The Road not Traveled

I hadn’t intended to go that way. A series of delays had put me behind schedule and I was overdue back to the shop. So to save a few precious minutes I had planned to turn north on Westgate where it joins Slaughter, and take that lightly traveled road all the way to Stassney or maybe Jones before cutting over. But somehow I missed the turnoff, and so there I was, stuck in heavy traffic, on one of the busiest streets in south Austin at the very busiest time of day. As a further irritation, I had paused to let someone in and been repaid for that small kindness with a missed green light at a signal with a very long cycle; the person I had let in was the last one through. I was sliding into a sour, rather impatient mood.

Finally, the light changed and my cluster of twenty or thirty cars turned north onto Manchaca. After a congested mile or so the traffic cleared somewhat and started moving at a good clip. Then, just past Davis Lane, I saw it, a couple hundred yards ahead. There in the middle turn lane was a dog, scared and confused, looking totally lost. Somehow, miraculously, this dog, a mid-sized female pit bull mix with no collar or tags, had made it unscathed across two lanes of heavy traffic to that patch of relative safety. But right now her chances were looking pretty bleak. Something on the other side had caught her attention and so she started across the two remaining lanes, oblivious of the cars rapidly bearing down on her.

The car directly in front of me was on a collision course.  The driver, barreling along at close to 50, showed no signs of slowing down, and it soon became clear why. Silhouetted against the windshield, I could see her gesturing vigorously with her free hand, head bobbing this way and that, as she chattered animatedly with some unseen somebody, her cone of attention reduced to a sliver. In the right lane, two or three car lengths back but gaining rapidly, was a large pickup piloted by someone in a big hurry, cell phone pressed to his ear, look of determination on his face.

I have a very large soft spot for animals in general and dogs in particular. Years ago a dog got hit by a car right in front of me and I have never forgotten it. It was an awful, gut-wrenching experience that left me traumatized for days after. To this day, the sight of someone’s pet dead by the side of the road can just about bring me to tears. The realization that I was seconds from reliving that trauma filled me with something close to panic. So I leaned on the horn and flashed my lights, hoping to penetrate Chatty Cathy’s fog of distraction. At the same time I veered halfway into the right-hand lane to block the path of the man attempting to overtake me.

Amazingly, the ploy worked. The talker’s head stop bobbing and her gaze shift momentarily to the rearview before returning frontward. And then she saw it, grabbed the wheel with both hands and jammed on the brakes, just in time. All the commotion also got the attention of the overtaker and he hit the brakes too. And so by the thinnest of margins, the dog passed safely across the roadway. Once across, she trotted along the shoulder for a short distance, and then turned onto a side street.  Suddenly filled with resolve to see this through, I pulled over and parked about a half-block ahead of her. Thirty seconds later, a fellow driving a Volkswagen Bug pulled in right behind me. He had been heading south on Manchaca when he spotted the dog and hung a quick U-turn.

We said hello and conferred for a moment. We were both bent on rescuing this dog, whatever it took. Although she was momentarily safe, we still had a problem. She had stationed herself dangerously close to the road. She eyed us nervously and barked insistently any time we tried to approach, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. I didn’t blame her; she was scared, lost, and being harassed by two strange men. Clearly, any rash move might cause her to dash back onto the busy street. So I and the other fellow–I didn’t get his name so I’ll call him “Doug”–hatched a plan. While he distracted her, I would cross the street and slowly make my way toward Manchaca, hoping to cross back over behind her and then herd her away from danger. It worked. She scampered down the block ahead of me, rounded the first corner, and took up a defensive position on someone’s front porch. Hemmed in by fences and a large hedge, she was pretty much trapped. It was a standoff. Any close approach was met with a flurry of barking and a hasty retreat, so simply grabbing her was not going to work. What to do?

Doug, a slender fellow of maybe 26, had an idea. While I blocked her escape, he would gradually approach her, a little at a time, until he could put his hands on her. It seemed like a pretty good idea. The dog, while obviously nervous, was clearly not aggressive. She could be won over, he reasoned, with a little patience, and I concurred.

Bit by bit, a few baby steps at a time, he just sort of ooched his way over, never exceeding the dog’s tolerance, gazing mostly at the ground the whole time, pretending to ignore her. After maybe five minutes he was standing right next to her and she was maintaining just fine. With Phase one complete, Doug moved on to Phase two. Calmly and with great deliberation, Doug gradually introduced the idea of physical contact. First he squatted right next to the dog while keeping his hands to himself, then he placed a hand on the ground next to her, then he lightly touched her with the back of his hand, then made full contact, and finally, petted with gentle, reassuring strokes. Game over; he had gained her trust. We still had to get her to the car, though. I happened to have a leash with me and went back to the car to retrieve it. Doug fashioned the leash into a slipknot, and with the same patient, gradual method, slid it gently over the dog’s head. She struggled a little as the leash tightened, but he gently persisted and she quickly gave in. With surprising ease, Doug  maneuvered her toward his car. And with a little urging, she jumped right in. She settled into the front seat, looking quite relaxed.

I was very much impressed by this remarkable display of prowess. Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, would have been proud of Doug, and I said so. “Funny you should mention that because I’ve seen every episode of his show,” he responded. Turns out the young man had sort of inherited a problem dog a while back. This dog had had been so mishandled by a series of inept owners that it had acquired just about every canine misbehavior in the book. Doug was the dog’s last hope. Determined to succeed, he had streamed episode after episode of The Dog Whisperer, mining it for clues as to how to fix the troubled beast. The research paid off, and with much patience he was able to turn the dog around. “I think he’s ready for some company now,”  he said, “so this works out well.” Doug and I chatted for a minute or two, buzzing with a mixture of relief and mild amazement at the serendipitous turn of events, and then went our separate ways.

I hadn’t meant to go that way, but I went straight instead of turning left and ended up in a certain place at a certain time. And so a small, innocent life was saved and a young man gained a welcome companion. I merged into traffic and headed back to the shop, suddenly mindful of the curious synchronicity of life, the genuine rarity of happy endings, and the joy that comes of life’s unexpected little triumphs.

 

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