Once or twice a year our friends Yao and Xiaoli ask Manyu and me to walk their dog Skye. Skye is a Rhodesian ridgeback. Pointing out that Rhodesian ridgebacks are big dogs does not adequately describe the girth of the breed’s upper body. It is better to mention that Rhodesian ridgebacks were originally bred to hunt lions. My own dog Jack barks at most of the dogs he sees, but he has never barked at Skye. I don’t think he recognizes Skye as a dog.

Yao and Xiaoli live on a slough just off the main channel of the Mississippi River, so our walks with Skye often follow a path along the river. The Mississippi is at flood stage right now, high even for this time of year, and much of our usual route was underwater. When we came to a submerged section of trail, Skye walked in up to his chest.

Skye is so muscular that his neck is bigger than his head. When I pulled on his leash to coax him out of the water, his collar came up over his ears and slid off his head. Now I had a potentially dangerous situation. Off-leash and standing in floodwaters, Skye was only fifteen feet from the strong current of the Mississippi River. If he wandered just a few steps nearer the main channel, he’d be swept away.  

I had no choice but to wade into the water up to my thighs, position myself between Skye and the swiftest current, and reattach his collar. Once I’d accomplished that, I knew I could not just tug on his leash like I’d done before. Instead I grabbed Skye by the collar and twisted. I probably was choking him, but I wasn’t going to let him loose again. I don’t know what I would have done had he started moving toward the river, but he just looked up at me and held his ground. When Skye stands still, there is nothing I can do until he decides to move on his own. The water was from snowmelt, and I could feel my feet going numb. Still I had no choice but to wait the dog out. I applied constant pressure to his collar in the direction of dry land, and the big dog eventually followed my lead. We then walked back to Yao and Xiaoli’s house. Skye let me take a route that was away from the river.  

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In a story unrelated to the one I’ve just recounted, there was a time I was ice fishing on a backwater not far from Yao and Xiaoli’s home. At dusk, I saw Xiaoli and Skye walking toward me on the snow-covered ice. A barred owl in a nearby tree called out with its familiar “who-cooks-for-you” refrain. Skye put his snout straight up into the air and let out his own four-syllable howl. The owl hooted at Skye, and Skye howled back. This odd vocal exchange went on four times in succession. My imitation of a barred owl is pretty good, and I have used it dozens of times when I’ve heard owls in the night. Not once has a bird ever called back.

Steven Simpson