Dog years

For each of her five years, my daughter Skyler has nurtured an obsession bordering on addiction. Like many before her, the poor girl has had puppy on the brain since her fabulous exit from the womb.

As an infant, she gravitated toward large and often slobbering dogs along Main Avenue. When her speech began to develop, “dog” was a formative word, chasing right behind “mom” and “boob” in Skyler’s early vocabulary (“dad” didn’t make an appearance until much later, flagging behind “terrier” and the oft-dreaded “Chihuahua”).

As overwhelmed young parents, we did our best to fill the void while still maintaining sanity. And so surrogate toy hounds started showing up early on. Among many others, Skyler had stuffed basset hounds, a cuddly, fake Yorkie with its own carrying case, an automated golden retriever that snored in its dog bed and a Walter the Farting Dog that produced four different flavors of dog emission. All it took to trigger the fireworks was a little squeeze on the stuffed animal’s swollen belly.

Both mom and dad were quite happy with this litter of faux puppies – not that we were cruel, canine-haters but because two cats, two acres and a toddler seemed to be more than enough. Of course, all of that changed last week.

For starts, spring break – my fabled journey to singletrack in the land of the sun – did not go as planned. Suffice it to say that in addition to legendary mountain biking, the burg of Sedona is also home to thousands of turquoise bolo ties. After three days of jockeying for trailhead parking with Caucasians named Chakra and Indra, amateur photogs and bus tourists in Bermuda shorts, we opted to flee back across the Navajo Nation (yes, Frank, we have been to Navajoland a time or two) and home toward the Four Corners.

So it was that the Sands family found itself waking at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah, just a chemtrail shy of Durango. And at the crack of dawn on the morning following our defeated return, I’m sure I heard, “Skyler just met the most adorable dog. The poor thing came right up and put its arms around her.” Fresh from the land of the Vortex, I thought nothing of the statement and skipped the hotel to pick up coffees for me and the Mrs.

When I returned, now in a state of caffeinated consciousness, that same dog – a down-on-its-luck, abandoned rez puppy – was still in my daughter’s lap. Covered in burrs, ticks and dust, the skinny, black sheep dog had clearly been on a rough ride. My wife, Rachael, flashed me a pitiful look and then explained that he’d been orphaned on the reservation and was found roadside next to the lifeless body of a littermate. Time was ticking for the little guy, she also informed me, and he was either going home with new owners or off to the shelter in Cortez and a possible black box.

Skyler’s arms wrapped tighter around the little ragamuffin, and she started, “Please, Dad.” … “Just this once.” … “I’ll never ask for anything again.” … “He can be my birthday present.”

I put up a pathetic resistance – “But you’ve already got a cat, a tank full of fish, a tadpole and a jar of sea monkeys.” … “Your birthday is three months away.” … “Who will pick up the poop?”

A dapper man named Curt seized the opportunity and strode forth just out of eavesdropping range. “You don’t know me,” the fellow said. “But I really want to encourage you to take this dog into your life. My wife and I found our dog Maggie in similar circumstances and our life has changed for the better.”

He then pressed a handshake my way and said, “We’re rushing off on our way to Sedona. But please do me a favor and think about it.”

With dad “thinking about it,” Rachael and Skyler quietly loaded “Bluff” into the backseat of the car, swaddled the poor creature in my favorite riding jacket and climbed into their seats. “OK, we’re ready to go,” they called from the inside.

I approached the new member of the family, pulled a prickly pear spine from his chest and gave him a scratch on his rescue pup head. Maybe this disheveled creature is part of a legendary Navajo sheep dog line and destined for county fair fame, I imagined. The poi dog answered with a look that went way beyond happy. After a couple more scratches, his chocolate-colored eyes shone with deep gratitude. I knew then that it was the puppy that had chosen us.

“Alright, we can keep him,” I said to my girls. “But only if we call him Juan (an ode to my beloved San Juan River).”

Skyler agreed grudgingly, adding that she preferred “Steve,” and like many things in the last six years, the name “Juan” vanished somewhere along the highway. The good news is that Bluff is now hanging tough in Durango, putting on a little weight and shedding his remaining burrs. Plus, Walter hasn’t ripped one in well over a week, and maybe, just maybe, the word “dad” is making a move toward to top of a little 5-year-old’s vocabulary.

– Will Sands