Outdoor Adventure: Old dog still ready to run
Riika looks at me with hopeful eyes and I am left to divine what she hopes for. They were blue when she was a puppy, her eyes; the color of high sky on a sunny day with wisps of light cloud that tell of weather coming on. Darndest thing, those blue eyes in a puppy face full of life and energy, a face like a spring day, all hopeful and telling of change to come.
Her eyes changed to amber and I can’t remember how long it took, just that I remember her as a pup with blue eyes and, sometime later, a long-legged, full-chested dog with eyes the color of dark honey lit by sun.
She ran crazy in those years; ran like a wild wind, ran like light pushing shadow, ran for the sheer joy of running, ran through field and woods and over the horizon until we thought we’d lost her forever.
In late winter, when the snow settled under the burden of spring sun and the lakes still held ice, on some of those days I’d clip into skis and ski wild and crazy across lakes that held the final days of ice, ski fast and pure on snow that had hardened to crust and on those days Riika would run with me. Riika would run and I would ski and we’d race each other for she was young and wild and full of miles and I, while not young, was younger and still could bring power to the skis.
One morning at sunrise, we went out on icy crust on a lake of darkening ice and I skied fast and Riika ran hard. After a while Riika lagged and I skied back to her. She was limping and her pads were leaving small smudges of blood, for the same crusty ice that let my skis fly fast cut her feet. And she looked up at me with hopeful eyes and I knew that if I asked her to run she would but I knew that she was hoping I would not.
I carried her back that morning, holding her in my arms as I skied, slowly and deliberately and she looked ahead of us with her golden eyes and when we got to shore I put her down and she ran off as if all was fine.
That afternoon the temperature hit 80 degrees and the next day the lake ice broke up and water shone bright and blue as Riika’s eyes as a pup.
That was long ago. Riika is 12 years old now and she is slowing down. She limps more now; she has gained weight and we don’t work her often enough. In autumn, she still hunts hard and with a passion that lights her eyes and drives her legs but when she is done she hurts and we give her pills to ease her aches. Each year she hunts less; each year she runs slower; each year the weight of age settles into joints and bones.
But she never, ever, backs off. She never, ever, gives up. She runs as she always has which is to say as hard as she is able. And the aches she feels are small price to her.
On this day she looks up with kind eyes and I bend over and rub her ears and tell her she is a good dog. Her face is graying now; the rich umbers and browns of her fur etched now with gray and white; her eyebrows white.
She wags her tail and then I see that she is not putting weight on her right, rear leg. And she looks at me with hopeful eyes once again.
I don’t know when it was that I noticed her walking up stairs in a zig-zag. A year ago, she could still run straight up the stairs that lead to the second story of our house. During the day she lies at Sally’s feet while Sally works at her desk. At night she’d go up, often before we did, to lie next to the bed. Straight line; she’d always go straight up.
Then, one evening I said to Sally, “How long has Riika gone up the stairs zig-zag?”, and Sally said she’d not noticed that.
I guess it’s easier for her, the zig-zag rather than straight up and I suppose we might have paid more attention to it. Maybe it puts less pressure on her legs. I just chalked it off to an old dog finding a better way to climb stairs. I figured it was part of age for she is no longer a young dog, no longer even a middle-age dog; she’s old no matter how I may deny it.
I don’t know when she started to favor the back leg. It’s been a few weeks. You know how it goes; one day she won’t weight the leg; next day she will. Then a few days without weighting it. Then most days. But a bit at a time and you can’t say that on one day it changed, can’t say that any more than I can say that one day the color of her eyes changed from blue to gold.
Two weeks ago I took Riika and Thor to the woods and they ran like crazy dogs in the freedom of spring and after that Riika favored that leg. I gave her a pill but it was not much better the next day or the next.
And so I took her in and the vet talked to her calm and gentle and worked her legs, up and down, back and forth, right leg and left. He rolled her to her side, manipulated the knee on the bad leg; did the same on the other. Thought it over as if puzzling a question difficult to answer.
“It looks like she probably tore her ACL,” he said finally. Then explained it and showed the diagram of the knee joint and the bone and all the parts that make it up. Told what had happened and what he could do, which, of course, was surgery.
Asked, “How old is she?” and I told him she was 12 and he said that was fairly old for the breed. Left unsaid was the heavy issue: Old dog, expensive surgery; might not be worth it.
Then he asked if she was active. And I thought: Active. Active. Thought: If I could tell you how active this dog was you’d not have time to hear it all. Thought: This dog will run until the day she dies, run wild and in that running run free from the years and the aches and the inevitability of the end. Riika: Active? No question there. Think instead: Riika: Active.
I thought to myself that Riika will run in the woods of October and chase the scent of wild birds and run with everything she has and when she can no longer run she will no longer carry the spark of what makes her special.
And I thought that to stop Riika from running would be to stop her from living and that would not happen, not on my watch.
I thought all of this but said only, “Yes, she’s active”.
Riika looked at me with her hopeful eyes, weight shifted off the bad leg, golden eyes meeting mine in the harsh light of the vet’s office and I rubbed her ears and told her she was a good dog.
Then I drove home and called Sally who was on vacation and said Riika had torn her ACL and would need surgery and we would schedule it for when she got back home. Riika lay on the couch and watched me. I looked back at her and knew that at her age it would be a long haul back from surgery to where she could run again but knew also that come fall when the leaves begin to drop and the season quickens that Riika and I would hunt and she would run again. That’s the way of Riika.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.