This is the kind of story that I never thought I’d write, certainly not about my own dog, my own moment of crisis on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon with fair skies overhead.
Last week, my daughter and I set off on an adventure in an unfamiliar piece of conservation land. I had driven past its rolling hills many times, enjoyed the site of the small waterfall from the roadside, but this would be our first time exploring the area, and of course, we brought the dogs.
Our Labrador Alex is 11 years old and still living like a pup. He hasn’t yet grown tired of his favorite tennis ball or of chasing red squirrels or of pouring his 85 pound body on top of me when he decides it’s time for me to get out of bed in the morning. There’s a healthy mix of white fur in his lovely black coat these days, but his silly and innocent nature have remained constant in all his years.
Alex was thrilled to explore a new piece of land and he and our other dog Cricket were like two helicopters, circling every tree, bush and tuft of grass they came across. As I have done thousands of times before, I let Alex off the leash once we were some distance from the road as he’s very well behaved and never strays far. Though the sun was warm, winter is still very much upon us in New England and I twice shooed Alex away from the bank of the river. Labradors do love water after all.
We were probably only 10 minutes into our walk when my six-year-old daughter Sabrina asked to go in a different direction, toward a large pool of water that collects at the river bend. I agreed and hollered, “Come on Alex!”
I waited a couple seconds and thought it was strange not to see him galloping toward us in his usual fashion, so I called out again, “Alex! Let’s go buddy.”
And then I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach as I heard a weak, wimper that hardly sounded like a dog at all. Though my brain refused to connect this sound with that of my powerful, gruff-throated Lab, my gut instantly recognized that it was him and danger was upon us.
Where Could He Be?
We raced toward the tree line, just 20 feet away, and tried to pinpoint Alex’s location. My mind was running the possibilities…coyotes, a thorn bush, an injured leg. But as I reached the top of the riverbank, I saw Alex’s chocolate eyes looking up at me from a 7-8 foot vertical drop. He’d fallen or gone in on purpose, but either way he was now in the water and in serious trouble.
I’m not a cool head during crisis. I just wanted someone, anyone, to help me. But we were very much alone. I’d left my cell phone in the car and I knew that my daughter wouldn’t be able to make the run to the car and back quickly enough. I couldn’t leave her in the field with the dogs and even if we did make it to the phone, I didn’t know the name of the street we were off of to tell the emergency crew how to find us. There just wasn’t time. The only thing I could do was that which gave me such a sense of dread. I had to put myself in that water to save my dog.
I asked Sabrina to hold Cricket’s leash very tightly with her feet pinning it down so that Cricket wouldn’t try to follow me. I then slid my body into the river, which by the Grace of God was only waist deep because we’ve had an unusually dry winter. Normally, the river would be three feet higher this time of year.
Thanks to my husband Howard’s strong interest in personal safety, I’d sat through enough episodes of the television series, “I Survived” to know what happens to a human body submerged in freezing water. But I somehow thought that since the water wasn’t deep enough to cover my chest cavity, that my lungs would function normally. I was wrong.
I Knew I Had Only One Chance to Lift Him Out
The instant I entered the water it felt as if someone was squeezing the air out of me like water from a wet sponge. I was pulling for breath. Alex was so relieved to have me at his side, but we were both in trouble. My mind replayed conversations my husband and I had had about this very river. I remembered the early spring I had asked him to go kayaking with me there but he refused because he said that if we capsized, the water temperature could quickly bring on hypothermia. I finally understood why he had taken this so seriously and I knew that I had only seconds to get our bodies out of that water.
The life force seemed to be draining from my body so quickly, like water down a drain. I somehow would have to push Alex up the embankment over my head. He is no small dog and I cannot even lift him into the car, but today I would have to find strength to raise him. I took him around the middle and lifted him to about waist level, just enough to get all his paws on the muddy incline which was almost completely vertical. I then bent my knees and began to push him up to chest level, to chin level and finally up over my head. I felt his paws grip the mud, he had control of his own weight, and I dare not look to see if he were losing his footing for fear that he’d slide back down and we’d have to start over again. I counted, “one, two, three” and then felt that he was stable enough for me to go about the task of getting myself out.
There was an ever-so-slight ache to just give up at that moment. My body did not want to cooperate. I felt so heavy, although strangely unaware of any sense of cold. I found a tree root, exposed by soil eroding from a previous year’s flood, and I used it as a hold to start pulling myself up. I clawed with my hands and found a couple shallow footholds that allowed me to make my way to dry land. At the top, I gasped for air as Alex wretched beside me. He has a condition called laryngeal paralysis which makes it hard for him to breath under stress, and he was struggling. We hesitated just long enough to catch our breath and then I grabbed Sabrina by the hand and said, “Let’s run.”
With Alex coughing his way through a wobbly trot alongside us, we did our best to get somewhat quickly to the car and put the heat on full blast. I reassured my worried daughter as we drove home and Alex settled down right away as if the whole thing had never happened. But I took it hard. I felt like such a bad mother for putting Sabrina in that spot, like such a bad pet guardian for not seeing Alex head toward the water, like such a fool for leaving my cell phone in the car.
Preparation is the Heart of the Matter
I hadn’t planned to tell this story. It’s uncomfortable for me and I’m deeply embarrassed by it. Yet it occurred to me that maybe, through this experience which ended well, I could prevent someone else’s tragedy.
The simple lesson in all of this is to always be prepared. Have your cell phone on you. Know the name of the street you’re on. Rehearse scenarios in your mind ahead of time so that you’ll already have decided on a plan if you should come upon an animal that has fallen through the ice or a dog locked in a hot car. Our minds have little room for creativity during crisis, so be prepared, and may all endings be as happy as ours.
Laura Simpson is Founder of The Great Animal Rescue Chase and Harmony Fund international animal protection charity.