When I was around 12, my stepbrother Scott got a new dog. He was a splendid dog, black with a brown face and leg markings like a Rottweiler, with long hair like a golden retriever. Scott named him Cougar probably because that was the most bad-assed name Andrea, my stepmother, had approved (although according to my dad she let the boys get away with anything, so it’s hard to say).

As with so many other things, Scott assured Dad and Andrea that he would work with Cougar and take care of him and train him. However, in the course of things, Cougar ended up being just another dog. This was the time when Andrea was helping one of her friends with abandoned puppies, so we always had 12 or more dogs in the pens between the garage and the old chicken house. Brett and I ended up feeding and watering them, and it wasn’t long before Scott forgot all about Cougar.

Cougar was the size of golden retriever, probably around 70 pounds. He was always rambunctious, and taking the leadership of our wily old black lab, Butch, he started escaping from the pen. Sometimes they climbed the fence over the top. Other times they would dig and wriggle their way between the fence and the barn or even underneath the fence.

One particular time, Cougar was digging away and he got stuck underneath the fence. By the time he worked his way free, he had peeled the top layer of skin from the inside of his rear left leg. I remember that it was summer, because camp was in session, and I tore across the street to the lodge to begin the bargaining process with my dad. You see, it was at this point that I realized that I was in love with Cougar, and that he could be such a great dog if only someone loved him and worked with him. I knew that in my dad’s world, a dog that had to have surgery could be just as easily put out of its misery. This was not because my dad was a heartless man; no, he felt this was a code of honor between man and beast. We didn’t have much money, and the highest respect he could pay to an animal he had loved would be to save it the indignity of being put down by someone else.

I, however, had different notions of Cougar’s future after this incident. Of course some stitches could fix this up, but I didn’t have the money. Dad didn’t really either, but Andrea said the best I could do was to talk to him. So I stormed into the dining room, out of breath, sweat running into my eyes, and found my dad. After explaining the situation to him, I asked him if we could take Cougar to the vet to get the stitches.

“Please, Dad?”

“Sarah, that’s going to cost at least 100 dollars. That’s a lot of money for a dog.”

“I know, Dad, but I promise I will work with him every day. I’ll train him and work with him. I promise.” My only hope was that Dad would recognize how much I had wanted a dog, when Scott and Brett had both gotten them in the last couple of years. I held onto the desperate desire for my own dog, even if it was a castoff of Scott.

It takes a stronger man than my father to resist his daughter with her mind made up on something that he secretly agrees with. I began working with Cougar the next day. In the course of the next five years, Cougar became my best friend, and I did indeed train him. My arms about came out of their sockets as his idea of a “walk” was to take off running at high speed and I held on (because when I didn’t, he got loose, and when he got loose, Dad and I had a talk about how he should be behaving, and then I felt like I had let Dad down). Cougar’s idea of civilization was quite different from mine, and he had no idea that sitting and walking sedately were things that could benefit him. As we became friends, he must have just done it to humor me. Thankfully, we had the 60 acres of the camp to race around on.

In time, we would walk the outer circle of the dikes and even cut across on the shortcuts I was always trying to discover, and there would be no pulled-out-of-their-sockets arms. I told Cougar all kinds of things, and it really felt like I got answers from him. Not in words, maybe, but he always listened. It could be that he was as glad for the company as I was. Those five years were among the worst I can remember. I came home from a visit to my mom’s, and Andrea had moved out. Then, only a few years later, Vicki moved in and another life started. In the midst of this, there was the everyday junior high and high school drama of friendships and boyfriends and homework.

We moved away from the camp, and Cougar moved to the neighbors. I don’t know what has happened to him, although I think the neighbors had kids and that’s a largely good thing for any dog like Cougar. He has been dead for quite a while now, I think. My new dog is much different than him, quite a bit smaller especially, but I think my love and appreciation of dogs began those many moons ago when I saved a wounded dog and discovered a part of myself in the training of him.