Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC
“This dog can’t swim.” That’s what I thought as I watched her struggle, bob and tip in the pond. I was about to jump in the murky water myself when I saw Stella briefly roll onto her back and then right herself. She stepped gleefully to the shore, shook off, dropped her ball, and looked up at me. She had no idea how pathetic she had looked.
Of course, I was concerned. Stella had swum before, albeit briefly. But, this last time was different. Physics failed her. She listed to one side, nearly sank, and then went keel up. She was wholly out of her element, and I’d so wished her element was water. I wanted it badly; I wanted it with every memory of the retriever before her, with every hope of the retriever I dreamt she would become. That was the problem. This wasn’t about me. It was about Stella; and Stella couldn’t swim.
I tried to get my brain around it. Maybe it really was bad physics. Stella’s chest is unusually deep and her waist is unusually small. She’s narrow, very narrow. She’s tall and long, unnaturally so. Her face and coat say retriever, but the rest of her says whippet or Italian greyhound. Okay if I’m going to be brutally honest, if you catch her at the wrong angle the whole package screams “cartoon dog.” Maybe her body just wasn’t built for water; maybe she was too lean, too spindly. Maybe she just couldn’t swim.
When my heart’s breaking, I write. So, I wrote some veterinarian friends of mine. No, they said. There’s nothing wrong with Stella. She is quirky beautiful and fully buoyant. I wrote to a local dog swim coach (who knew?) and she said the same thing. Some dogs are naturals, others are not. Stella can learn. She can swim.
I can’t explain what happened next. Sometimes there’s no way to fix a thing set askew. Then again, sometimes there’s no holding back a thing intent on setting itself right. Stella’s new coach is an affable woman in the middle of life, with an easy smile and a gentle feel for a dog’s spirit. She welcomed us to a long glistening pool in the early light of day. “Does Stella like toys?” she asked. “Tennis balls” I answered. The rest was unstoppable. It was the simple magic of letting things happen, letting go, swimming with the current of the moment.
Stella waded into the pool for her ball, and brought it back. On the second throw, she leapt across the shallow slope into the deep. Stella’s head slipped under and then popped up high in the water, a bow splashing and awkward, and a stern dragging too low. Her coach moved with deft purpose, the subtle speed of a woman who knows her craft. She righted Stella’s hips, bringing them level to withers just below the water’s crest. Stella sailed with ease back to the shallows and out. She dropped the ball and looked back at what she’d swum.
I threw again. Again she leapt and swam. Again, and again Stella’s body stretched, and her head skimmed the break where water meets air. Her legs tucked naturally, fronts propelling, backs adjusting for balance. She used her thick retriever tail like a rudder. Stella leapt and swam. She moved with ease and grace, ball firmly in mouth, eyes gleaming in the morning sun, nowhere to be but here, nothing in mind but now. Stella leapt again and then swam some more. She panted and pushed hard against the water, a wake behind her. The air was sweet with the smell of wet dog and abandon. I moved up beside her and kissed her cheek. I would have loved her the same no matter, but oh how I love my water dog.
We stayed on like that until we were both soaked through, swimming together.