The chore was two years overdue, maybe three. One late winter afternoon that was sunny if not warm, I dismounted the right half of the garage double-door, laid it across a pair of sawhorses, measured and marked it with yardstick and stencil and pencil, and attacked it with drill and jigsaw.
My home improvement projects do not always go well, but installing a dog door took less than an hour’s time and the finished product was darn near perfect, if I do say so myself. Maybe because, contrary to my usual procedure, I read the manufacturer’s instructions twice before I started and followed them step-by-step without any “improvements.” Well, I did caulk and weather-strip the dog door frame, which the instructions did not call for, but that weatherizing is de rigueur for a west-facing window or door in the North Country. Doesn’t really count as an alteration.
As the last light of evening faded the garage door was rehung and the double-flapped dog door was ready for trial runs. Abbey, clever girl that she is, needed only two passes through the door to understand its purpose and see its potential to improve her life.
Sasha, an old lady who is set in her ways and suspicious of any changes in operations, balked at using the small door until enticed with a treat to push through with her nose, head, shoulders and finally her full length as she snapped at the biscuit. Three times in, three times out, and she grudgingly accepted the door as an alternate mode of entrance into and egress from the workshop. For an hour she held out for edible reward before she would enter, but as the dark and cold of night came on she decided the warmth of the workshop was reward enough.
Both dogs’ appreciation for the new door grew as they realized the benefits of bedding down in blanket-lined boxes in the heated workshop, compared to straw-packed houses in their kennel runs. But in truth I was the real beneficiary of the project because they were already overnighting in the workshop on sub-zero nights, and Sasha’s incontinence at fifteen years of age meant that, pre-dog-door, I was cleaning up messes on the workshop floor most mornings.
For a month I worried that their ability to come and go as they pleased might inspire some wanderlust, maybe as disastrous as their raid on a neighbor’s chicken yard several years ago. But we are long into spring now, and they have stayed mostly around the farm yard with an occasional foray up to the hayfield to dig for gophers.
As a bonus, the dog door has provided a glimpse into canine psyches. For humans, a door is a door is a door: a passage from one place to another.
For my dogs, who can make that passage from kennel run to a larger world only when I open their gates and set them free, this dog door that opens at their command seems to open new views of life as well.
As I watch them come and go, I perceive that, for Abbey, this door is a portal between the cloistered world and the wild. The expression on her face is one of expectant happiness as she pushes her way through the double weather flaps and onto the deck where a northwest wind fills her nose with intoxicants — scents promising adventure and sparking desire. A leap from the deck, a few bounds up the hillside, and she is on a joyful quest.
For Sasha, the thrill is momentary. Her passage through the door is a flickering burst of rejuvenation, brightness for a few seconds, quickly followed by the dimming down of light and warmth and excitement. Like me, elderly and more than a little infirm, she has grown soft and saggy, paunchy in some places and gaunt in others, muscles flaccid, sinews rigid. We are not the bird hunters we used to be.
But watching her pass through the portal, I witness a brief instant when her form fits her spirit more tightly. Her head lifts and tilts toward a hunting field of a day long past, and her soul glows through the shroud of an aged body that does not serve her well. A flash of remembrance lights her eyes, the sunshine of days when she ran bold and strong and sure through field and forest. She pauses at the edge of the deck, poised for a leap into the wilderness, then wisely chooses to step carefully down the stairs to the concrete sidewalk and close-cropped lawn.
My intent was that installing the dog door would make Sasha’s late-life winter nights more warm and comfortable. It has also made, however briefly, springtime days more exciting and enjoyable – for her and, through her, me.
I wish I had done this two years ago. I’m so glad I finally did.
More essays and stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and novels, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page