If there is a sock in the house, anywhere in the house, Sam will find it. Sam simply can’t get enough socks. A few days ago, she coughed one up, an entire sock—men’s black dress, swallowed whole. I threw it out.
Socks are not the only thing Sam snatches and carries around with her. She once brought me a book—a copy of Thoreau’s Walden from a basement coffee table—a screwdriver, a small flashlight, underwear, my wife’s blouses, and once, when it was left within reach, her own leash. Mind you, she didn’t swallow any of these items, like the sock, but she did find them intriguing enough to prance around with them and eventually offer them to me. A veterinarian tells me that dogs become attached to items you’ve touched, they have your scent, and so they want to be close to you. It’s like a child finding comfort in a favorite blanket. Think Linus. But I can’t help wonder when she brought me her leash that day, if she wasn’t hinting.
Let me tell you a bit about Sam.
A year after losing two dogs—a yellow Labrador named Mike, and a Chow-retriever mix named Dakota—my wife and I began looking for another. Sam was not expected. She’s a rescue, you might say. My wife’s ex had the dog somewhere around six months, expecting it to be hypoallergenic. Golden Doodles are said to be. But Sam wasn’t. Not entirely. Vets say no dog really is; Doodles are just less of an allergy catalyst. If someone is really allergic, no dog will work. So, Sam needed a new home. After a “test run” for a few days, we accepted the challenge. We are down a few socks since adopting her, but after one year, it’s been a pretty good run. She’s all black with a bit of deep brown around her snout—the mix of a black Poodle and a Golden Retriever. Shaggy. Sweet. Affectionate. Smart. Attentive. Expressive eyes. What else could one want in a pet?
So, Sam is ours now and we are back to walking a dog.
Walking has always been an artistic endeavor for me. Never saw it as an exercise, necessarily, not consistently. Walking had been a creativity booster—time to think, wander, open the mind—think William Wordsworth or Thoreau. Not that I put myself in that lofty category, but I’ve always wanted walking to be more of a mindful endeavor than one of fitness. However, although I try, I am not the most mindful person. I would like to be, but a Zen master I am not. Still, with Sam by my side, could I be? Could I find something new in these walks? An adventure? A discovery? Or would they just be what most dog walks are—to get the animal out of the house and allow her go to the bathroom.
There was only one way to find out.
Sam knows. She knows when it’s walk time. She sees the ritual. I put on my coat, a scarf, and grab the leash. Sam watches every move. Ears perk. Eyes attentive. And on this morning, it was no different. I had an eye doctor appointment later, so I wanted to get in our walk before that. We head east. And Sam immediately begins to sniff.
Sam is a sniffing machine. A leaf, a tree trunk, parkway grass, the edge of the cement sidewalk. I read somewhere that dog’s incredible sense of smell is linked to their sense of place. Sniffing gives the dog information about what’s nearby, what’s been here, and what’s coming. Their noses are like our eyes. We look around; they sniff around. And Sam is a world-class sniffer.
It’s primary election season in Illinois, so in many of the yards there are election signs for candidates in the hunt. Although I care about this upcoming election, the signs are intrusive. They are like litter. Sam sniffs one of them. It’s for Becky Anderson, one of the democratic candidates for the local congressional seat. Sam spends a great deal of time smelling up Becky’s sign. The edges of the board, the metal posts. Sniff, sniff, sniff. I let her. Maybe she knows something about Becky I don’t. Or maybe Sam is still trying to decide whom she would vote for, if she could.
We walk two blocks east and then head north. In one of the home’s driveways, a woman in black yoga pants, an oversized blue tossle cap, and big coat loads items into the trunk of an SUV. On the brick of the home next to the garage, an Irish flag hangs. The woman spots Sam and me.
“Well, hello puppy,” she says.
She had never seen Sam or me before. I had never seen her.
“Someone is Irish,” I say, nodding toward the flag.
“My husband’s mother was a Callahan,” she says.
“My grandmother was a Dugan.”
“Ever been?” she asks. “I want to take my husband. I’m the token Dego, so, no biggie for me. But he’d love it.”
“So, Irish and Italian family. How are your holidays?”
“Drama,” she laughs.
Sam sniffs the tires of the SUV then sits and watches us, as if she’s accepting this exchange, as if giving her approval to the conversation and the suspension of our walk.
Sandy, that’s her name, has two young children. She tells me about how much of a terror one of them is and wonders if he’ll ever settle down. I told her it took more than a decade for my wild child, my younger son, to settle. She grimaces. Sandy then asks about Sam, and Sam appears to know she’s being talked about. She stands, nuzzles into me, looks at Sandy. Her puppy-ness shows—eager, but unsure of what to do with the impatience. I notice her Poodle-like hair needs another brushing.
For some ten minutes, Sandy and I stand at the end of her driveway talking about Ireland, the Netflix series The Crown, how her toddler kids are a handful right now. We did not know each other, never met before, but yet there we were, like friends, laughing, sharing, wishing each other a happy St. Patrick’s Day. And as we said goodbye, and Sam and I walked north again on the sidewalk, I wondered—without Sam by my side, would I have ever met Sandy—my neighbor just two streets away? Would there have been any other time and place for such an encounter? It was Sam’s presence that allowed it to happen. Sam, with her show horse prance and her openness to the world, signaled to Sandy I was okay. I was safe. I was approachable. If I had been walking alone, wouldn’t it have been different? Sandy may have simply smiled and turned away, a perfunctory glance. Or she may not have acknowledged me at all.
Sam and I continue north. Early spring flowers are pushing their way through dirt—the green leaves of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth. Tight tiny blossoms are forming on the ends the branches of a Magnolia tree. And as we head west and then south toward home, Sam’s attention turns to a FedEx truck parked in front of a white brick home. The man in the driver’s seat studies a package and turns toward us as Sam delivers a tiny, innocuous bark.
“Nice looking dog,” he says, smiling.
“That’s Sam,” I say. “Say hello, Sam.”
She offers another soft bark.
“And she talks, too,” the driver says.
“Yeah, you should hear the things she says sometimes.”
We turn into our home’s driveway and I release Sam from her leash. She runs to the gate and waits. I open it and she chases for a green tennis ball in the yard, snatches it in her mouth, and looks directly at me.
Thanks for the walk.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
One more thing, when I’m ready to come inside the house, will there be socks?