My dog Ranger’s rear leg kicked then he exhaled his final breath. I smoothed his tan and black muzzle for the last time. Bone cancer had arrived with terrifying swiftness. A sudden lameness had revealed the insidious way the cancer had secretly been eating his bones. Our kindly Scottish vet listened for his bass drum heartbeat; but heard only silence. Ranger had always used his strength and determination to protect me; the only way I could reconcile his immediate euthanasia was to obey the command that now it was my job to protect him. Loving him turned out to be a practice in embodying Yoga; a moving meditation.
I’ve been lucky to love six dogs during my life; their company has been as steadfast as my Yoga practice. By the time Ranger came into my life I was living in coastal New England and had been practicing Yoga for almost thirty years.
One spring my husband had a recurring dream; he was in the midnight woods and lost. On a hill above stood a Doberman Pinscher. At first afraid, my husband quickly realized that the dog was leading him to safety. As he followed the dog he caught glimpses of a collar that read Ranger. After months of this recurrent dream he told me that we needed to get a male Doberman Pinscher and name him Ranger. I was intimidated; after handling Labrador Retrievers would I be able to train a strong male-sized protection dog?
Ranger bounced into our lives with floppy paws and romping curiosity. When he reached puberty his protective instinct turned on and he grew to 110 pounds of determined muscle. But the more he asserted himself the more fearful I became about handling him. Desperate to get a grip on both myself and the lunging beast on the leash, we started training with Mike. He was a military-like trainer where expectations were stated, boundaries were clear, and there were no excuses. A large banner above his door read Train, Don’t Complain. It reminded me of morning meditation; simply get out of bed and put yourself on the cushion, end of discussion.
I kept up my training in Yoga and together we trained in life. By the time Ranger was in midlife he was a perfect gentleman; he walked in heel on tourist-crowded streets and responded with precision to off-leash commands on our walks in the woods. His strength and determination became focused on scanning the environment, looking to me for verification, then back to his scan. We traveled to Cape Cod for writing retreats and visited pet stores; often people stopped their cars to admire him or take his picture. Our awareness of each other was as in synch as a heartbeat.
One autumn morning I drove us to a local cranberry bog for a long walk. Gravel crunched underfoot and the first chill breeze drove my hands into my pockets and clipped my cheeks. Geese honked overhead as they cut through the morning blue sky. Far up the ridgeline a coyote appeared with a flash of grey fur and snapping bark. Ranger, off-leash and running point, froze and looked back towards me. His eyebrows knit together with the question: What do you want me to do?
“Leave it, little buddy,” I said, “probably just a mama protecting her kids. She’ll leave us alone once we pass.”
He shook his head and snorted to toss off the moment and continued to snuffle at the goose droppings and gravel. The coyote reappeared ahead of us on the ridge, barking again. The coyote was between us and the woodland path to the car. There was no other way out of the bogs. I called Ranger to heel and leashed him up. His long snout scanned for the coyote as it lurked just ahead in the tree line but out of sight. We picked up our pace. The barks continued and Ranger’s metal collar jangled. The coyote unleashed louder yaps that echoed across the bogs. Ranger looked up at me, towards the coyote, then back to me again.
“No, little Buddy,” I said. “Heel.” I stumbled over a loose rock and Ranger slowed while I caught my footing. “I need you close just in case he attacks.”
Overhead, more geese called raucously. Sweat trickled down my back and I wished the breeze would return. The coyote stuck to his tree-line cover but strafed us with barks. A waft of woodsmoke curled from a house just beyond the woods; I briefly wondered if we could make it there if attacked. As we reached the tree-line I balked. Ranger sat obediently but looked up at me with confusion.
“On the ridgeline we could track him, little Buddy, but inside the woods we lose our advantage. If he goes silent we won’t know where he is.”
I reached into my fanny pack and unclipped my pepper spray, grateful that hubby had insisted I carry it.
“Well. The only way out is through. Heel.”
We stepped into the woods and the golden light dimmed to cool blue shadow. The breeze finally returned and a bronze maple leaf clattered across the path. We approached the last hill that stood between us and the car. The coyote fell silent. Ranger’s head snapped left, right, then up at me. He broke heel and took a few steps forward. His muscles quivered with tension and the hair along his spine raised. He lowered his head and scented the air. He stalked forward. His gaze fixed on a dark shadow. I knelt quietly down and took a crouching step towards him. As I raised my hand to his collar, he gently leaned so I could release the leash. He turned his head ever so slightly towards me but kept his eyes locked on the shadow.
“Okay Ranger,” I whispered, “Be safe.” His shoulders trembled.
“Free dog,” I said.
Ranger covered the distance to the trees before I could stand and take a step. I walked steadily to the car and listened intently for the sound of a fight. My feet crunched the gravel and I strained to listen into the dark shadows. I crested the hill and slid down the rocky path to my car. My shirt was wet with sweat and hair stuck to my forehead. I turned to the woods and willed Ranger to appear.
Behind me a car approached. I turned to see a Subaru leaving a long plume of dust in the cool air. I reached my car as the driver pulled up and rolled down her window.
“Are you okay?” she said, “We heard that coyote going crazy again and were worried. He’s been harassing people all week.” I turned back towards the woods. No sign of Ranger. No sound that I could hear above the engine idling. She kept prattling on. I held up a hand to silence her.
“Ranger!” I yelled, “Front!” Come on, Little Buddy, I whispered. I took two steps forward, keeping my hand raised to maintain the woman’s silence. “Ranger! Front!” A knot that had clenched in my stomach from the moment the coyote appeared grew tighter. The breeze grew stronger and my wet shirt clung to me. I began shivering.
Like a streaking missile Ranger charged down the hill. Kneeling to meet him I placed my hands on the ground and felt the thud of his paws pounding the earth. Dust and gravel kicked and sprayed as he ran. He stopped directly at my front and sat. I clipped his leash and ran my hands along his heaving chest and sides, checking for wounds. I found none, sighed, and leaned my head against his. The knot in my belly released. He wiggled and licked my ear.
“Holy smokes,” the Subaru woman said, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
“Free dog!” I told him again, his command that training was over, freeing him to stand down. He skipped around my legs, cavorting like a puppy. Together we danced a celebratory jig around the car. At some point Subaru lady left, but I didn’t notice. Before I let him into the car I held his chin and put my third eye against his.
“Thanks, little buddy,” I whispered.
I don’t know what happened in the dark woods. Maybe a brief standoff, maybe a chase, and hopefully nothing more. I don’t even know if the coyote was really a threat. I don’t know if this story somehow relates to my husband’s dream.
What I do know is that Ranger taught me a big lesson that day: trust your training.
The classic yogis says that the practice of uniting our consciousness with our heart takes practice; and that this practice only becomes well-grounded when attended to for a long time, without a break, and with earnestness (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.12–14). Training with consistency means that in difficult moments we can draw on a clarity of thought to make swift decisions. The clarity that I felt from practice—both Yoga and with Ranger— helped me tap into the strength of commanding my strong dog, making a difficult choice on a woodland path, of knowing when it was time to help him leave his body.
Ranger taught me to trust the training to bring me everything I need.
At the vet that morning the bone cancer appeared, the last command I ever gave Ranger was “Free Dog.” I wanted to make sure he knew that he job was completed and that I released him from duty. Even though he is no longer in his body, some mornings I swear I can feel him sitting next to me during morning meditation. Sometimes I think I see him just ahead of me on the woodland path. He scans left, then right, then looks back to me, always faithfully clearing the way that my spirit may walk forth.
I Love You, Little Buddy. I’ll keep training and will love you as faithfully as you loved me. Free Dog.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com