My dogs looked depressed. Drooping tails, sad eyes, long sighs. For the past month, a knee injury had limited my mobility and forced them to settle for occasional slow jaunts around a nearby park. It wasn’t enough. As they gazed expectantly at me, I decided my knee had improved enough to manage a longer walk. I packed them up and drove to our usual trailhead at the Bosque, the riparian forest lining the banks of the Rio Grande River that flows through Albuquerque.
Zena, Buddy, and I were excited as we walked through the forest of towering cottonwoods, desert willows, and olive trees. Even on weekends, this trail was not well traveled, and we met no one. Buddy, a lab/border collie mix, pranced along, turning to look up at me, begging to run. Holding an impatient dog with one hand and a walking cane with the other is a challenge, so I unsnapped his lead. He took off down the trail and disappeared in the overgrown spring brush.
Buddy was a runner. He loved nothing better than racing along at full speed, ecstatic with the sheer joy of movement. He ran around me in huge circles, dodging trees, and leaping over fallen trunks. I’d glimpse a black streak in the distance, the flag of a tail that usually curved over his back like a question mark flattened by flight. When he tired, he would return, wearing his silly doggie grin, content as he rested his chin against my leg to thank me for trusting him.
With my younger dog, Zena, a shepherd/heeler who never left my side, I continued down the trail, enjoying the rustle of cottonwood leaves and the sunlight glistening on the river. A short time later, I realized Buddy had disappeared. I stopped and looked in all directions. There was no sign of him. No crashing sounds from the bushes. All was silent except for a few chatty birds.
“Buddy!” I called, loud enough to startle a pair of ducks paddling along the shore. “Come, Buddy! Again, I scanned the trail, the brush, and the riverbank. No sign of my little guy. Fear gripped me. Buddy was a senior dog with failing eyesight. Maybe his hearing had started to fail too. “Buddy!”
We were far from the nearest street. The Bosque is not a manicured urban park. It’s a wilderness, home to lots of creatures including coyotes. We had never had a mishap there except for one encounter with an angry porcupine, so I knew I was physically safe, but what about Buddy? Finding a lost dog in the crisscross of trails would challenge anyone. For me, with one stiff left and a cane, it was more than a challenge. I needed a miracle.
I looked down. Zena sat at my feet, wagging her tail along the ground as if asking how she could help. I had adopted her a few years earlier. Buddy loved interacting with dogs in the dog park, so I thought he would welcome a companion at home. He didn’t, and it took months for him to accept the new family member. Even though Buddy measured half Zena’s height, he assumed the role of top dog, bossing her around every chance he got, even co-opting her dog bed.
“Where’s Buddy?” I asked Zena. She whined and pushed her nose into my hand.
This was my fault. I shouldn’t have taken off his lead, but I’m a pushover for his pleading looks, and Buddy had always returned after his run. I started back to where I last saw him, continuing to shout his name, Zena at my heels.
Suddenly, she took off, trotting across the trail and through a clump of mesquite. I set off after her, but couldn’t keep up, so I stopped to listen. Only birdcall and rustlings in the dried leaves. Now both dogs had disappeared. I hesitated, thinking I should stay put. I thought about calling for help. A ranger would help me look for them. He would also write me a ticket for allowing the dogs off leash, but that was a small price to pay.
I limped on, two dog leads around my neck, the ends slapping against my legs as a reminder of my stupidity. The day had grown hot. My knee ached, and a litany of self-recrimination ran through my mind. Time seemed to stop. I needed help and fast.
Then Zena appeared in the distance, head high, trotting toward me through a stand of high grass. When she moved into the open, there was little Buddy following her, his tail curled over his back, the brass fastenings on his red harness shining in the sun.
“Buddy! Zena!” Overjoyed, I bounced a couple of times, ignoring my twinging knee.
Zena trotted up and plopped down in front of me, Buddy right behind her. I grabbed his harness, snapped on his lead, and told him what a good boy he was to follow his sister. I emptied my pockets of treats, sharing them equally, and gave both dogs a drink from the collapsible water dish I carried along with two bottles of water.
After a lot of petting and reassurance for Buddy, we started back. Zena led the way while Buddy and I followed. By the time we reached my truck and I loaded both dogs inside, I was exhausted and grateful. All the way home, I thought how lucky Buddy and I were to have Zena in our lives.
She didn’t care that Buddy bossed her around, commandeered her toys, and stole her food. When he was in trouble, she tracked him down and brought him home. That night she got two peanut butter treats instead of her usual one.
“You’re an angel dog,” I told her. She looked at me with her big brown eyes and offered a white paw, her go-to maneuver when she wasn’t sure what I wanted.
A week later my vet told me that Buddy’s hearing was fine, but he suffered from doggie dementia, a new concept for me. I started him on supplements right away. They helped a lot, and he lived a happy life for another three years. He never ran off leash again unless we were in a safe enclosure, and Zena always kept him under her watchful gaze and the protection of her invisible angel wings.