The best dog in the history of the world was named Heidi, and she was part of my life for most of my teens.
Heidi was a black and silver German Shepherd, not one of those boring run-of-the-mill black and tans. Mom got her from a co-worker, an ambulance driver who had a sideline in raising guard dogs. Heidi was a runt, so she had no future as a guard dog, and one of her ears would sometimes flop down, so she had no future as a show dog. The breeder/ambulance driver was going to kill her before mom said she’d take her.
But dogs who are being bred to be guard dogs aren’t very well socialized and when mom brought her home she made a dash under the long tailor’s table that dominated our front room, and cowered behind the row of chairs. Mom tried dragging her out to the kitchen where we spent most evenings and she’d dart under the kitchen table. We’d bring her food and water dishes there, and pet and stroke her and talk to her, but as soon as we weren’t actually touching her she’d do that half-crouching combination slink and run back to her hide-out.
We knew she didn’t spend all her time under the table, because in the morning if you’d left any shoes or boots in that front room, they’d be in shreds. In those first few months she also managed to reduce the couch that was in that room into a bare frame and springs with not a stitch of fabric or scrap of foam padding left on it. And she’d made a good start on her tunnel to freedom – she’d made a Heidi-sized hole in the wall board near the door, and removed the insulation, and was scratching at the outer boards.
That year we decided to go camping on Victoria Day weekend in Algonquin Park. Victoria Day is in late May (as in the Rush song “Lakeside Park”, where people gather on the 24th of May) and it’s the traditional first weekend for the provincial parks to open. What mom and I didn’t know is that most of the people who went to the parks that weekend did so to get loudly and obnoxiously drunk. (The parks have since gone to a system where some parks are dry on that weekend only to keep the obnoxious drunks out.) Mom had managed to borrow an army surplus winter sleeping bag for me, and I don’t even know what she was sleeping in. I just know that the first morning was damn cold, and I didn’t want to get out of my nice warm sleeping bag. But Heidi decided it was time to get up, and came bounding into the tent and started trying to push me out of bed with her nose. That turned into a full fledged wrestling match with her fake-biting me and everything. It was amazing, like a switch had been thrown. Suddenly she went from this cowering wretch to a full fledged member of the family. From that moment, until the end of her days, she was my dog.
We never trained Heidi for the usual dog stuff – sit, stay, heel. We never had to. Heidi stuck close, and was protective, but didn’t menace people. She lived on a mom’s farm where she had free run of land, and was able to keep some of her wolf-ish instincts alive. For instance, I never saw her defecate or any evidence that she’d defecated anywhere near the house or barn, she always did it well off in the woods somewhere. We weren’t in cattle country so we didn’t have to worry about her getting shot for chasing cattle. She probably chased deer, and could have been shot for that, but we never saw her do it and we never heard credible complaints from others. I did see her chasing small wildlife – squirrels, rabbits, etc. The only ones she ever caught were groundhogs, and she’d kill them with one shake of her head.
The dog we’d had before Heidi, a boxer named Freddy, was an idiot, and he had an insane hatred of porcupines. He’d go out into the woods and come back covered with quills, each time worse than the last. He’d sit there calmly and quietly while you pulled them all out, but he must have remembered the pain and want to get his revenge on all porcupine kinds or something, because he’d come back with even more. He and Heidi went off into the woods once and he came back covered with quills, and Heidi just had one in her nose. After that, Heidi never got a quill in her. On a couple of occassions, I saw her dance around a porcupine barking and snapping at it, but never making contact and never getting near enough to be spiked by the tail.
I came to visit my mother on weekends, at first not that often but after I got my driver’s license every weekend. When I arrived, Heidi would be dancing around the car and making this high pitched vocalization that for her indicated excitement. At that time in my life I was getting more and more involved with outdoor activities, first car camping with day hikes, then overnight backpacking trips and canoe trips, then orienteering and cross country skiing competitions. Heidi was my nearly constant companion in all of them.
On camping trips, she’d sleep in between mom and me, and during the night would push out with her legs so that mom and I would end up sleeping on the cold ground pressed up against the walls of the tent while she had the ensolite foam pads to herself. After the first hiking trip where she would bound up the hills and stand at the top looking down at us and wagging, we got her a backpack. Usually that’s where we put our drink bottles and trail snacks so that they’d be handy, so we didn’t have to root around in the backpacks for them. She didn’t seem to mind the backpack, and became quite adept and judging the distance between obstacles so that she wouldn’t get stuck with the extra width the pack gave her.
On canoe trips, Heidi would take her position and just fall asleep on the lake portions, although sometimes on the narrow rivers she’d jump out, swim to shore and run along the banks for a while, then jump back into the canoe. I blame myself for that, because she used to be hard to coax out of the canoe once she was in it until one day on a day trip I purposely tipped the canoe with her in it just to get her to swim. Once she was a swimming dog, it was hard to keep her in the canoe when there were smells to investigate. Unfortunately that meant hauling a dripping wet dog into the canoe sometimes, and her lying down dripping wet on top of the backpacks.
Our local cross country ski place, Mansfield Forest Club, was remarkably tolerant of Heidi – she’d come skiing with me and run along behind me. If we met anybody on the trail, she’d go way off into the woods around them. I was moving at a racing speed, and I wonder how many people didn’t even know she was there. I would also go around the longest loop trail (15km) three times in a day, and I never saw dog tracks in the ski tracks from my first loop on subsequent loops, although I could sometimes spot where she’d gone off into the woods. I think she was light enough and the snow in the groomed tracks packed down enough that she didn’t sink in.
I didn’t always take her with me at Orienteering meets – especially not the big important ones, but she loved to run and she loved to run in the woods, so I’d take her to some of the less important ones. One of the orienteering crowd used to constantly remind me that taking a dog was against the rules – but Heidi was more of a hinderance than anything. Sometimes I had to find a way to get her under a fence that I could have climbed over, or avoid climbing up a rock face that she couldn’t make. She certainly wasn’t tracking the scent of the other competitors and leading me along.
Three incidents that don’t define our relationship, but they’re illustrative of something or other:
The first occurrence is something I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for, around 30 years later. Mom and I were going somewhere we couldn’t take Heidi. I forget where it was, but as we were packing up the truck Heidi was getting all excited because we were packing stuff that looked like fun. I forget it it was canoes and backpacks or cross country skis. We’d arranged for our neighbour to feed Heidi, but she was going to stay in the barn. So I put on my backpack – Heidi started dancing all around me – and led her down to the barn, and locked her in. I felt like shit.
The second occurred on a backpacking trip in Algonquin Park. It was just a short trip, 2 or 3 days, so we were just doing the loop around Provoking Lake. As we drove past the Mew Lake car campground, which is near the trailhead, we saw a live trap for bears (it looks a bit like a culvert with a gate on the front). On the first night we talked to somebody who had just hiked into the first campground and was staying there for weeks on end, making occasional hikes out for more beer and supplies. They said that the bear was making nightly trips around Lake of Two Rivers and Mew Lake campgrounds, and then around the Provoking Lake trail. We didn’t really believe him, but of course we bear-proofed the food pack as usual. Two mornings later on the other side of the lake (closer to the portage between Mew Lake and Provoking Lake), I heard a rucus near the cooking pans (the food was up a tree, of course, but that tree was right in front of the tent – possibly not a good decision in retrospect). Heidi went tearing out the tent (fortunately the bottom part of the zipper was open) and chased a bear off. Mom said “I bet that bear won’t be back in a hurry” and went back to sleep. Heidi came back into the tent, and I lavished a lot of praise on her.
But 10 or 15 minutes later, the bear was back. It came down the trail, roaring and bouncing up on its back legs, trying to swat at Heidi. She stood her ground, the hair on her back all standing up and barking and ducking the swats from the bear. The bear got tired of it and turned and trotted down the path again. I’ve never seen a braver act from any dog, and damn few people.
The third item happened when my mom’s mother came to visit. She was pretty old, and died not too many years later. As usual, we had a house load of Orienteers on the weekend, and when each one arrived they’d go for a run in the woods behind the house, with Heidi tracking along behind, zipping off into the bush every now and then. But when my grandmother went for a walk, Heidi didn’t zip off into the bush. She stayed right beside the old lady as if she’d been trained to do a perfect “heel”.
Our next door neighbours had a couple of dogs. I used to run on the roads sometimes, and these dogs would come out and nip at my heels. Heidi would avoid the issue by going way off the road into the fields, leaving me to fend for myself. I used to take my shirt off and snap it at the dogs, which kept that at bay until one day I accidentally made contact with one and they discovered it wasn’t that painful. So then I had to start picking up rocks from the road before I got to them to throw at them.
But when my grandmother walked up to their territory, Heidi didn’t run off into the fields and let her fend for herself. She trotted on ahead and sat down at the end of their driveway, just like she was warning them not to come out. And she stayed at the end of that driveway while my grandmother walked a bit into their territory, turned around, and walked back out. As soon as she got back onto our property, Heidi trotted back to her side and stayed at a perfect heel all the way back to the house. Mom and I watched this from the kitchen window, and it was the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen. I swear Heidi knew the difference between somebody who could fend for themself and somebody who needed protection, and reacted with intelligence.
A year or so later we noticed that she was having trouble with her hind legs. A few hours later she didn’t have any use of her hind legs at all, and was starting to lose the use of her front legs as well. Mom rushed her to the local vet who did a lousy fuzzy x-ray and said it was arthritis of the spine. I’m sorry, but arthritis doesn’t sneak up on you in a few hours. We took her down to the vet school in Guelph, and they kept her for a few days, and said she had something they called “Coon bite syndrome”. At the time they didn’t know much about it, except that it only seemed to happen to dogs that had been or may have been bitten by racoons. They said she’d be paralysed for a few months and then she’d recover. They also said she had a bit of arthritis, but it wouldn’t get critical for a while. So mom mostly nursed her back to health, cleaning the bedding that it must have gone against all her instincts to soil, and picking her up by towels across her belly to allow her to move her legs. I participated in a few therapy sessions down at the local stream where we suspended her in the water and let her dog paddle a bit. A few months of that and she was back to nearly her old form. We went on a backpacking trip or two, and let our new dog Bootleg carry the pack. Heidi didn’t like that much, and Bootleg couldn’t understand the width problem so we were constantly fishing him out of places where he was stuck.
Heidi only lasted one more summer until the arthritis got her.
She was the best dog ever, and I miss her even today.