In this excerpt from Edward Grinnan’s new book, Always By My Side, a puppy from the country is mentored on the ways of the big city by an older dog who's been around the block.
- Posted on Feb 24, 2017
After we brought Millie home, it was a few weeks before her vaccinations kicked in and we could walk her outside on the Manhattan streets. I was looking forward to it. Nothing attracts an adoring, cooing crowd in New York like a puppy, especially a golden retriever pup.
You think New Yorkers are tough? Just watch them make fools of themselves when a golden puppy comes trundling down the street. Kids squeal, doormen bow, cool cats whip off their shades and shout.
Except none of that happened with Millie because she declined to trundle down the street. She refused to go anywhere beyond the sidewalk immediately in front of our building. She’d politely do her business, to my effusive praise, but when I’d try to walk her down the block, she’d come to a crouching halt, digging in her nails, nipping at her leash, as if she had encountered a force field.
All efforts to entreat her to venture farther failed. I followed the tried-and-true strategies. I tempted her with her favorite toys, enticed her with high-value treats like sirloin chunks, which I gave to the garage guys next door to wave in the air. Real sirloin.
Early one morning I bent down in exasperation and looked into Millie’s eyes, stubborn with fright. Across the street a garbage truck raucously hoisted an industrial-sized Dumpster high in the air, like a monster in a Japanese horror film lifting a car with an earthshaking bellow, the garbage Godzilla.
The clamor set off car alarms. Drivers honked at the traffic stoppage occasioned by the groaning, grinding garbage truck. There were rolled-down windows and angry exchanges.
Millie cringed and drooped her ears, as if she was trying to deafen herself to the cacophony most urbanites are perfectly inured to. An annoyance most city dogs learn to put up with. She was from sleepy, backwoods Florida, bred by a family who was not in it for the money but for the satisfaction of producing a few fine dogs. W
hat am I doing in this madness? I could see her thinking. I want to go back inside with my toys and my bed and my people. She wanted to be where she knew it was safe, and I couldn’t blame her. So I complied, just as the terrifying Dumpster was slammed back to earth. Millie made a beeline for our door.
Things didn’t improve. Sometimes I would lift Millie up, carry her halfway down the block and release her, only to have her immediately jerk me back in the direction of the apartment. At 20 pounds or so, she was already powerful.
I’d find myself brooding about her time in the airplane up from Florida and bemoaning the guy who had pushed the luggage cart she was a passenger on, smashing it into practically anything he could find. I berated myself: We should have driven down and gotten her! We should have borrowed from our retirement savings and rented a private plane!
“The whole ordeal traumatized her, poor thing,” my wife, Julee, concluded.
Lord, I prayed one night, this isn’t working. I can’t have a dog in the city who won’t go outside. Especially a dog who was going to be very large, if her parents, Petey and Maggie, were any indication.
Up at our vacation cabin in the Berkshire Hills it was different story. A great story. Millie loved the woods and the yard. She was bold and fearless, a different dog.
At dusk, she would stand on a little bluff above the driveway, on tippy paws, as it were, raise her head, and shout to the emerging stars, a mighty bark even for a youngster, a bark that echoed off the hills like a cannon shot and silenced all the neighboring dogs, who would pause respectfully for a spell until they answered back from their own little hilltops. She loved the house in the Berkshires. She loved the country.
Which is where we decided to retreat that Fourth of July weekend. Julee was touring overseas again for a few weeks, and I decided that rather than continue the failing effort to get Millie acclimated to Manhattan street life, we’d spend the holiday hiking and grilling in the country, just the two of us.
Still, I was feeling despondent upon our arrival even as Millie shot out of the Jeep and tore across the lawn, ears and tail flying. I felt like I had let our dog down. She just didn’t trust me. She didn’t believe in me; I was convinced she simply could not accept that I would keep her safe amid all that noise and chaos and confusion.
“She’s just a little old country girl,” Julee, a little old country girl herself, had said, climbing into the taxi for the airport, waving and wiping away a tear as the car drove off, me holding Millie in my arms and looking, I’m sure, rather at a loss.
It was on the Saturday, I think, of that long weekend, while Millie and I were hiking a buggy trail around Fountain Pond Park, that inspiration struck. At this point I’m satisfied to say it was divine inspiration, for I never could have conjured up the solution that came to me that day as I was slapping gnats off the back of my sweaty neck. We were sitting on a squat rock, sharing some water, when I suddenly thought, Winky.
Winky belonged to Amy Wong, a colleague and friend of ours, and a wonderful dog owner. Winky was her 65-pound russet Carolina-dog mix. A rescue, wise and worldly at six years old, a dog who was completely of the city. Whip-smart, just like her owner. Little fazed the confident Winky. She strode the streets as if she owned them. Amy would say that Winky was like a cop walking her beat.
Maybe another dog could teach Millie to walk outside. An experienced dog. A dog like Winky. “What do you think, Millie?” I said, filling her pink portable water bowl. She gave me a happy look and wagged her tail. I don’t think she knew what I was talking about. I wasn’t sure myself what I was doing. What if Winky didn’t like Millie? Then what?
I prayed that Amy was in town. She picked up her phone when I called from that rock in the woods and said she was, and that she’d be willing to meet up with Millie and me at our apartment the next day. That night, Millie and I packed up and headed back to New York. I think Millie was a little disappointed. There is nothing sadder than a disappointed dog, all sighs and discouraged body language and questioning looks.
The next afternoon, a napping Millie raised her ears when the apartment buzzer went off. “It’s Winky,” Amy’s voice announced through the intercom. Millie cocked her head and rose to her feet. She knew something was up.
A minute later, Winky burst into the apartment and greeted me happily, wagging and wiggling.
“Hello, Dingo,” I said, using my nickname for her. She calmed down, then sniffed Millie perfunctorily, vaguely indifferent to the puppy, who was in turn ecstatic at having a real canine visitor. This had never happened before. This was something else!
Winky let out a quick, bossy bark, intended, I surmised, to put Millie in her place. It worked, because my puppy retreated slightly, taking up a toy in her mouth and sitting politely, her tail pounding against the carpet, expectation in her eyes: Okay, what’s next?
We leashed up the dogs and took them down in the elevator. Millie stayed on her best behavior until we got to lobby, where she drew herself up and put on the brakes, slipping and sliding on the polished tile. Winky paused, gave her a curious glance and continued toward the door to the dreaded outside. Reluctantly, Millie followed, glancing at me for reassurance.
“Good girl, Mil,” I said. Amy held the door and out we went into the shining July Fourth afternoon.
Once on the sidewalk, though, Millie reverted to her fearful ways. She dropped onto her belly, paws splayed, ears back, her tongue lolling out. Noooooo, her body language screamed. Again Winky paused, this time looking a bit more concerned than curious. Amy and I stood back.
Winky took a step or two toward the prostrate puppy, lowering her head. She was assessing the situation, that was quite clear. Then she turned and started up the street, Amy in tow. I stayed with Millie, who stood up and then posed like a statue watching her new friend go. She shot me a quick, frantic look but didn’t move.
And that’s when it happened. Winky slowed, stopped, and turned to look back at Millie. Their eyes locked. It was a moment I will never forget. I could feel the leash vibrating as Millie moved tentatively forward, straining and holding herself back at the same time, Winky’s gaze boring into her. It said, Trust me.
All at once Millie was on the move, bursting through the force field, then galloping a bit until she caught up to Winky. She glued her snout to the older dog’s flank as they continued on their way, me catching up. I was speechless with relief, but the garage guys cheered and random people on the street applauded, happy for an excuse to celebrate something, especially on Independence Day.
From then on, Millie navigated the streets of New York with increasing confidence—like a real New Yorker—and Winky became her best friend for life, her mentor and protector. Years later, on a bleak December morning when Winky was old and blind and cancer-ridden, Millie let out a sigh and a whine at the very moment of her passing, 15 blocks across town.
But on that glorious night, as fireworks exploded over the Hudson River, a spectacle Millie and I viewed from the roof of our building, I called Julee in Budapest and reported this extraordinary answer to prayer. After a long pause, she said, “All she had to do was find someone she could really believe.” And that someone had to be another dog, because there are things they do better than us when it comes to their own kind.
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Edward Grinnan’s newest book, Always By My Side: Life Lessons from Millie and All the Dogs I’ve Loved, is a heartfelt memoir of the amazing role dogs have played in his spiritual growth.