Dog People

We pulled off the pavement onto a gravel driveway and descended into a wooded lot 12 miles outside the town of Brevard, North Carolina. The sky was overcast, the air was thick and humid, and an enormous black German shepherd with orange and white markings lay at the far end of the driveway.

He rose as we coasted to a stop near a stone house with a green metal roof and padded over to the car. Rearing up on his hind legs, he rested two giant paws on the door and peered solemnly into the car. Satisfied, he dropped to the ground and walked away.

I was among dog people.

I was traveling with my friends S and J, and in the back of their Subaru Forester were two mixed-breed dogs, Lindsey and Bash. We had come to Brevard to spend the 4th of July with their friend D, whom they met a few years ago in an Atlanta park. A dog park.

D had moved last fall to Brevard, a pleasant town in the Blue Ridge Mountains with three, non-franchise coffee shops on the main street. S, J and D have common friends and mutual interests, including renovating old homes, but I suspect it is their passion for dogs that binds them.

We spent the better part of three days together with four dogs – D has a floppy-eared female German shepherd called Berlin as well as the massive male, Bismarck – and it’s no exaggeration to say that dogs dominated the conversation.

Discussions included training and discipline for dogs, funny stories and not-so-funny stories, shelters and neglected dogs, food and supplements, rough coats and soft, bathing and brushing, and whether the yellow-brown coats of Lindsey and Bash would ever come clean after romping in a muddy nearby creek.

I’ve had several dogs in my adult life, including a poodle, an Airedale and, most recently, a large, shaggy Bouvier des Flandres who was my abiding companion through some hard times.

But after she died, I decided not to replace her until I was in another relationship. In the six years since, I’ve contented myself with the company of cats and random encounters with the dogs of friends and strangers.

But it’s been so long since I’ve owned one that in Brevard I felt rather like an anthropologist observing the peculiarities of a particular human subspecies.

S and J are still training their dogs, so they spent the weekend with treats in their pockets, dispensing them every time the dogs responded to a command. Most often that command was “Come!,” but being young, spirited and untethered on a dead-end road, Lindsey and Bash seemed more often to be going.

On our first walk, Bash – a gawky juvenile built for speed – raced several hundred yards up the road and around a curve, ignoring his owners’ shouts, oblivious to everything but the sheer joy of running free.

S shrugged. “The more freedom you give ’em,” he said, “the more likely they are to come back.”

D’s passion is so strong that she is part of a group that rescues and finds new homes for German shepherds. One night during a thunderstorm, a woman who lived a mile away called called to say that her dog had run off, and she assumed it would seek safety with D. (She called later to say she found it in one of her guest cottages.)

Earlier that day, we had gone for a hike along a powerful stream, climbing terrace after terrace of rock until we reached a waterfall. I wandered 30 yards away from the others, savoring the cool, bracing spray from the falls, when I got the feeling that someone was staring at me.

I turned and saw Bismarck on a ledge above the rock terrace we were on. He had assumed we were climbing higher, and when he realized he was wrong, there was no easy way for a heavy-boned, 112-pound dog to get down.

He was staring with such intensity that there could be no mistaking his intention: he wanted me to help. Whether it was because I’d already given him a lot of attention, or because I was six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than anyone else, I cannot say. Maybe both.

But that was a summons I could never refuse, and I hurried over to the ledge. S and I picked Bismarck up and set him down between us, and D gave a deep sigh.


That night, I climbed down from the sleeping loft to get a drink. Bismarck was sleeping in the living room below, and ordinarily only lifts an eye when I pass. But this time he stood up and lowered his head. I stroked his head and chest and spoke to him gently, happy to know that I had a new friend and happy to be reminded that I, too, am a dog person.

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