Lynne and I were reading the papers over breakfast on our porch in Vermont when we heard loud barking. The barks turned to yelps and howls that sounded like distress calls. In a rural area like ours, you know get to know your neighbors. If they have dogs, and most do, you also get to know the dogs. This was not a bark we recognized. It was nothing like the yapping we heard last month, which proved to be a terrier’s ceaseless complaint about being left alone for the afternoon inside a nearby house. These were the cries of a big dog somewhere in the woods behind our house, possibly in trouble. When they didn’t let up, I set off in search of it.
It took only a few minutes to find a reddish yellow retriever standing in the brook. He was about 20 feet from me, down a steep, muddy bank. At the sound of my voice, he fell silent and stared at me, motionless. He didn’t seem to be injured, but he looked old and addled.
Being no youngster myself, I descended the bank cautiously, with no idea what I would do once I got to the dog. I half-expected him to snarl as I approached, but he made no protest. When I held out my hand for sniffing and patted his head, he gave his tail a few feeble wags. The collar he wore had no identifying tags. When I walked a few feet downstream and called him, he followed with a stumbling gait that suggested crippling arthritis or bad hips. I wasn’t entirely sure I could haul myself back up that bank, and there was no way I could do it with a 70-pound dog in my arms.
Using my cell phone, I called home and described the dog to Lynne and talked with her about what to do with him. I knew where to find the town’s dog-catcher, but his wife of 60 years had died of cancer just a few days earlier, so we certainly weren’t calling him. The dog looked like the one we had seen with Dave and Ony, our nearest neighbors. Lynne called me back in a few minutes to report that they weren’t home, and neither was their dog. The more we talked, the more likely it seemed that the dog was theirs. Dave works for the town, so Lynne called Andy, the town clerk, and Andy called Dave’s cell phone. Dave said the dog in our brook was not his, but that it matched the description of one he had found in the same brook two weeks ago. He knew the owner’s name. Andy said he would send the police to our house to pick up the dog and would try to reach the owner.
As the phone calls went back and forth, the dog and I slowly made our way to a small side stream that enters the brook on a gradual slope. We walked up the side stream to where the bank levels off. From there, we had a much more manageable climb and then a gentle hundred-yard walk through the woods to the house.
We arrived to find a police officer and his patrol car in the driveway, with a pickup truck just rolling in. A 40-ish man emerged from the truck, and the dog walked toward him with his tail in motion. The man lifted the dog into the truck, and thanked us. He said he had recently bought the house at the end of our road. The dog’s name is Champ, and he is indeed old and addled, has bad hips, and doesn’t see well. “It’s getting to be that time,” the man said, climbing back into his truck. Meanwhile, if we hear barking from our woods, he’s getting a knock on his door.