I’LL CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN I COME TO IT

We often go to walk in the Montague Plains. Fewer chances of Aussie running away. The Plains are large, but not as large as the forest haunted with smells of elk and deer, bears, coyotes, and bobcats, with the hoot of owls luring you deeper and deeper in. Aussie follows the sounds and smells. When she’s there she becomes almost another animal, looking at me in the distance as through a big divide.

“Aussie!” I call out.

She contemplates me as if sizing up what side she’ll fall into: the human, civilized side, promising food and a warm bed, or the wild rushing side of the forest, with its enormous pine trees protecting the last icy vestiges of winter, promising mysterious sniffs and tracking, not to mention chases after wild turkeys. Sometimes, after a long hesitation, she returns to me, but I can see the other side calling her name.

“What is my true name?” she asks me.

“Bernie called you Aussie.”

“Yes, but is that my true name?”

“How should I know?” I tell her. “I don’t even know my true name right now.”

She gives a short, derisive snort and begins to float away towards the other side, waiting for me to look down at the gurgling creek or else watch for the ice that’s still on the ground, any distraction will do, and before I know it she’s gone.

I don’t know what to do. Two trainers who have worked with her, one of whom has walked with her many times in the woods, say that I’ll never get a guaranteed recall from Aussie because she’s a scent hound, fated to eventually follow any smell that wafts her way.

Do I keep her on leash for the rest of her life or do I let her run? Do I keep her safe or let her do her exploring? She knows how to get out of the woods, she knows how to get home. But there are dangers out there.

Inside the house she’s soft and silky, stretching luxuriously like a cat, and like a cat, keeping her distance. Not for her to put her head on my pillow like Harry, she has too much dignity. Affectionate—and reserved. You think I’m a domesticated creature? I’ll show you.

And show she does, not just me but the squirrels. We are minus 3 squirrels this spring, and I watch her do it. This is the time when they’re really hungry, and they stay longer on the earth to search out sunflower seeds that fall from the bird feeders. I’ve seen her slinking quietly behind my office and standing deadly still at the corner, watching the squirrels forage. Not for her Harry’s loud, bullying rush. Hers is a quiet, controlled approach—and then she leaps.

I’ve had some half-dozen dogs that chased squirrels. Aussie’s the first to catch them, shaking them dead and before depositing them on the ground. I apologize to them later as I politely toss them over the fence. Miss Compassion of the Back Yard looks over all this with her quizzical, beneficent smile.

But now we’re in the Montague Plains. Aussie and I have crossed the narrow plank bridge that lies over the creek raging with water from the snow-melt, and there’s a problem. Harry won’t cross.

“Come on,” I urge him. He begins to whine. Aussie and I continue on the path, and Harry’s whines turn to cries, then yowls that can be heard at the White House. He scampers up and down the sides of the creek, urgently looking for a way to cross, rushing down closer to the freezing water, then back up, bawling like a baby.

Aussie turns around, rushes back and crosses the plank bridge. With her body she edges the younger dog toward the bridge, you could practically hear her say in dog language: Come on! You can do it! And when Harry pulls back in fright she grabs a hold of his black collar, his name embroidered in gold along with my phone number, and starts pulling him toward the bridge. It almost works, but he resists at the very end and gets away from her.

Aussie comes back to me, and I return with her across the bridge to be with Harry. We could walk on that side, too, there’s plenty of space for everyone, including those who won’t cross bridges.

“One day,” I tell him, “you’ll have to cross that bridge.”

“Okay, just not today.” Maybe never, he’s thinking. I can see a happy gleam in his eye.

While we’re having that conversation, Aussie is beginning to sidle away, listening not for a conversation but for a call. Conversations don’t interest her; she lives to be called.