November 2, 2012
I taught my dog Annie how to jump off a dock today – well, it wasn’t really a dock, it was a boat. Not an ordinary boat, either, but a custom craft designed especially to allow crews to practice rowing together in double-file. It even has a name, the Judge Lincoln, which is as venerable-sounding as it looks, with its dirty metal hull showing patches of darkness through rusted holes. When not in use, which is most of the time, the Judge Lincoln rests at the edge of the Exeter River, behind the unrusty metal bleachers of the Phillips Exeter Academy track and varsity soccer field. What makes it resemble a dock is the fact that it is rectangular in shape rather than oblong with pointy ends. Normally one does not find it perpendicular to the shore, but on this particular day it was. This particular day was a lovely and unseasonably warm November Friday, and Annie and I were alone on our usual mid-day walk. She is a blonde hound mix who loves to swim, and she loves to fetch sticks, so we often combine the two. It occurred to me that although Annie has been known to leap with great enthusiasm from the side of the riverbank, she had never leapt from something man-made and dock-like, and I saw an opportunity in the Judge Lincoln. It was not difficult to coax her to get on the boat or to walk out toward the end, but when I threw a stick into the water beyond the edge of the boat, Annie’s response was to stand looking at the splash as it dissipated, and then at the floating stick, whining with uncertainty. I called her back and she ran around off the boat and retrieved the stick with a good will, leaving from the river’s edge. I set her back on the boat again and again threw the stick, meanwhile trying to handle my cell phone as video camera to capture the moment she decided to jump off. I succeeded only in getting a quick pan of the river and back again as the camera followed the movement of my body throwing the stick. This time Annie put all four paws on the edge of the boat, closer to the water, again whining, but still unsure what to do. She ran around off the boat and entered the water from the riverside again, retrieving the stick. I gave her a treat and a hearty “Good dog!” each time. The third time she hesitated, muzzle quivering, paws inching closer to the edge. I decided to intervene, and nudged her off the edge with my foot. Once in the water, Annie immediately “got it,” and after she brought the stick back she went out unbidden to the edge of the boat, and looked back at me; this time when I threw the stick she confidently leapt off after it. She became so excited with her own achievement that she started jumping off the edge even before I threw the stick, like a child enamored with an amusement park ride, she wanted to go again and again. I finally got the perfect footage for posterity, and I had to call a halt to Annie’s fun, because although the air was warm the water was not, and Annie was shivering uncontrollably. I imagined her doggie lips blue with cold. It crossed my mind that we all may come to such a point as Annie did, poised teetering on the edge of the boat, when the intervention of a well-meaning toe in the behind can propel us beyond our fear to a realization of our own potential.