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?

Articles

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.

Length: 
17:27
person and dog
Articles

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.

Length: 
10:58
Ruthie
Articles

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.

Length: 
10:28
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.

Length: 
7:58
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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

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 have and more time with another species, dogs.

Mark Riechers (00:42):

There's a musher camp up ahead. Let's see what's going on.

Anne Strainchamps (00:50):

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

Blair Braverman (00:57):

Hi.

Mark Riechers (00:59):

Hi.

Quince Mountain (01:00):

Are you with public radio?

Mark Riechers (01:01):

Yeah.

Quince Mountain (01:02):

[inaudible 00:01:02] right here.

Mark Riechers (01:03):

Cool, great.

Anne Strainchamps (01:07):

They're champion mushers, which means dogs are their life.

Quince Mountain (01:11):

You're here to take a sled dog ride with us on a cart?

Mark Riechers (01:14):

Sure.

Quince Mountain (01:14):

You always worry about getting the dogs-

Blair Braverman (01:22):

I felt grateful during the pandemic that I had somewhere safe I could go with my friends who are dogs.

Quince Mountain (01:29):

So four wheelers go [inaudible 00:01:32].

Blair Braverman (01:35):

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 is a big difference.

Blair Braverman (01:57):

So this is Willow, she's running with her momma and they're going to do the two dog bike class. Is that right Willow? She's standing on my lap right now and wanting her butt scratched.

Mark Riechers (02:08):

Am I allowed to pet her? Is that okay?

Blair Braverman (02:09):

Yes you absolutely can.

Quince Mountain (02:16):

The mother here is a superstar and she's the faster one right now. Her daughter did seem a little off yesterday, we'll see if she does better today. She didn't do terrible, it was fine but you can only go as fast as your slowest plug. You need to all come in together as a team.

Blair Braverman (02:33):

I think teammates feels a really good word. It's not like we're the bosses and they are... 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 Mountain (02:49):

I think also though, people project a lot onto dogs. People will be like, "If a dog were president," and I'm 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 a sanitation worker or something.

Blair Braverman (03:19):

If every dog had a podcast, what would it be?

Mark Riechers (03:25):

Now I want to know what the podcasts are. Dog podcast.

Blair Braverman (03:29):

If flame had a podcast, it would be reviewing dead things. If Wixen 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?" Zaget wouldn't have a podcast.

Mark Riechers (03:43):

Just a newsletter.

Blair Braverman (03:44):

He's too visual. It would be an old school blog like early 2000s what I did today with great enthusiasm and a lot of exclamation marks.

Mark Riechers (03:53):

I ate this today.

Blair Braverman (03:54):

Yes. Colbear would be a restaurant critic but every single thing would get 10 out of five stars. We could do this all day long.

Mark Riechers (04:06):

I love it. I love it.

Blair Braverman (04:09):

We've had a lot of dogs. Every single one of them is completely different from every other dog.

Anne Strainchamps (04:25):

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 Reichers and Shannon Henry Kleiber teamed up to bring us this story.

Blair Braverman (05:16):

It's hard to hold these dogs back when they're ready to go.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:21):

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 Riechers (05:31):

This event is called the Doty's Dusty Dog Dryland Race.

Blair Braverman (05:37):

It's Pepe barking to go.

Mark Riechers (05:39):

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 Braverman (05:49):

This is their first big event in harness of the year.

Mark Riechers (05:53):

They have to stay focused?

Blair Braverman (05:54):

Yeah.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:54):

It's a preparation for the Iditarod or is that the right way to describe it?

Mark Riechers (06:03):

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

Blair Braverman (06:09):

They're adjusting back into business mode. 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. Now get out of the way. 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. Let the other team break trail for a while." And they'll be like, "No, no, no, we break trail. We are in front."

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:05):

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 Braverman (07:18):

I have one that comes to mind. Iditarod is the most famous dog sled race, one of the oldest. And there are these 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 zigzagging across this incredibly steep series of waterfalls practically over ice bridges. It's ridiculous.

Quince Mountain (07:54):

What's that game where the ball bounces around between things?

Blair Braverman (07:57):

Pinball. It feels like that. It was so much worse than I had imagined. It was so much worse. But Pepe 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, "Pepe is leading us through the Gorge. Pepe is leading us through the Gorge." I am in her paw so to speak. We were all under her responsibility. So that was what blew my mind the most.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (08:43):

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." Is it body language? What language are you using?

Blair Braverman (09:02):

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 Henry Kleiber (09:14):

They can hear how your voice sounds.

Blair Braverman (09:16):

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 going to copy your energy. There's a big moose or a wolf on the trail to learn to just be like, "Okay guys, all right." Because then they'll say... Well they want to eat the animal so that they have their own motivation to get excited.

Quince Mountain (09:49):

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

Blair Braverman (10:11):

"Did that wolf run beside us and none of the dogs cared where..." then if you see a deer, they're like, "Let us eat it. Let us eat it. Let us eat it."

Quince Mountain (10:20):

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

Blair Braverman (10:29):

And then there's moments where 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, "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.

Blair Braverman (11:01):

Here we go.

Announcer (11:02):

15 seconds. We're on to 10, nine, eight. Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. And they're up. Quince Mountain down the trail.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:26):

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

Mark Riechers (11:34):

Yeah, there were spectator dogs that were there. It is very much a community.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:40):

It is just one of these things where it's a viral thing on Twitter. People just love the dogs and get attached to them and follow their stories, and want to hear Leap ate that kind of meat last night and didn't like it. They just love these Blair and Quince's dog stories.

Mark Riechers (12:00):

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 even for these smaller events, they're basically loaning their dogs out for others to train with them, which was mind blowing at first. These are champion dogs that have run these incredible athletic events, and it's like, "No, 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 Braverman (12:33):

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 because I have no idea what's happening." And it was because fans of the team had organized 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 Mountain (13:03):

The experience of watching a 12 or 14 day race online can be slow.

Blair Braverman (13:15):

We're just a moving dot.

Quince Mountain (13:15):

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

Blair Braverman (13:45):

Here they come.

Mark Riechers (13:46):

Here they come.

Blair Braverman (13:48):

Q and Pepe and Willow are running right back after finishing their race. I see some smiles. They're drinking some water. They're going right for the water buckets. Good job you guys. Q, I wasn't at the finish line but-

Quince Mountain (14:05):

This dog is really special. A dog that can finish the Iditarod and then come and be competitive in a one or two or three miles sprint race is a pretty amazing dog. Pretty versatile.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (14:22):

Did you get to meet Pepe?

Mark Riechers (14:24):

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

Quince Mountain (14:39):

We hit a big hill. It's like we need to work together.

Mark Riechers (14:43):

It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (14:45):

That sounds so fun.

Mark Riechers (14:48):

I am not dressed for this.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (14:52):

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 Braverman (15:04):

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.

Blair Braverman (15:45):

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 care. But after he passed, I'd notice other dogs would look at that driveway. And it's just this one inconspicuous spot but it feels like they learned, "There was a dog who thought this was important so we keep an eye on it."

Shannon Henry Kleiber (16:32):

That's a beautiful way of remembering the dog.

Blair Braverman (16:35):

It is. You see that and it does feel, I don't know. This is getting a lot bigger but it makes me think that that's how human lives work too and we just don't have long enough lifespans to see it. We shape our community and then as it continues to evolve, the impacts of the people who were there are still making ripples.

Anne Strainchamps (17:02):

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 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 Reichers bringing us their story.

Anne Strainchamps (17:42):

Coming up, dogs can make friends with just about anyone. In fact, we could take lessons from them in inter-species friendship.

Donna Haraway (17:57):

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.

Speaker 9 (18:19):

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

Donna Haraway (18:24):

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

Speaker 9 (18:34):

Here he comes Choppy. Look out.

Donna Haraway (18:37):

I'm also a fan of the YouTube lion lies down with a lamb genre.

Steve Paulson (18:42):

Right, yes. I was just watching a puppy playing with a magpie.

Donna Haraway (18:48):

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.

Speaker 9 (19:04):

So am I. What am I going to do with you.

Anne Strainchamps (19:13):

I think it's intellectually interesting watching how these differently intelligent beings learn to read each other. Philosopher, Donna Haraway on the ethics of relationships across species up next on To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio, NPRx. There aren't many people who have thought as deeply and critically about dog human relationships as Donna Haraway. She's a philosopher and ecofeminist 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 Paulson (20:17):

Tell me about Cayenne.

Donna Haraway (20:19):

Cayenne dug off my heart. She died at about age 17. She was a purpose bred, purebred, Australian shepherd who came into my life when I was wanting to play a sport of agility 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 Rustin. My husband and me, Cayenne was not our only dog but she and I played a sport together, the 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 who has walked the course a couple of times but didn't know it before.

Donna Haraway (21:10):

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 got to be your research project.

Steve Paulson (21:27):

Right. Well I'm trying to think of it like, "How do you have time to do this?" Obviously you've got to love it.

Donna Haraway (21:32):

I loved it. And I worked... 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 Paulson (21:44):

You said you were interested in how dogs think, what did you learn?

Donna Haraway (21:47):

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

Steve Paulson (21:59):

What do you mean?

Donna Haraway (22:00):

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 all their activities. What builds drive in a dog? If you're going to play a sport well with a member of another species, you have to learn what actually motivates them.

Steve Paulson (22:32):

I want to come back to your relationship with Cayenne because it sounds like a profound relationship.

Donna Haraway (22:38):

It was a life changing relationship for-

Steve Paulson (22:41):

Like very deep.

Donna Haraway (22:41):

It was deep. It had levels of touch, and smell, and daily life, and performance. She and I were seriously embedded in each other. And Cayenne was a dog who did not inappropriate displays of affection. She was not a snuggle dog, she was a high drive herding dog. She was not up for the odd pat.

Steve Paulson (23:06):

You're describing my dog, Quirky.

Donna Haraway (23:09):

She's a working dog. She was as yours Quirky. 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. 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, I am acutely aware I grew up as a young, white girl in conquest territory, both land seized from Comanche Arapahoes 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 were imported from Australia after the gold rush to feed the disappointed miners.

Donna Haraway (24:06):

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 stock yards, quinceanera celebrations on Saturday, and the NASCAR racing and the social history built into who we were.

Steve Paulson (24:30):

Through your relationship with Cayenne, you learned more about yourself?

Donna Haraway (24:35):

About myself, and I started carrying 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. 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.

Donna Haraway (25:15):

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 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 Paulson (26:06):

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

Donna Haraway (26:11):

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'd 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. They are abused in the pet world as they are abused in every other world. I regard pets actually as a working animal. I think affection is a hard job, and that pets work really hard.

Donna Haraway (26:46):

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. That the relationship with a pet is an honorable one but not a simple one.

Steve Paulson (27:15):

Did you ever feel like you really got to know what Cayenne was thinking? How far do you think you got into the experiences-

Donna Haraway (27:26):

And her with me, did she ever really understand who I was?

Steve Paulson (27:31):

Did that matter to you? Is that a quest of yours to try to figure out, "How did Cayenne perceive the world?"

Donna Haraway (27:35):

Well I was interested in that, and no, I certainly don't think I ever reached seriously deep understanding, although I knew 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 Paulson (27:50):

Because I'm just 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 Haraway (28:00):

But 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 could actually know who I am... I think the fantasy of full knowledge is a violent fantasy.

Steve Paulson (28:21):

Why violent?

Donna Haraway (28:23):

I think it's a kidnapping fantasy. I think it's a possession of self another. I think it's a lust of oneness. 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 fantasy of perfect communication. And I think that's a violent fantasy. I think that leads us to murder.

Steve Paulson (28:57):

To murder?

Donna Haraway (28:58):

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

Steve Paulson (29:04):

So you're saying there's almost an ethics to honoring the otherness.

Donna Haraway (29:10):

Yeah. One of the things I learned with Cayenne and with Shindichu and with Oz and with Alexander Barkman, and I'm naming various of my dogs over the years.

Steve Paulson (29:20):

You have a dog named Alexander Barkman?

Donna Haraway (29:22):

Yeah, he was a great anarchist. He really was. It's 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 quasi-Buddhist value, but the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be I think is something you learn in a serious relationship. A letting go and not knowing, and being with each other not knowing.

Steve Paulson (29:57):

That's so hard though.

Donna Haraway (29:58):

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.

Anne Strainchamps (30:25):

Donna Haraway is an ecofeminist 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 ttbook.org. Coming up, you know the phrase there are no bad dogs just bad dog owners?

Sarah Miller (30:50):

Ruthie, you're such a fixator. Come on, come here. Do you not want to go outside? Now she's decided that she doesn't want to go outside. Ruthie's a terrible dog.

Anne Strainchamps (31:07):

So's Alfie.

Sarah Miller (31:08):

She's horrible.

Anne Strainchamps (31:10):

Alfie's so badly behaved.

Sarah Miller (31:13):

I'm going to give up.

Anne Strainchamps (31:15):

Loving, naughty, stubborn, difficult dogs next on To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, NPRx. Once upon a time, Sarah Miller had the perfect dog, a blue healer named Meryl, 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 Meryl'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 Meryl's impending loss easier to bear. And Sarah liked this idea of a bridge dog. She even wrote a piece about it for the New Yorker, although it also seemed disloyal.

Sarah Miller (32:12):

I felt really bad and I also thought Meryl 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 Meryl when it happened.

Anne Strainchamps (32:30):

So that's when Ruthie came into your life, who sounds like a totally different dog.

Sarah Miller (32:36):

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. 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 I'm sure they basically just went, "Okay thanks. Bye. Take the dog," when we got there.

Anne Strainchamps (33:03):

So what's strange about her?

Sarah Miller (33:06):

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 wants to go home. If you can get her to 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 Strainchamps (33:29):

What's she like with other dogs?

Sarah Miller (33:32):

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." She just gets really still. I don't know. She's really, really weird.

Anne Strainchamps (33:44):

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 bedside. She's very cute.

Sarah Miller (33:53):

She entitled and really terrified, which is really funny. We're actually incredibly similar.

Anne Strainchamps (33:59):

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

Sarah Miller (34:08):

I love Ruthie so much. I've never loved... Other than my boyfriend who is just really, really wonderful, I met him when I was 43, I've never loved anything as much as I love Ruthie, even Meryl I guess, to be honest. Although that's not really fair. I just have so much tenderness for Ruthie. She really loves me and my boyfriend and she just really needs us so much. She just needs to be protected.

Anne Strainchamps (34:37):

So the piece that you wrote about the bridge dog, about the decline and death of Meryl 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 that knew him, he was just a kind of angelic dog.

Sarah Miller (35:01):

I love corgis.

Anne Strainchamps (35:02):

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. We were just flattened by the grief, my husband and I. We saw it coming. He got prostate cancer and we were grateful in some ways to the pandemic because 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 that's such a statement of privilege.

Anne Strainchamps (35:43):

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 Alfie turns out to be a completely different dog with a completely different temperament. He's like the jerky kid brother after this really saintly older brother died. 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 out of control. I felt such a complicated mix of emotions. 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 Miller (36:51):

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. The thing that was just so hard for me ultimately about losing Meryl is, you'll just never see them again, and they are so special. Like Ruthie, when she wants something, she goes, "Mm, mm." But if she makes one noise, she goes, "Mm" and Meryl went three of them, and just never hearing that again... She's just really funny. She could open a trash can with her foot. And you just realize that you're never going to see that. There's no other being like that, just the way people are unique, your friends, your family, the people that you love.

Anne Strainchamps (37:48):

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 and 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. 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 Miller (38:29):

That's one of the reasons actually that I feel closer to Ruthie. I did not have a physical relationship with Meryl. That sounds really weird but Meryl was not a dog that I touched very much. I'd 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 makes it this very pure love.

Anne Strainchamps (38:56):

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, the affection and the emotional bond and the reminder to be present rather than being afraid all the time about the future. We're still looking at Ruthie's little ears popping up over the blanket. So the weirdness of it has been that this is all during the pandemic.

Anne Strainchamps (39:33):

So our dog died the six weeks into the pandemic when the newspapers were full of stories of people dying, people losing their fathers and their mothers. 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. He's a dog and he lived out his lifespan."

Sarah Miller (39:59):

I think I had some anxiety when the piece came out because it came out during the pandemic. I had this anxiety that people were going to 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 and emails from people who had lost... I don't know of anyone that had lost anyone to COVID particularly. It just helped them deal with grief in general. 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 going to make a difference," but it really does make a huge difference. It's just a baseline of happiness. Because every time I look at the dog, I feel happy. Are you you happy with your dog now?

Anne Strainchamps (40:54):

I am totally happy with the dog now. Having this pretty angelic dog and then you get the new dog that's like, I don't want to 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., I like having a misbehaved, naughty dog. Now I'm going to get a hate mail because obviously I'm a terrible dog owner.

Sarah Miller (41:21):

I got messages about Ruthie telling me how to make her better, and I've tried. Also, I think there are limits to dog training probably.

Anne Strainchamps (41:40):

Sarah Miller has written for the New Yorker and The Pet and publishes at Substack Newsletter, The Real Sarah Miller. You can find the link to The Bridge Dog and her other work, including a story about Ruth's Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day Riding In A Tow Truck on our website at ttbook.org. And now, 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.

Anne Strainchamps (42:32):

There are a lot of dogs in here I think. Which is why we're here. Steve and I and our pandemic puppy.

Steve Paulson (42:42):

Come on out. Come on.

Anne Strainchamps (42:44):

Wait, no.

Steve Paulson (42:44):

Come on Alfie.

Female (42:44):

That's a corgi?

Steve Paulson (42:44):

It is a corgi.

Female (42:58):

Hey Alfie, what's it all about? This is Suki and she is the most spectacular dog on the planet.

Steve Paulson (43:01):

Well there might be some argument-

Anne Strainchamps (43:04):

We've got Alfie here.

Male (43:06):

Everybody's dog is like that.

Steve Paulson (43:13):

We're going to come running here into the gallery.

Anne Strainchamps (43:15):

He must be leashed in the gallery.

Female (43:25):

Look at this little corgi. [crosstalk 00:43:26].

Anne Strainchamps (43:26):

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 dad's, The Friends of Dog Mountain formed to keep it going.

Anne Strainchamps (43:44):

My name is Amanda McDermot 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. 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 Strainchamps (44:13):

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

Anne Strainchamps (44:19):

There was a definite point where we didn't know if he was going to 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 Paulson (44:38):

What do people in this area, like the St. Johnsbury area think about this guy?

Anne Strainchamps (44:42):

They thought he was crazy. When anybody tells you, "I'm going to spend $1 million 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.

Steve Paulson (45:02):

Should we go out?

Anne Strainchamps (45:02):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (45:23):

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. The stain glass windows, like a church but each of them has a dog face.

Male (46:02):

We've lost well three, Misha, Jones and Augie but you get past it and you get a new dog.

Male (46:10):

You never get all the way past it.

Male (46:12):

No, you don't get past it.

Male (46:14):

I think about Augie. Augie was this friend ever. He was the best dog ever in my life. People say you get one dog in your life, that's the one and he was the one really. I love Rubbles but in a different kind of way.

Anne Strainchamps (46:41):

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. Steven 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, Steven 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.

Male (47:38):

It's the song that Robert Johnson wrote way back around 1928/29.

Anne Strainchamps (47:44):

Dogs and people, Frisbee, 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.

Male (48:01):

[crosstalk 00:48:01].

Anne Strainchamps (48:13):

Are these your first dogs?

Female (48:15):

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

Anne Strainchamps (48:26):

You are beautiful.

Female (48:29):

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

Anne Strainchamps (48:35):

He'd like to eat the microphone. Thank you for talking to me.

Female (48:35):

You're welcome.

Anne Strainchamps (48:46):

Look at all the dogs swimming.

Steve Paulson (48:46):

Yeah, and he's never been here.

Anne Strainchamps (48:46):

Alfie, come on sweetie. Meanwhile, Alfie has decided the pond is where the action's 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.

Anne Strainchamps (49:22):

(singing)

Anne Strainchamps (49:35):

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 For all of us. But when you live with a dog, every day's a party, right? Thanks to the Friends of Dog Mountain for letting us play.

Anne Strainchamps (50:05):

And thanks to the dogs of To The Best of Our Knowledge, Alfie.

Chales Monroe-Kane (50:10):

Lula.

Angelo Bautista (50:11):

Seven.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (50:12):

Bebe.

Joe Hardtke (50:13):

I don't have a dog, my cats are jealous.

Sarah Hopefl (50:15):

Ziggy, also not a dog.

Male (50:17):

Waffle and Pepper and Mr. Bones.

Anne Strainchamps (50:21):

We'll put pictures of them and us on our newsletter. You can sign up at ttbook.org. 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-Cane and Angelo Bautista. Joe Harkey 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 are a dog lover or not, I hope you find joy in the world this week. So long for now.

Mark Riechers (51:01):

Bacon, are you hungry?

Last modified: 
April 19, 2022