The 200th Dog

by Jen Hirt

A post in our Milestones series from past contributor Jen Hirt.

A milestone among headstones—at the dog shelter where I volunteer, I have now walked my 200th dog around a pet cemetery.

The pet cemetery is unnamed, just a part of the shelter grounds, but it is intended for the public, not the homeless shelter dogs. The oldest grave is from 1940. The newest is February of 2016. The most prominent is for a three-year-old police dog with a long German name and his badge number, 91, chiseled in granite. The most forgotten are small and sunken, their flat brown headstones lost a little more each year beneath the slow growth of grass. A few plots sport tri-color pinwheels that startle the dogs. Last winter, after the blizzard dropped thirty inches of snow for the city’s record, I could hardly wait to walk the big shepherd mix, Eddie, through the drifts. We guessed our way in white, him plowing ahead like it was his job and me tripping twice on snow-covered headstones marking buried pets. Each time I went down, Eddie turned around to make sure I was OK, and we trudged on, like minor characters in Call of the Wild.

Who was the 200th dog? I don’t know, exactly, even though I keep a haphazard list in a 60-page pocket notebook, the last of three from a pack bought at the grocery. Maybe it was Leo, an old black Lab mix with a weepy cherry eye and a medical record treating every worm except heart. Not starving, but I could see his ribs. His paperwork said “stray,” but I told him to sit and he knew it, looked me right in the eye for his praise. We were strangers in a foreign country suddenly realizing we spoke the same language. Then we walked liked pals past the graves of Fluffy and King, Teensie and Rex, Midnight and Brutus.

Maybe it was Millie, a bear-coated Shar Pei seized in a cruelty case of which I know no details, because I’m only a volunteer. Surrounded by mutts and pit bulls, she stands out like a golden ornament. In the cemetery, her black eyes take high noon with caution. I wonder if she had been kept inside all her life as a breeder at a puppy mill, some dank concrete barn filled with rows of these strange prized dogs, her babies sold and sold and sold again with forged documents. By the end of our walk, she’s wiggling her curl of a tail and huffing her peculiar hippopotamus nose at my offer of a treat. I’m fascinated by her tiny ears, which are folded and stiff, like no dog ear I’ve ever touched. Just to pet her is a milestone. I’m sad on many levels that she’s on medical hold until the vets assess the severity of her Lyme Disease and seizures. I’d take her home in an instant, illness and all. I’d rename her Josephine.

As a kid, I wanted so many animals, and I got them. Cats, rabbits, horses, hamsters, fish, and always a dog. As an adult with much more perspective and caution over how I spend my time and money, I have just one pet, a dog my husband and I have walked twice a day for eight years, give or take a few jaunts. That’s 5,840 walks. Add in my shelter dogs, and I’m past the milestone of 6,000 walks with dogs.

What has this milestone taught me? On the first walk with a new dog, use two leashes. Take no chances, because the roads landlocking the cemetery are dangerous with speeders careening to the shopping plaza, and it is likely this dog has never been asked to behave and will not like the situation. Don’t let him pee on the headstones. This is easier said than done. On a second walk, see if he’ll sit in the shade under the pines or lie down for a belly rub. On a third walk, try not to imagine all the hikes the two of you could take amidst your fantasy pack of adopted dogs. On a fourth walk, wonder who has put in an application, are they even worthy of this animal who is almost yours at this point? As if you have a say in the matter of that milestone. On a fifth walk, if there is one, tell him to be good in his new home, to forget, if he even remembers, these strange distances.

Jen Hirt’s memoir, Under Glass: The Girl With a Thousand Christmas Trees (University of Akron/Ringtaw Press, 2010), won the Drake University Emerging Writer Award. Her essay “Lores of Last Unicorns,” published in The Gettysburg Review, won a Pushcart Prize. She is the co-editor of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (SUNY Press, 2016) and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (MSU Press, forthcoming 2017). Her essays have also received the Gabehart Prize for Nonfiction from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant, and three notable essay mentions in Best American Essays. Her work has recently been published in The Weeklings, Ocean State Review, and Blood Orange Review. She was a finalist at the Zone 3 Creative Nonfiction Book award. She has an MFA from the University of Idaho, an MA from Iowa State University, and a BA from Hiram College. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg. http://sites.psu.edu/jenhirt