challenge: Catching the dog
Finding the print and looking closely confirmed two things. One, it was a dog, not a cat. The top two toes matched instead of offset and the pad was shaped more triangular, without the extra undulating line. Two, this dog was a lot bigger than my border collie, Chase.
A few days went by and Tuesday dawned, nose to the grindstone in a good writing rhythm, the body adjusting to jet lag and getting back in the groove of Oklahoma. My goal was to finish three chapters by end of the week before heading off to Enid for one niece’s 16th birthday. Lunch breaks were short, a couple rounds of frisbee with Chase, sandwich in hand rather than an hour’s walk in the canyons.
That’s when the Lost Dog peeked his head around a cedar tree, looked straight up the canyon and right into my eyes. Marmaduke markings of his brow and muzzle, black on tan, were exactly those of the online posting., but he was a rack of bones. Inhaling, focused and intensely caring not to startle him, we moved in slow motion towards the door. Wildly observant, he followed each movement and in a second, bolted obtusely across the road, blending into a brushpile.
“Come on boy, it’s ok.”. He ran away ten steps and turned around.
“It’s ok. You’re alright.” With a blink, he decided it was just too risky and ran, limping, his big left paw curled up or broken, hard to tell from this distance. Definitely a male, and the shape of his tale? Rigid, like a Dalmation. His coat was short, all tan except for the black around his dark eyes and muzzle. There was a collar, no clink or flash of tags. Then, with a warm gust from the south, he was gone.
A few hours later, we went for a long walk. Chase sniffed the path where the dog had passed, looking up, left and right. Deer prints, far more enticing, won the moment and we set off in the wrong direction. Herder instincts won over hound, so tracking shifted to the human side of the ledger and we turned back the way Lost Dog had gone. We followed the big dog tracks through tall, dry buffalo grass and prickly pear cactus, brushing under cedar and scrambling down scree. There were occasional foot prints in the slick red mud still soft from the recent storm. The big dog was sticking mostly to game trails, hopping three-legged with a deeper imprint of the right paw, so we followed those for awhile, talking normal dog voice and hoping the stray was listening, that he’d know we could be trusted.
No luck that day or the next, or the next. From inside the house, four eyes watched the windows, watching for his tan coat or that incongruent limping motion. The coyote packs are brutal here with kills every night and eery location howls rimming the lake and bouncing off the canyons with an echo most sunsets. Having grown up in these canyons, it was amazing the dog was still alive. Plenty of dog friends had disappeared and this guy - injured, short-haired and alone - was undoubtedly at risk. Unseasonably warm temperatures had probably saved him so far, but with a first frost and the marching approach of winter just around the bend, there wasn’t much time.
A cell call from a colleague in Washington broke the writing routine Saturday morning. The windy cold on her side of the call juxtaposed with nearly 75 degrees here at the picnic table. Focused on her questions, tossing frisbee was out. A little serious business needed done. Chase went off to the other end of the yard.
Suddenly a flash of movement, a jumble of brown, black and white. Lost Dog was wrestling Chase! The earth stood still and the cell call ended. Priorities shifted. Noticing my change, the big dog galloped up the road. Chase followed. I called. For a second, his head turned from me to the other dog. He could run, but he didn’t. Loyal to the bone, he turned and trotted back to the yard. The big dog whined, a heart-twisting cry that made us both pause. He was lonely. Desperately, on his three good legs, he tried to turn, bully and beg Chase to stay with him.
An hour and a half of gentle coaxing passed. Rattling food. Open doors with running water, more gentle talk, Chase going back and forth between us, until finally the big guy stepped inside the house. Big round brown eyes took it all in, growing softer until finally with a sigh, he lay his head on a knee. Open palm, one at a time, I patted his big head,. With a huge sigh, he sat down.
By then, we’d found the Facebook posting and could say his name, “Polly”, short for Pollux, one of the twins of Gemini. Pointing to the dog bed and spreading out one blanket, he followed a finger and lay down. Door now shut, we all sat. Safe at last, he slept.
Dinner time came about dark. Blue Buffalo brand salmon and sweet potatoes measured out to about a quarter of the what the big guy might eat normally was gone in a gulping moment. Chase picked at his food outside, distracted by the commotion. Grandma’s old mixing bowl became Polly’s water dish and that too was emptied. Choke chain that fit because he’d lost so much weight and a leash was next. Now it was time for a walk to see what happened next, to see how his system handled the food and to “do their business”, so to speak.
The rich protein might have been a jolt to his system, but the gods were kind in that regard and he was on a routine by nightfall, obviously house broken and well mannered about the furniture to boot. Stairs blocked with a box and chair so it was clear dogs stay below, they both flopped down for a peaceful night’s sleep, side by side.
Second challenge: Finding the owner
Nearly a month ago, emailing the owner through Facebook got one response. This week, not a word. Great news awaited this man, but emails to his Friends List family got zero response, too. No news wasn’t good news. Staff at Roman Nose State Park were off campus for Veteran’s Day weekend and since the dog had been gone more than two weeks, flyers had been tossed and the weekend staff no longer had his number, but pledged to help. Some people had given up.
Neighbor and life-long friend, Wes and local vet, Dr. Justin McCrary, offered to help load and board the dog, but he had settled in so peacefully, we were reluctant to move him just yet. Besides an understandable dip into a bowl of pistachios left dog head height on the dining table, the only damage Polly did was eat two oak tree nuts a friend had offered at the High School Reunion weeks ago. No loss there and it explained how the dog had likely survived his time in the canyons this past month.
Monday morning dawned and with it, hope of finding Polly’s owner was wavering. Calls to everyone who shared his name in Oklahoma got nowhere and the only number left had no voicemail. A sad fear the owner may have given up, or worse, decided to abandon this gentle giant was creeping in. Friends who were following the story expressed an interest in adopting Polly, but the we couldn’t give up, yet.
Finally at 1:40 Monday afternoon, nearly a week after Polly appeared the first time and two days after he’d moved into the house, the call came. Cautiously, the man explained he was a teacher in Moore and had to wait until his lunch break to call. “Does he have a gray collar?” he asked, a mix of hope and worry. “Yes! And a flea collar. “ Without a second’s hesitation, his voice changed and he said, “That’s him! I can’t believe it! I’m going to try to get a sub for the last two hours and will be there as fast as I can.” Directions came later.
We fed Polly another small meal, let him drink more water and took him for a last stroll around the yard. As he took a long whiff of the air coming up the canyon from the lake, there was no way to know if he had any idea his nearly month long saga was coming to an end. He leaned his head on my hip, his big head close in the crook of an elbow. “You’re going home tonight, buddy. You are a strong dog. Thank you for reminding me to never give up.”
When Mike rolled in, Chase was the first to greet him and to shake hands. Some dogs get snarky when their owners and another dog get too close and this way there was no risk that would happen.
Mike stepped into the house and got down on his knee. Polly sat up on his haunches, put his giant paws on each shoulder and licked him from ear to ear. The reunion was as emotional and as reverent as expected for a starving dog and a man that even on his best days, must have nearly given up. While he petted Polly, he told how the dog had lunged at something, maybe a squirrel, while he was holding his granddaughter in the other hand. Bolting and weighing about 150, the big dog had broken free and run right in front of a car. Knocked hard into a ravine, his leash collar broke off and he ran into the cattails and down the canyon. In vain, they’d looked the rest of the day, calling for him, making flyers and leaving their contact info with the Ranger. He also told the story of Polly’s litter brother named Castor - like the two stars of Gemini - who slept beside him all his life in identical positions. Standing, he flipped through a dozen photos in his wallet and showing how they mirror each other, laying on their side, back, curled, always exactly the same in photo after photo after photo. Polly was not just missed by his master and now it was clear why Chase had been the savior. He’d been sleeping alone for the first time in his life. There was yet another, much more significant reunion going to happen this day.
None of us will know for sure how Polly survived, where he stayed or if he stayed so close to the scene of the accident the whole month, but what we do know is that he did survive despite being injured, that he overcame his fear of humans and that another dog was vital in the rescue.
As the human who got to watch this story up close and feed them both for a few days, that’s a pretty happy ending and a pretty strong reminder. Never give up.
About the author: Kaci Cronkhite lives north of Watonga in the Glass Mountains of Roman Nose State Park, a resort first envisioned by her grandfather, JB Cronkhite. She grew up at the Cronkhite Ranch, lived and worked in Alaska wilderness, sailed around the world and for the past ten years has been director of the largest gathering of wooden boats in North America in Port Townsend, Washington. As owner of her own 1936 wooden sailboat named Pax (peace in Latin) she is writing a book about her journeys to Canada, California, Washington and Denmark titled Finding Pax. To learn more about her adventures, see womanofthewind.com.