Shug. Photo by Dr. Nathan Mueller
It was a little after 10 p.m. and I’d just gotten home from work. My mixed-breed dog Shug, short for Sugar, was waiting patiently for a potty break. With her skipping a few steps ahead of me, we rounded the partition in my second-floor apartment, took the flight of steps, and headed out the door. It was one of those overcast wintery nights with a hint of pinion in the air. I heard my phone ringing and answered as we were walking to the grassy area at the top of a hill overlooking a busy city street. As the phone conversation continued, I wasn’t watching her like I should have and suddenly, with one signal - “Woof” - she disappeared into the dark starless night after a bouncing cottontail rabbit and vanished in a matter of seconds.
She was living at the veterinary hospital where I worked when I first met her, and had been rescued from a small neighboring town where she was found running loose and underweight, appearing to have a body condition score of about 2/5. It was clear to me that she needed a real home, so I adopted her. She seemed happy about this arrangement and loved going back to work with me to see her friends, and to chat with the staff, hospital cats, or even another agreeable dog patient.
But back on that hill, she was gone. Determined to find her, I followed her while shouting her name but she and the rabbit were too fast and disappeared from sight. A couple more yelps I heard from a distance sounded like she was still on the rabbit’s trail, so I continued calling, “Shug, Shug, Shug!” until I was exhausted from running and my brow was drenched in sweat. With no hint of her location, I returned home to get my car to cover a wider area, but that wasn’t any more successful. Eventually, I returned home again to regroup, but this time with frustration and regret swirling in my head.
Shug was somewhere in a big city all alone. In complete despair at this point, I parked and got out of my car. Approaching my apartment door, I reached into my coat pocket to grab my keys, which made a jingling noise I may never forget. When I looked ahead, there she sat awaiting my return on the doormat, wagging her tail. A fatally wounded rabbit was lying several feet away. She was panting hard from the excitement of her catch, which she brought home to show me. I couldn’t have been happier as I bent down to hug her, sobbing quietly after our terrifying and thankfully short-lived separation.
“Thank you for coming home, Shug.”
We’ve gone on many walks since then. She’s helped care for our other two dogs from the time they were puppies, enriched our entire family, and provided multiple blood transfusions for other less fortunate puppies who couldn’t afford them. She saw a lot of sick and injured pets come into the hospital and leave, either fixed or feeling better. As she sat there donating blood – motionless yet eyes bugging out of her head in excitement – it was clear to me she knew she was doing her part to help save the other dog patients. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of dog with the ability to communicate, nonverbally of course, in a way that seems more human than canine. She deserves the best from me, but I’ve fallen short on at least one other occasion.
I was raking leaves in the front yard a few years later, with Shug sitting next to me. While our neighborhood isn’t close to any busy city streets, it doesn’t have any front yard fences, and the side yards are narrow with houses nestled only 15-20 feet apart. My plan was to allow her to sit with me until she got bored. It was a typical quiet early afternoon and she was enjoying staying put. I heard a car and turned to see it was our neighbors approaching. They turned into their driveway and parked, awaiting their garage door to stop. Still raking leaves, I heard the faint noise of another door opening. The door leading from their garage to the inside of their home flung open and I looked up just in time to see the neighbor’s large dog come barreling through, lunging toward us.
Standing close, I knelt behind her, and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. It was all I could think to do in the moment but he was too fast and I couldn't prevent him from biting into her neck. She started crying, and I quickly realized that it didn’t help to pull on her, as he had no intention of letting go. There was more crying over what seemed like minutes but was only a few seconds. Thankfully, the neighbors who had witnessed the entire incident from their car came running over to reprimand their dog, convincing him to let go of Shug.
She was bleeding from behind her ear so I rushed her inside to assess the injuries. Everyone, including her little brother, was startled after hearing the loud ruckus from the front yard. Luckily, the bite wounds were only skin deep and healed quickly with antibiotics but she refused to go into the front yard for the next several weeks.
My memory of the incident came full circle while recently reading a TIME Special Edition on what is known about human memory formation, storage, and reconsolidation. Do memories behave similarly with dogs as with humans? Will my memories of both incidents eventually wane or will they continue to remain as if they happened yesterday? Do the details remain so clearly in my mind because they are laced with guilt, trauma, and emotion? Luckily, Shug’s angst over going into the front yard dissipated within a few weeks.
But wait, there’s more.
Another time, she ate the contents of an entire bag of fun-size candy, wrappers included, when I left for a quick run to the grocery store. Once she drank an entire cup of coffee with milk and sugar that I left in tongue’s reach after exiting the room. Perhaps Shug is a Christmas elf disguised as a dog with a raging sweet tooth. After all, Sugar is one of the four main food groups.
Dealing with my own mistakes and the memory of them is something I haven’t quite mastered; in fact, I’m pretty terrible at it. What have I learned? I’ve learned to always take the leash for any outdoor adventure and that it’s always better to put the dogs in a protected, fenced-in area instead of any open outdoor area. Because she didn’t skip a beat in forgiving me for my errors in caring for her, it makes sense to forgive myself, I’ve learned, so I can better focus on preventing future mistakes and dwell less on those made yesterday. While some memories might be unforgettable, if the intensity of her memory of the attack can wane over time, then surely it will for me too.
Does anyone know where I put my coffee? I can’t remember. Shug?!
Dr. Nathan Mueller
February 12, 2020
February 7, 2020