I saved Tolstoy when I was 25 years old. He was on day two of death row at the pound. A 65-pound Akita-Husky mix, I always described Tolstoy as a creamsicle: orange on top, white underbelly –with one eye blue and the other brown.
He was a stubborn, aggressive, playful, single-minded dog who wanted everything his way and wouldn’t listen to what anyone told him to do unless he could see a way that it would immediately benefit him.
In short, the perfect dog for the 25-year old me, a reflection of my own self.
Tolstoy was a hunter, and he would spend hours hunting a single gopher – as my then-girlfriend’s father found out when Tolstoy dug a trench 6-inches deep across his yard. Three ways. In the course of a single afternoon.
And when he did catch a gopher, he would choke it down as quickly as he could, knowing that I’d try to take it away from him. I could always tell if he caught a gopher at the park even if I didn’t see it, by the stomach ache he’d have in conjunction with the death gas emanating from his butt that night at home.
I had a lot of great days with that dog, but there was one particular day in Golden Gate Park that I will remember until the day I die: it was a banner day for Tol. I was on my in-line skates (it was 1996), and Tolstoy was been off-leash, having a great time running with me, and staying out of trouble. You have to understand what a miracle this is for a Husky, given the sheer number of things to hunt on a Sunday in the park.
We made multiple circuits from the Conservatory of Flowers out to Crossover Drive and back – and it was on our to-be final circuit that we stopped at the little pond right before the 19th Avenue overpass. You know the one, with that big waterfall, filled with skanky, foamy water. There are a few ducks floating on the pond, and the hunter in Tol is fascinated.
Up until this point, he’s also hated the water and swimming. Something about me throwing him in Lake Tahoe when I first got him. So I watch, bemused, as he gets down into the water as far as he possibly can go, just keening for a duck, reaching with one paw as he struggles to stay on land…
…and then he slips into the water. And the first look on his face is “What have I done?!?” but instinct kicks in and he starts to swim. And his focus immediately becomes ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. And I try calling him a few times, but it is obvious that he isn’t coming out for anything. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks.
And the ducks would swim just a little bit ahead of him, and were just like, “Quack.” And since this is Berkeley I must state that no duck was ever in any real danger in this story.
A crowd starts to gather, and then other dogs happening by see Tolstoy chasing the ducks in the water, and think, “Hey, that looks great!” and they jump in too. And I am incredibly relieved to see that it’s not only my dog who is so ill-behaved that he’d go barreling into this skanky little pond. Soon, there is a pack of three or four dogs, all chasing each other and the ducks around in this foamy, gross water. And a throng of people gather to watch the escapade, laughing, yelling, some rooting for the dogs, others rooting for the ducks…
The difference between Tolstoy and the other dogs becomes evident, however, as every other dog eventually heeds its human’s voice and gets out of the water. Tolstoy refuses to heed my calls. And I know the little mutt can hear me, because his ears twitch involuntarily when I yell his name.
After about 25 minutes of full sprint chasing the ducks, he starts tiring out. Less of his head is sticking out of the water; he’s swimming slower. Much slower. And pretty soon, it dawns on me: he’s going to drown unless I do something. So I head over to the Eastern edge of the pond, where there is a little dirt depression, and start stripping down. I take off my skates, I take off my socks, I remove my fanny-pack (hey, it was 1996!), t-shirt and hat and set them all down in a pile and wait for the moment to come.
At a certain point, Tolstoy’s legs cramp up, and he tries to crawl out of the water onto the rock in the middle of the pond. He gets out on the rock, and his back leg is spasming straight behind him…googada-googada… and he can’t hold it, so he just falls over sideways into the water.
And that was the moment when I hit the water – that nasty, skanky water – in a shallow dive, and took three strokes to cross the pond to where Tolstoy was floundering. I found I could stand in the chest-high water, so I grabbed Tolstoy, and threw him over one shoulder and started making my way back to the edge of the pond to the great amusement and applause of the gathered throng.
I drug the wet, dripping, smelly dog and myself – who was now also wet, dripping and smelly – out to the edge of the pond. I set him on the muddy bank, where he was almost too weak to shake off. Almost, but not quite: he had enough left in the tank to drench my t-shirt, socks and fanny pack.
Epilog: After that, he was a swimmer. Tolstoy chased ducks until he almost drowned two more times. Eventually, I realized he wasn’t the one who needed to change, and I got him a doggy life jacket. And, I learned to enjoy my time on the beach alone while Tolstoy let his wild side take him further out in the Bay.