A Swimming Vacation For My Dog, Rowdy

`It's the dog or me,'' warned my wife, eyes ablaze. Our three teenage sons wanted to take Rowdy with us, but Susie wouldn't have it. Traveling with the boys in a small cramped space is like attending a convention of the World Wrestling Federation and the Comedy Club. Throw in Rowdy, and the thought of a 25-hour drive from St. Louis to Maine was overwhelming.

But since puppyhood, Rowdy had made many long trips with me and was a good traveler. I was for taking him.

The boys' anticipation of Rowdy as an eager swimmer was beyond logic. Jon was convinced the dog would love the water, even though he had never seen a lake. Even if they threw him in, I couldn't imagine that he would do any more than swim to shore and climb out.

``Take him over to the park and let him jump in that lake,'' I said, but the boys ignored me and lobbied their mother mercilessly to allow the dog to go.

Finally she relented, and everyone understood that he was going - except Rowdy. As we packed our Aerostar, he retreated to his cage, observing the loading procedure from there. He neither whined in insecurity nor danced in anticipation, but watched stoically until the word was given, ``Come on, Rowd, you get to go, boy.

He raced to the van, jumped in, and curled up in his assigned position as if he'd known all along he would be included. He dozed all the way to Maine, snacking on my food, drinking very little, and getting out for a short run when we stopped for gas. When I slept, he crawled up on my lap and stretched out from my knees to my shoulders like a hairy quilt.

We arrived at the cabin the next day at sundown. In the twilight, Rowdy leapt from the van and raced into the woods, anticipating close encounters with squirrels. He ignored the lake, barely pausing in his investigations to drink from it.

The next morning, the boys begged the dog to take the plunge. But Rowdy could not be enticed into the lake, and I forbade them to throw him off the dock. Rowdy's studied indifference to water games disappointed us all.

Until the ducks arrived.

Rob, Rowdy, and I were standing on the dock when a flotilla of mallards boldly steamed up to us. ``Bring some bread,'' I yelled to Dave, convinced that if we could keep the ducks there, Rowdy would soon be amphibious.

Rowdy was beside himself, but the ducks were fearless. As they paddled up to the dock for bread, Rowdy kept testing the lake with one paw to see if it would support him. He even ran into the water, but only chest-deep, slapping the water with a paw. Back and forth he dodged from dock to shore, like a nervous boxer throwing that right jab.

And then, he charged into the water too far. Suddenly he was swimming. He swam about 20 feet before he realized it; like the disciple Peter, doubting his ability, he headed for the dock to be lifted out.

After that, each trip was a little longer. Sometimes he got out too far, and we ran for the canoe, fearing that he would exhaust himself. But he seemed to know his limits and would return to shore to rest before going out again.

The ducks were most cooperative in all this, but eventually they grew bored and left. Rowdy watched them leave with a wistful look in his eyes. We were proud of his stunts and showered him with hugs and accolades for the rest of the day.

The next evening, the ducks returned in greater number, and Rowdy wasted no time dashing into their midst. He swam so effortlessly (dog paddle, of course), head out of water, never even breathing hard. He soon found he could swim faster than the ducks, but just as he was about to catch one, it would flap its wings, rise up, and glide across the waves.

Not to be outdone, Rowdy would make a tremendous effort, and his head and chest would rise out of the water before sinking back down. I knew what he was thinking: ``Yesterday, I didn't know I could swim. Maybe today I can fly!''

The ducks enjoyed the game enormously, forgetting the bread. They would swim away, quacking piteously with Rowdy in hot pursuit. When he would tire and head for shore, they would follow, taunting him with duck wisequacks, and the whole game would begin again.

When that night's show was over, a single duck remained for 10 minutes, quacking for Rowdy to come get him. But Rowdy was exhausted and couldn't answer the bell.

After that day, land and lake were the same to Rowdy. When strangers paddled by in a canoe, he would swim out to greet them, letting each pat him on the head. If he wanted to go up shore, he swam along the beach until he arrived at his destination.

One morning, he went far out on the lake after a loon. Loons are twice as large as a mallard and are great underwater swimmers. This loon was angry and squawked at Rowdy.

Every time Rowdy got near the bird, it would dive and resurface a hundred feet away, still squawking. Rowdy was perplexed by its disappearances, but he would dutifully head toward each new loon until the game seemed pointless. Then he headed in.

Rowdy could do no wrong. Even Susie admitted that watching him had made the vacation unforgettable.

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