To All The Dogs We've Loved

dogs in space

Mark Riechers (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
February 05, 2022

The bond we share with dogs runs deep. The satisfaction of gentle head scratches or a round of playing fetch is simple and pure, but in other ways, the connection we have is truly unknowable. How do dogs make our lives better? How do they think? And how do we give them the lives they deserve?

a dog on the trail howls

Dogsledders Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain have built an outdoor adventure life in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where they train teams of dogs to race. But for the husband-and-wife team, the pack is also part of their family.

person and dog

Ecofeminist philosopher Donna Haraway has a reputation for tackling the big intellectual questions of our time. She’s also obsessed with dogs — their biological, cultural, political and personal history.


Merle was smart, obedient, and always up for an adventure — the kind of dog you can take anywhere. But even the most cherished dogs grow old. A friend suggested that essayist Sarah Miller get a “bridge dog" — a young dog who might make Merle’s impending loss easier to bear.

Stained glass in the chapel on Dog Mountain
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If you are now or have ever been a dog lover, there’s a place you need to go — Dog Mountain in Northern Vermont. 150 acres of hills, trails, and ponds just for pups, plus a dog chapel for memorializing lost pets and an annual summer dog party.


Show Details 📻
February 05, 2022
October 01, 2022
June 10, 2023
February 10, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. A lot of us have been spending less time with other people than we might've liked and more time with another species. Dogs.

- [Mark] There's kind of a musher camp up ahead. Let's see what's going on.

- [Anne] Producer Mark Riechers went to meet two people who know dogs better than most, Quince Mountain and Blair Braverman.

- Hi.

- Hi.

- Are you in public radio?

- [Mark] Yeah.

- Blair and Q are right here.

- Oh cool, great.

- Yeah.

- [Anne] They're champion mushers which means dogs are their life.

- [Quince] All right, we're here to take a sled dog ride with this on a cart.

- [Mark] Sure. Yeah.

- [Quince] So, you always worry about getting the dogs.

- [Blair] I felt so grateful during the pandemic that I had somewhere safe I could go with my friends who are dogs.

- [Quince] It's a four wheeler. It's doing how you do and stuff.

- [Blair] Dogs view the world differently and they live in the moment. They're thinking about where they are right now and what they have and who they're with, and that's something that it can be hard to remember when you're alone as a human to just be present but the dogs force you to and that alone makes a big difference. So, this is Willow. She's riding with her mama and they're gonna do the two-dog bike class. Is that right, Willow? She's standing on my lap right now and wanting her butt scratched.

- [Mark] Am I allowed to pet her? Is that okay?

- Yes, you absolutely can.

- [Quince] I mean, the mother here is a superstar and she's the faster one right now. Her daughter just seemed a little off yesterday. We'll see if she does better today. I mean, she didn't do terrible. It was fine but you can only go as fast as your slowest hug, you know? You gotta all come in together as a team, so.

- [Blair] I think teammates feels like a really good word. It's not like we're the bosses and they are... You know, our team. It's like we're all on a team together and it's us and them moving through the world and having these adventures relying on each other the whole way.

- [Quince] I think also though people project a lot onto dogs. People will be like, "If a dog were president." And I'm sort of like, "Which dog?" Because some dogs are just constantly plotting to steal each other's bones. And some have great leadership abilities and some would be maybe better as like a sanitation worker or something.

- [Blair] If every dog had a podcast, what would it be?

- [Mark] Now I wanna know what the podcasts are. Dog podcast.

- [Blair] If Flame had a podcast, it would be reviewing dead things. If Wixson had a podcast, I think it would be an interview show where he just gets really enthusiastically into people's faces and is like, "What do you think about this?" Zaggot wouldn't have a podcast.

- [Mark] Just a newsletter.

- [Blair] He's too visual. And it would be like an old school blog like early 2000's "What I did today" with great enthusiasm and a lot of exclamation points.

- [Mark] I ate this today.

- [Blair] Yes. Cole bear would be a restaurant critic, but every single thing would get 10 out of 5 stars. We could do this all day long.

- [Mark] I love it. I love it.

- [Blair] I mean, we've had a lot of dogs. Every single one of them is completely different from every other dog.

- [Anne] Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain are celebrities in the world of sled dog racing. And more importantly, their dogs are celebrities too which says something about the depth of the human-dog bond. Dogs are humans' oldest companions. We've been together for more than 10,000 years, but we're still learning about them. And so partly as a way of saying thanks to all those pandemic puppies, today we're sharing stories of people whose lives have been transformed by dogs. Mark Rickers and Shannon Henry Kleiber teamed up to bring us this story.

- [Announcer] Three, two, one, go.

- [Blair] All right, it is hard to hold these dogs back when they're ready to go.

- [Shannon] Mark, you went to a race in northern Wisconsin and hung out with Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain and their dogs. What was the feel of the day?

- [Mark] So this event is called the Doty's Dusty Dog Dryland Race.

- [Blair] It's Pepe barking to go.

- [Mark] We're watching these sprint races, shorter races that anywhere from a whole team of dogs to just two dogs or then a single dog and somebody running behind them.

- [Blair] This is their first big event in harness of the year.

- [Mark] Like they have to stay focused?

- Yeah.

- Yeah.

- [Shannon] It's kind of a preparation for the Iditarod or is that the right way to describe it?

- [Mark] It's almost more like social practice, just getting used to the environment of being in a race.

- [Blair] They're adjusting back into like business mode and they come to a place with a lot of sled dogs and they're like, "We know what this means. This means we get to run all out." And that's their favorite thing.

- [Mark] Nice.

- [Blair] Now get out of the way.

- [Mark] Yeah.

- [Blair] Once someone has seen sled dogs in action, there's no question you can just see the excitement that they have and the drive they have to run. They are more competitive than we are. If our dogs see another dog team, they will want to pass the other dog team and they will be upset if the other dog team passes them. And we're like, "It's okay. We're in fresh snow. Like let the other team break trail for a while." And they'll be like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We break trail. We are in front."

- [Shannon] You each raced a team in the Iditarod and I wanted to ask you to tell me a story from that experience. So something that happened or something you felt during that time.

- [Blair] I have one that comes to mind. Iditarod is the most famous dog sled race. You know, one of the oldest. And there are these sort of legendary places along the trail. Like there's something called the Dalzell Gorge which is basically you come down from a mountain following this creek. It's just terrifying. And you're just like zigzagging across this incredibly steep series of waterfalls practically over ice bridges. Like it's ridiculous.

- [Quince] What's that game where the ball bounces around between things?

- [Blair] Pinball, it feels like that. It was so much worse than I had imagined. It was so much worse. But Peppy, our leader, just took on this trail and very deftly with such confidence was taking all these turns and leading the other dogs exactly where they needed to go. And all I could think again and again as I held on and hoped I wouldn't go flying off into space was peppy is leading us through the Gorge. Peppy is leading us through the Gorge. I am in her paws, so to speak. We were all under her responsibility. So, that was sort of what blew my mind the most.

- [Shannon] I love that description, the two of you together. And you can't talk in English, but you can be not worried or try to say, "It's okay, let's go." And communicate that way. I mean, is it body language? What kind of language are you using?

- [Blair] Well, usually the dogs are looking forward when they're running. So, they can't see your body language but they can feel your mood and your energy and your talking to them.

- [Shannon] They can hear how your voice sounds.

- [Blair] They can hear how your voice sounds. And often, you'll find people who have been mushers for a long time will stay very calm. Even in stressful situations, they radiate calm because the dogs are gonna copy your energy. Like there's a big moose or a wolf on the trail and you learn to just be like, "Okay, guys. All right." Because then they'll say... Well, they wanna eat the animal so that they have their own motivation to get excited.

- [Quince] It's quite a contrast to have. And sometimes there's an animal that humans might be worried about like a wolf. And you know, our dogs just move forward, sort of not giving it a thought. And Blair and I will be like each on a sled like, "Did we just mush past a huge black wolf 10 yards away next to it for a while?" Oh, I guess so.

- [Blair] Did that wolf run beside us and none of the dogs cared? Then if you see a deer, they're like, "Let us eat it. Let us eat it. Let us eat it."

- [Quince] If it's a small animal like a mouse or something, they usually just consider it a trail snack and move on.

- [Blair] And then there's moments where like the dogs might be nervous, but you're not at all. Like if you have to go through a tunnel or an underpass or something, they will be like, "What is this? Why is there a tunnel?" And you'll be like, "Okay, let me walk with you and it'll be okay." And they're like, "All right, we trust you but we do not like this tunnel." So the moments when you lean on each other are different. They lean on you sometimes and you lean on them at other times. Oh, here we go.

- [Announcer] 15 seconds. There's 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go. And they're off down the trail.

- [Shannon] Well, I've been following Blair and Quince for a while and know they have this tremendous community both in person and online.

- [Mark] Yeah, I mean there were spectator dogs that were there. You know, it is very much a community.

- [Shannon] It is just one of these things where it's kind of a viral thing on Twitter. I mean, people just love the dogs and get attached to them and follow their stories and wanna hear Leap ate that kind of meat last night and didn't like it or... You know, they just kind of love these Blair and Quince's dog stories.

- [Mark] They're pretty famous. They have a little bit of a magnetism to them. They have people who they brought in to help them with various things or to help train the dogs directly. Or like even for these smaller events, they're basically loaning their dogs out for others to train with them which was kind of mind blowing at first. These are like champion dogs that have run these incredible athletic events and it's like, "No, you should go... You should go out. You should try it." They engage with people all the time, just people who are interested in what they're doing.

- [Blair] The humans who follow the dogs are so kind and incredible. Like when I was in the Iditarod, I started coming into villages and people would hug me and I didn't know what was going on. I thought I'm really sleep deprived 'cause I have no idea what's happening. And it was because fans of the team had organized to raise money for schools in all the villages we passed through and raised over $100,000 that year and this has continued every single year since then.

- [Quince] The experience of watching a 12 or 14-day race online can be kind of slow.

- There's just a moving dog.

- They're checking. And they're like, "Oh, Blair's still resting. Is everything okay? What if she died?" And so people have all these anxieties and they just kind of started sublimating them into initiatives like the I-knit-arod where as people watch and through the month of March during racing, they're sort of knitting hats and gloves and things that ultimately get sent to people villages along the trail where we mush.

- Oh, here they come.

- Here they come.

- [Blair] Here they come. You and Pepe and Willow are running right back after finishing the event. I see some smiles. They're drinking some water.

- [Mark] Yeah, they're going right for the water buckets.

- [Blair] Yup. Good job you guys. You, I watched on the finish line.

- [Quince] She's just... This dog is really special. I mean, a dog that can finish the Iditarod and then come and be competitive in a one or two or three-mile sprint race is a pretty amazing dog.

- Wow.

- Pretty versatile.

- [Shannon] Did you get to meet Pepe?

- [Mark] I did get to meet Pepe. Pepe actually towed me on a bike which was kind of wild. So this event is called bike joining and it's two dogs towing somebody on a bike.

- Hit a big hill. It's like we're needed to work together.

- [Mark] It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

- [Shannon] That sounds so fun.

- [Mark] I'm not dressed for this.

- [Shannon] You have so much joy and so much happiness with these dogs. Has there been a hardest moment or a hardest time and something that you've had to get through with them?

- [Blair] I mean, the hardest moment of having sled dogs is the hardest moment of having dogs in general and loving dogs which is that their lives are shorter than ours. So sometimes we have to say goodbye. That's the grief of loving animals whose lives are shorter than ours. Something that is beautiful about having a dog team is that you can see the other dogs on the team mirroring the behavior and the movements and the instincts of dogs who have not been there in a while. When we first got into mushing, we had the dog named Trace who developed lymphoma. I think we'd only had him four months but we loved him so much and he passed away shortly after that. There was this one driveway that Trace loved. He was fascinated by it and he would always look over his shoulder and be staring at it when we went by and none of the other dogs cared. But after he passed, you know, I'd notice other dogs would look at that driveway and it's just this one like inconspicuous spot but it feels like they sort of learned there was a dog who thought this was important so we keep an eye on it.

- [Shannon] That's a beautiful way of remembering the dog.

- [Blair] It is and you see that and it does feel like... I don't know, I mean, this is getting a lot bigger but it makes me think that that's how human lives work too and we just sort of don't have long enough lifespans to see it. You know, we shape our community and then as it continues to evolve, the impacts of the people who are there are still making ripples. Oh, you'll feel so good if you go in the water. There. Oh, boy.

- [Anne] Blair Braverman is a dog sledder, adventurer, and the author of "Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life." She also has a regular column in Outside Magazine. Quince's Mountain is a dog musher, writer, and survivalist. He was the first openly transgender musher in the Iditarod. They both lived with their sled dogs in the north woods of Wisconsin. And that was Shannon Henry Kleiber and Mark Rickers bringing us their story. Coming up, dogs can make friends with just about anyone. In fact, we could take lessons from them. An inter species friendship.

- [Donna] The dog and the donkey learned to play with each other. Of course, you've got a predator and a prey species and they already know how to read each other's signs. They have co-evolved as hunter and hunted.

- What's the matter with you guys? You quit already. Who won?

- [Donna] But what they were capable of doing was to learn to conduct these extremely exuberant play bouts with each other.

- Uh-oh, here he comes. Choppy, look out.

- [Donna] You know, but I'm also a fan of the YouTube... You know, lion lies down with the lamb genre.

- [Steve] Right, yes. I was just watching a puppy playing with a magpie.

- [Donna] Yeah, exactly. And then there's the kitten and the crow and there's the tortoise and the hippopotamus. This is very Christian, barely secularized Christian literature. And I am a total fan.

- You silly boy. What am I gonna do with you?

- [Donna] And I think it's intellectually interesting watching how these differently intelligent beings learn to read each other.

- [Anne] Philosopher Donna Haraway on the ethics of relationships across species. Up next on "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. There aren't many people who have thought as deeply and critically about dog-human relationships as Donna Haraway. She's a philosopher and eco-feminist theorist. If you haven't heard of her Cyborg manifesto, then maybe I should just say that she is such an academic celebrity. She's been the subject of a documentary called "Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival." She is also obsessed with dogs, their cultural, political, and personal history. Steve Paulson wanted to know more.

- [Steve] Tell me about Cayenne.

- [Donna] Ah, Cayenne, dog of my heart. She died at about age 17. She was a purpose-bred, pure-bred Australian Shepherd who came into my life when I was wanting to play a sport of agility with a high... With a serious other athlete. I became a much better athlete in order to be worthy of Cayenne. She was also a home companion with Ruston, my husband and me. Cayenne is not our only dog, but she and I played a sport together, a sport of agility. Picture a field 100 feet on the side. Fill it up with weave poles, jumps, weaves, A-frames, teeter totters. Put them in some diabolic pattern figured out by a judge. The dog has to do them at speed in sequence at the direction of the human being who has walked the course a couple of times but didn't know it before. So the trust between the dog and the human being has to be really strong. You train for thousands of hours. You drive to state fairs and you camp and you run all day Saturday and Sunday. And if you're a working academic and you're doing that two weekends a month, it's gotta be your research project.

- [Steve] Right, well, I'm trying to think of like, how do you have time to do this? I mean, you obviously gotta love it.

- [Donna] I loved it and I work hard and all the rest of it, but I wrote about it. In a way, that's the answer to how I had time for it. I actually got interested in it as a research question.

- [Steve] You said you're interested in how dogs think. What did you learn?

- [Donna] It's very hard to answer that question. I learned that the speed with which human beings think they know what motivates a dog is pure denial, is a lie we tell ourselves.

- [Steve] What do you mean?

- [Donna] I mean, we don't know how to pay attention to what a dog's ears are really doing and what their eyes are really attending to and what range of color their eyes see and what their range of olfactory perception really is, much less how they process it. Or how their kinetic sense, how the ways they use their bodies in response to really small cues, the way they coordinate their activities, what builds drive in a dog. If you're gonna play a sport well with a member of another species, you have to learn what actually motivates them.

- [Steve] Yeah, so I wanna come back to your relationship with Cayenne because it sounds like... It sounds like a profound relationship.

- [Donna] It was a life changing relationship for... It was deep at levels of touch and smell and daily life and performance. And she and I were seriously embedded in each other. And Cayenne was a dog who did not like inappropriate displays of affection, right? She was not a snuggle dog. She was a high drive herding dog. She was not up for the odd pat, you know?

- [Steve] If you're kind of describing my dog corgi.

- [Donna] She is a working dog. As your corgi, right? So I had to learn to respect her boundaries as you would with another human being or a child or a sexual partner or anybody. Questions of respect in a deep love relationship emerged in important ways. You know, I have dogs now too who carry with them their own stories. With Cayenne, a herding dog from the American West. I grew up in Colorado, right? I am acutely aware I grew up as a young white girl on conquest territory both land seized from Comanche, Arapaho, and other Native American tribes and land seized also from the Spanish. Anyway, multiple layers of conquest. And I'm aware that Cayenne, the dog I fell in love with, is one of the dogs enlisted in the work of herding sheep who are imported from Australia after the gold rush to feed the disappointed miners, that I'm working with a dog who like me inherits being white in a certain way in the US ranching west, that we played our sport in the fairgrounds with the railroads and the stockyards and quinceaneros, celebrations on Saturday, and the NASCAR racing and the social history built into who we were.

- [Steve] Through your relationship with Cayenne, you learned more about yourself.

- [Donna] About myself, and I started caring in a different way about the history of ranching in the Rocky Mountain West and the history of sport and the relationship of the herding dogs to the other dogs. And my love affair with Cayenne was what brought me to the Colorado Plateau and my study of the Navajo Nation and the Black Mesa Water Coalition and the Black Mesa coal mining and the Navajo generating plant and the sheep and wool market on the Navajo nation and the relationship with the wool weavers in Massachusetts and the Tarahumara in Central... What I'm saying is that my love affair with Cayenne ended up leading me into worlds I knew nothing about. And that my love affair with her led me to know how to care more. Sometimes people say that if you love a dog, it's petty and small because it makes you small. But my experience about loving anything, most certainly including a dog, is that it makes you big in the sense that all of a sudden you're tracking threads that you weren't curious about before. You can't talk about relations with other organisms, and most certainly including dogs, without being inserted into the flows of world history. So the dog I'm in love with now is from Taiwan. I knew nothing about Taiwan. Now I don't... I still don't claim to know a vast amount, but I actually, because of her, know a fair amount about the history of dogs in Southeast Asia and the international adoption scene.

- [Steve] There is a strain of thinking among some animal advocates that we shouldn't have pets.

- [Donna] Of course, there is. I have a tiny bit of respect for that opinion in that I understand this is not a relationship of equality, that it's a relationship based on control, and necessarily so otherwise you kill your dog. Although it's strong levels of mutual control. But I think affectional relationships are a good thing. And I think they are regularly abused and they are abused in the pet world as they are abused in every other world. I regard pets actually as a kind of working animal. I think affection is a hard job and that pets work really hard.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Donna] So I think these are complex relations of labor and play and love and violence. To glorify them, I think, is illegitimate. But I also think that to be alive, to be a mortal creature, to live and die with each other is to be accountable for our forms of love and violence. And that the relationship of pet with a pet is an honorable one but not a simple one.

- [Steve] Did you ever feel like you really got to know what Cayenne was thinking? I mean, how far do you think you got into sort of the experience of subjective experience-

- [Donna] And her with me, did she ever really understand who the well I was?

- Did that matter to you? I mean, is that like a quest of yours to try to figure out how did Cayenne perceive the world?

- [Donna] Well, I was interested in that. And no, I certainly don't think I ever reached seriously deep understanding. Although I knew more than I did before, but I didn't lose any sleep over that question. At the end of the day, it's who you live with and care about.

- [Steve] Yeah, 'cause I'm just sort of thinking of a conversation I had with Jane Goodall some years ago where she said she would give anything to just be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for a couple of minutes.

- [Donna] Yeah, but you know, we're not inside anybody's mind. We're not inside another human being's mind ever. We're not even inside our own mind. If I could only kidnap for a minute my own self so that I can actually know who I am, I think the fantasy of full knowledge is a violent fantasy. And that-

- Why violent?

- [Donna] I think it's a kidnapping fantasy. I think it's a possession of self another. I think it's a kind of lust of oneness. And I understand it at the fantasy level. I understand Jane Goodall's comment and I honor it. And of course, we wish we could only know if only for a minute what the one we love, or hate for that matter, what really makes them tick. But it very quickly, I think particularly in the cultures that I come from, comes to be a kind of fantasy of perfect communication. And I think that's a violent fantasy. I think that leads us to murder.

- To murder.

- And to war. I think it leads us to violence against the other because the other remains other.

- [Steve] So you're saying... I mean, there's almost an ethics to honoring...

- [Donna] Otherness.

- [Steve] The otherness.

- [Donna] Yeah. One of the things I learned with Cayenne and with Cindy Chu and with Oz and with Alexander Berkman, and I'm naming various of my dogs over the years.

- [Steve] Wait, you have a dog named Alexander Berkman?

- [Donna] Yeah, he was a great anarchist. He really was. It was a wonder he got through life. He was into hot and tots against the dogs of the ruling class. I think if you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing. That not knowing kind of quasi Buddhist value. But the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be I think is something you learn in a serious relationship. A kind of letting go and not knowing and being with each other not knowing.

- [Steve] God, that's so hard though.

- [Donna] It's very hard. I think it takes a lot of restraint. It takes forgiving each other, too. It takes forgiving yourself, for imposing yourself on the other, for thinking you knew when you didn't, for not paying enough attention to know when you could have.

- Yeah.

- You know?

- [Anne] Donna Haraway is an eco-feminist theorist and a pioneer in the field of animal studies. She and Steve had a much longer conversation which you can find in the LA review of books or on our website at Coming up. You know the phrase, there are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners?

- [Sarah] Ruthie, you're such a dictator. Come on. Come here. Do you not wanna go outside? Now she's decided that she doesn't wanna go outside. Ruthie's a terrible dog.

- [Anne] So is Alfie.

- [Sarah] She's horrible.

- [Anne] Alfie is so badly-behaved.

- [Sarah] I'm gonna give up.

- [Anne] Loving, naughty, stubborn, difficult dogs next on "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Once upon a time, Sarah Miller had the perfect dog, a blue healer named Merl who was smart and obedient and always up for an adventure. The kind of dog you could take anywhere. But even the most cherished dogs grow old. And as Merl's end approached, a friend suggested that Sarah get a bridge dog, a puppy or at least a young dog who could join the family now and maybe make Merl's impending loss easier to bear. And Sarah kind of liked this idea of a bridge dog. She even wrote a piece about it for the New Yorker. Although, it also seemed disloyal.

- [Sarah] Yeah, I felt really bad. And I also thought Merl might feel bad but I kept wanting somebody to tell me that it was okay because I just knew that I wanted someone to be there to absorb the sorrow of losing Merl when it happened.

- [Anne] So that's when Ruthie came into your life who sounds like a totally different dog.

- [Sarah] Oh my God, yeah. I was just like, "I want another healer." And then I just saw Ruthie's picture and I just instantly fell in love with her and it's weird because she is very much like her picture. She looked very apprehensive and chubby. I just instantly knew. And I said to my boyfriend, "Let's go get her." She's such a weird dog. I'm sure they were... They basically just went, "Okay, thanks. Bye, take the dog," when we got there.

- [Anne] So, what's strange about her?

- [Sarah] If you put her on a leash and you walk outside, she walks for about a minute and then she pulls on the leash and like wants to go home. If you could get her into the woods, she's okay. She's extremely nervous. She hates loud noises. She hates bicycles. She hates skateboards. If people are coming towards you, she just looks at you like, "Can you believe that that person is coming towards us?"

- [Anne] What's she like with other dogs?

- [Sarah] Oh, she lunges at them. She either ignores them, just walks by them. It's almost like she's trying to pretend like nobody can see Ruthie. Like she just gets really still. I don't know. She's really, really weird.

- [Anne] I have to say, we're talking over Zoom and I can see just Ruthie's ears poking out from under the covers in the bed. She's very cute.

- [Sarah] She's like at once entitled and like really terrified which is really funny. We're actually incredibly similar.

- [Anne] So I hear you describing all the ways she's like a somewhat difficult or let's say challenging dog and I hear so much love in your voice.

- [Sarah] Oh, I love Ruthie so much. I've never loved... Other than my boyfriend who is just really, really wonderful, and I met him when I was 43. I've never loved anything as much as I love Ruthie. Even Merl. I mean, I guess to be honest. Although that's not really fair, but I just have so much tenderness for Ruthie. She really loves me and my boyfriend and she just really needs us so much. Like she's just needs to be protected.

- [Anne] So the piece that you wrote about the bridge dog, about the decline and death of Merl and adding Ruthie, it was so meaningful to me partly because I didn't live exactly that experience. But our beloved family dog, Toby, a corgi who was widely adored by everybody who knew him, he was just a kind of angelic dog.

- [Sarah] I love corgis.

- [Anne] They have wonderful temperaments. Although we didn't realize how different corgis can be until Toby sadly died at the very beginning of the pandemic and we were just flattened by the grief. My husband and I didn't... I mean, we saw it coming. He got prostate cancer and we were grateful in some ways to the pandemic 'cause we got to spend his last six weeks all of us snuggled up, us working on the couch while he slowly declined. So we saw it coming and it was still... I think it's the worst thing that's happened to me which I feel...

- [Sarah] Right.

- [Anne] That's such a statement of privilege. And at the same time, it just ripped us up. So fast forward, nine months later our grown kids said to us, "You guys need a dog." We find another Corgi, this adorable little tricolored, black, tan, and white puppy. But so Alfie turns out to be a completely different dog with a completely different temperament. He is like the jerky kid brother after this really saintly older brother died. And I thought I was ready and it took me quite a while to bond with him. In those early months, puppies are difficult and he was kind of out of control and I felt such a complicated mix of emotions. Like there were days I almost hated him. I resented him for not being Toby and for taking Toby's place. And at the same time, how can you not love a puppy? And he brought so much life and energy into our lives. Anyway, I just feel like how we feel about dogs is so much more complicated than we generally put into words.

- [Sarah] I think we probably do love dogs in some ways maybe even more than we love human beings. And also, they have such distinctive personalities. And the thing that was just so hard for me ultimately about losing Merl is you'll just never see them again. And they are so special. Like Ruthie, when she wants something, she goes . But she makes one noise. She goes . And Merl went . Like three of them. And you know, just never hearing that again. She's just really funny. She could like open a trash can with her foot. I don't know. And you just realize that you're never gonna see that. There's no other being like that just the way people are unique. You know, your friends, your family, the people that you love.

- [Anne] I wonder if some of it is because our relationship with dogs is wordless. Of course, we communicate with them. But when you were saying we love dogs in some ways more than we love humans or differently but in some ways more... The closest I felt is when my children were babies. And I think it's the same thing. It's before they could speak and you have a really different relationship. Your relationship is all based on look and touch and hearing and so much that we can't put into words.

- [Sarah] That's one of the reasons actually that I feel closer to Ruthie. I did not have like a physical relationship with Merl. That sounds really weird. I remember Merl was not... Merl was not a dog that I touched very much. I mean, I sort of pat her head, but this dog is really cuddly. She sleeps with us. And so I think that that element of it, without the actual words, like makes it this very pure kind of love.

- [Anne] And I think the pandemic is a time when pretty much everybody who has a dog or got a dog realized that the dogs really did so much to help us get through. The reason we have dogs, you know? The affection and the emotional bond and the reminder to be present rather than being afraid all the time about the future.

- Just look here.

- We're still looking at... Yeah, Ruthie's little ears popping up over the blanket. Anyway, so the weirdness of it has been that this is all during the pandemic. So our dog died six weeks into the pandemic when the newspapers were full of stories of people dying, people losing their fathers and their mothers and... It both partly felt like we were just sinking into the same sea of grief that was slowly engulfing the entire planet. And at the same time, it felt like, "Well, I can hardly complain. I mean, he's a dog and he lived out his lifespan."

- [Sarah] I think I had some anxiety when the peace came out because it came out during the pandemic. I had this anxiety that people were gonna be like, "Oh my God, this lady's upset about her dog that died when it was 15 or whatever." And I got a lot of DMs and emails from people who had lost... I don't know if anyone had lost anyone to COVID particularly, it just helped them deal with grief in general. I don't know, I think there's just something about someone admitting that they're really sad. That is helpful. My friend, actually, when I was depressed, he said, "You should get a dog. You should get a dog." And I was like, "That's not gonna make a difference." But it really does make a huge difference.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [Sarah] It's just like a baseline of happiness because every time I look at the dog, I feel happy. Are you happy with your dog now?

- [Anne] I am totally happy with the dog now. Having this pretty angelic dog and then you get the new dog is like... I don't wanna say devil dog, but just a little bit. And I guess it took me a little while to realize that I actually really like that. I was a good kid, you know? I kinda like having a misbehaved naughty dog. So now I'm gonna get a lot of hate mail 'cause obviously I'm a terrible dog owner.

- [Sarah] Oh, I know. I got messages about Ruthie telling me how to make her better. And I was like, "I've tried." Also I think there are limits to dog training probably.

- [Anne] Sarah Miller has written for The New Yorker and The Cut and publishes a Substack newsletter, The Real Sarah Miller. You can find a link to the bridge dog and her other work including a story about Ruthie's terrible, no good, very bad day riding in a tow truck on our website at And now.. ♪ What's it all about ♪ ♪ Alfie ♪

- [Anne] If you are now or have ever been a dog lover, there's a place you have to see. Dog Mountain in Northern Vermont. 150 acres of rolling Vermont hills, trails, and ponds where leashes are optional. There's a dog chapel, more about that in a minute, and an annual summer dog party. Man, there are a lot of dogs arriving. Which is why we're here. Steve and I and our pandemic puppy.

- [Steve] Come on, Alfie. Come on, Alfie.

- Oh wait, no.

- Oh wait. Come on, Alfie.

- That's a Corgi, eh?

- [Shannon] It is a Corgi. Alfie.

- Alfie. Hey, Alfie. ♪ What's it all about ♪

- This is Suki and she is the most spectacular dog on the planet.

- [Steve] Well, there might be some argument.

- [Anne] I know, we've got Alfie here.

- Everybody's dog is like that.

- [Steve] Okay, we're gonna come on in here into the gallery.

- Look at this little corgi, eh? Hello.

- [Steve] Hi.

- [Anne] Dog Mountain was created by Stephen Huneck and his wife, Gwen. Stephen was a self-taught folk artist who spent much of his life painting and drawing and carving dogs. He and his wife created the tradition of dog parties After their deaths, the Friends of Dog Mountain formed to keep it going.

- [Amanda] My name is Amanda McDermott and I've been working at Dog Mountain for 15 years. So, I've been at many, many dog parties. It's a big hoopla of fun, music, food, silly dog contests. My favorite is best kisser. So it's just a real fun day for dogs, you know? There isn't that many places that dogs get to meet and greet on such a wide scale and just have a great day.

- [Anne] Stephen's life was marked by hardship including a midlife accident that put him in a coma for months.

- [Amanda] There was a definite point where we didn't know if he was gonna make it type of situation. But thankfully, he did. And when he came out, he had to start all over again. He had to learn how to walk again, talk again, and do art again. And what was amazing was his dogs were such a big part of his healing process.

- [Steve] What did people in this area like the St. Johnsbury area think about this guy?

- [Amanda] Oh, they thought he was crazy. You know, when anybody tells you, "I'm gonna spend a million dollars and build a dog chapel." But when you go in the chapel and you see the thousands and thousands of handwritten notes, photos of all these animals that have touched people in such a way you understand.

- [Anne] So the dog chapel, it's the real reason people come here. It's why it's a pilgrimage site. Picture a small white New England style church with a steeple on top. And inside, the walls really are completely covered with handwritten cards and notes and pictures commemorating a dog somebody loved and lost. Wow. Oh my God, the stained glass windows. Like a church, but each of them has a dog face.

- [Steve] Yeah, we've lost, well, three. Misha, Jones, and Aggie. But you get past it and you get a new dog.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- You never get all the way past it.

- No, you don't get past-

- I think about Ogie. Ogie was my-

- Oh, he was the perfect dog.

- Closest friend ever.

- He was the best dog ever in my life. It makes people say you get one dog in your life that's the one and he was the-

- But we have two minutes probably.

- But I love Ruggles but in a kind of different kind of way.

- [Anne] Stephen Huneck said the dog chapel was the largest artwork of his life, and the most personal. He believed in the healing power of dogs. But in the end, even they weren't enough to keep him here. Stephen and Gwen had always struggled to keep Dog Mountain afloat. But when the recession hit, they had to lay off staff. Loans came due. They couldn't find backers. And in January of 2010, Stephen lost his lifelong struggle with depression and took his life. Gwen died three years later. And yet Dog Mountain is still here. Still clearly thriving.

- It's a song that Robert Johnson wrote way back around 1928.

- [Anne] Dogs and people, frisbees, celebration, family and friends and an army of volunteers keeps it going. And word has spread. Today people and their dogs come here from hundreds of miles away.

- Have you been over the pond, Steve?

- Yeah, they were gonna have taco trucks or something.

- Have you been to the pond?

- [Steve] We just got here. We've just been in the gallery.

- [Anne] Yeah, are these your first dogs?

- Oh no, no, I've had plenty of dogs. He has not. Yeah, but I have. Yeah, plenty of dogs. And so they're my treat. They're my family. Yeah, so this is the one-year-old. Kaiser.

- [Anne] You are beautiful.

- He's a good boy. Do you have anything to say to the reporter?

- [Anne] No, but might like to eat the microphone. Look at all the dogs swimming.

- [Steve] Yeah, and he's never been here.

- [Anne] No, I can't believe it. Alfie, Alfie. Come on, sweetie. Meanwhile, Alfie has decided the pond is where the action is at. It's where the big dogs are. The labs and retrievers are having a total blast at the pond. They're jumping in and out, flinging mud and water everywhere including this one who comes bounding over and rips the microphone out of my hand. It's the first time I've lost a microphone to a large black wet Labrador. ♪ When you walk ♪ ♪ Let your heart lead the way ♪

- [Anne] Yeah, so all good parties must come to an end. Time to pack up our gear, pull Alfie away from all his new best friends, and head home for a nap. ♪ Alfie ♪

- [Anne] For all of us. But you know, when you live with a dog, every day's a party, right? ♪ Alfie ♪

- [Anne] Thanks to the Friends of Dog Mountain for letting us play. And thanks to the dogs of "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Alfie.

- Lula.

- Seven.

- Bibi.

- I don't have a dog. My cats are jealous.

- Ziggy, also not a dog.

- Waffle and Pepper and Mr. Bones.

- [Anne] We'll put pictures of them and us on our newsletter. You can sign up at A hardworking team of producers at "To the Best of our Knowledge" fetches stories for you every week. Mark Riechers, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, and Angelo Bautista. Joe Hartdke is our technical director and sound designer. Additional sound design this week came from Sarah Hopefl. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. And whether you're a dog lover or not, I hope you find joy in the world this week. So long for now.

- Bacon, are you hungry?

- PRX.

Last modified: 
February 12, 2024