I was horrified yesterday by the sight of Penny racing down the hill to answer the recall. Normally I’d be pleased by her enthusiasm – but not on this occasion.
It all came about because I assumed I knew how she would behave in a familiar situation.
When we spend time in the mountains east of Melbourne we go across the highway to the river so she can have a swim. We’ve done it dozens of times. Yesterday I took her across for a swim because she’d had no exercise that afternoon - we were taking it easy because she’d had a cortisone injection the previous day to relieve the irritation of the rash she got at grooming.
I didn’t take a ball – or even the new Wubba – to throw in the water, because I wasn’t sure she’d want to go in with her sore rear end. She did jump in, though, and waited for me to throw something interesting to fetch. I searched the bank of the river and could only come up with a couple of small sticks. Not good enough, apparently, because she unexpectedly jumped out of the water and headed up the little rocky stretch of roadway that leads towards the highway.
That was when I made my first mistake. I waited for her to turn back – because she has never gone far away when we are out walking.
When she didn’t reappear at my side in a minute or two, I felt a little clutch of worry in my chest and hurried up the path to the open area at the top. No Penny.
Then came my second misjudgement. She has never gone back to the house without us, so I searched along the river bank. My worry had turned into fear. Calling, I searched amongst the trees and the bushy undergrowth. Still no Penny. She just wasn’t there. My brain told me she couldn’t have vanished in four or five minutes. (It felt like a century but I knew it was only a few minutes.)
Could she have been bitten by a snake? Surely it takes some time to lose consciousness after a snake bite. Could she have tumbled into the river from a steep part of the bank? But she’s a strong swimmer. Could she have been taken by someone? I had heard a couple of cars go by on the highway while I was waiting in vain down near the water.
And only then did it occur to me that she might have gone home and that I shouldn’t be shouting out a recall command.
I turned to look and there she was, enthusiastically bounding down the hill towards me. I looked left and saw a car racing towards us on the highway. Penny and the speeding car were on a collision course.
All my information about how to behave in a crisis went out of my head. I know that if you want your dog to obey a command you give it in a normal tone of voice. I know that Penny will obey the command ‘wait’ at a distance. But what did I do? I raced to the road shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ in a high-pitched panicky voice. I haven’t even trained her properly with the ‘stop’ command, so I don't know why I thought she would stop.
Thank goodness the driver of the car, seeing a wild woman racing onto the road shouting and waving, put the brakes on.
It’s still a blur as to what actually happened. I only remember the young guy in the car waving cheerfully to me as he accelerated off. I remember trying to control my panic enough to reward Penny with a pat for her great recall. I don’t remember whether she actually crossed the road or whether I crossed to her.
I’ve learned something. The ‘stop!’ command isn’t useful to me, because in a crisis I won’t do it right. I’ll still try to teach it but I won’t depend on it.
It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that she had already crossed the highway to go back to the house.
I am resolved never to assume I know what Penny will do when we are out walking.