The dogs pull on their leashes, burn my hands with their palpable excitement. I reign Kobi in, his large white paws dancing, running in place on the sand, thick nails grabbing for purchase in the granules. Bending, I unhook leash from collar and he runs, all legs, pell-mell down the sun-grayed dock, his eighty-five pounds causing the wood slats to clack and jerk as he runs. Kobi is a glistening copper penny in the late afternoon sun, a cheerful child, my husband’s best friend. He hesitates only a moment before plunging into six feet of green-gray water. I make sure he is swimming safely before I turn my attention to the smaller mutt of a dog waiting impatiently at my feet.
Gracie leans forward, straining at the end of her leash, and barking sharply, repeatedly, as she watches Kobi swim. When I release her from her leash, she too runs down the dock, light and quick, her sled-dog tail a banner waving triumphantly above her back. But just as she reaches the end of the dock, sense surfaces and she skids to a stop. Instead of leaping, she leans forward, her short body coiled, eyes on Kobi as he knifes swiftly through the water, moving out toward the horizon. Gracie yips in frustration, then retreats, the hurdle too menacing for this tough little dog that so willingly takes on all bicycles or dogs daring to cross her path, but fears sprinklers and despises baths. No, Gracie tempers her entry into the water, and instead of leaping, she clips down the rocks piled tenuously along the edge to hold back the sandy beach, and walks herself into the water until she is forced to swim.
Gracie swims, but with uncertainty. She strains to hold her head above water, her slim white-bottomed muzzle reaching up and out of the water. Her small black nose, like a bead, flexes in and out as she breathes. There is nothing swank about Gracie’s style; she swims because she must, because she will be left out if she does not. For Gracie, it is the most taxing of workouts though she is in fine shape. She has a double-coat, and perhaps her line was kept warm by such coats in snowdrift dens dug along an Alaskan trail. Now, she is compelled to leap into a Minnesota lake simply for the pleasure of chasing after her packmate.
The dogs finish their initial lap around the dock and present themselves on the beach. While water slips from Kobi’s back like from the proverbial duck’s when he emerges from the depths, Gracie comes forth saturated, her tail weighted heavily downward and her ears plastered back to her skull, five extra pounds on her slight thirty-five pound frame. They each give vigorous head-to-tip-of-tail shakes and look to us for a clue to the next adventure. My husband tosses a stick, and they repeat the exercise.
For Kobi, swimming is simple. His physical attributes suggest that his ancestors retrieved ducks from marshes, that he was born to be one with the water. He is a big dog, but his chest is shaped like the prow of a ship, cutting efficiently through the water, his thick tail a rudder as he weaves and turns. His fur is sleek, even as he gains a double-coat in the cold months, and he maintains a layer of insulating fat over his muscles even at his leanest weight. Underwater, his legs move in a natural rhythm, his webbed toes helping push back water, gain distance.
By the end of the afternoon, the dogs tire and they spend more time along the beach. Kobi has attempted to chase down a jetski zipping by, bouncing on the wake created from its last pass. My husband calls him back, deciding it is best to keep the dogs near shore during this busy time on the lake. Kobi entertains himself by wading further down the shallow shoreline, his muzzle eye-deep in the water. My husband is by his side to investigate his finds. Occasionally, Kobi stops and paws at the bottom of the lake. There are minnows (I can feel their small bodies lightly strike my ankles as they swim maniacally about, frenzied by the chaos of two dogs and two humans invading their territory), a thick weed bed, and numerous rocks peppering the sand at the bottom of the lake keep Kobi busy searching. Occasionally, he dunks his entire head underwater to peer more closely at his treasure, his ears floating on the water like small lily pads. Briefly, he will settle on a spot, and begin to dig, kicking up sand clouds beneath the water. Success may come in the form of a stick he releases from its sandy confines, a large rock that rolls onto my husband’s toe or even an old plastic grocery bag. When Kobi completes his archeological dig, he wades out into deeper depths, only his head above the water, like Nessie, like a Kobi-shark, we joke.
Gracie, uninterested in Kobi’s pursuits, cares only for the tennis ball, and the inevitable result (another throw!) of bringing the ball back to me. I stand along the shallow water at the shore and throw the ball along the edge of the sand beneath an overhand of trees. The water is sun-dappled and Gracie retrieves eagerly, splashing through the water with abandon upon each throw. Catching prey, like catching Kobi, is Gracie’s pleasure. She is not any easy dog with a defensive dislike for most other dogs, but Gracie’s free spirit when she is running is a gift to my soul, and now she warms my heart with her wide-eyed, high-wire abandonment. While Kobi may be born to the water, Gracie was born to move along the ground.
At dinnertime, we coax the dogs out of the water and briskly towel them off. Still damp, Kobi’s fur curls slightly, and Gracie has recovered some of her size and tail fluff. We clip their collars to tie-outs, and watch for a minute as each dog munches from their bowl of kibble. There is something about the past hours with these dogs that reminds me of their greatest daily gift to me. Dogs instruct us to live more simply, I believe, to trust in instinct, and revel in the most basic of pleasures of being physical beings. With that thought, I dig into my own dinner, and wonder if I could be any happier than this. And there was no way of knowing that that happiness would be short-lived. But that’s the thing with dogs: we always know their lives will be short–hopefully, but oh so regretfully, shorter than ours.