A Life Unleashed

She’d pull to the left, yank the leash to the right. Pretty sure she popped my shoulder out once.

She’d bark at dogs, squirrels, or what I can only assume were ghosts, visible exclusively to her.

I loved Frankie for all of her 14 and a half years, but, oh, she made a terrible running partner.

It wasn’t her fault, of course. Like almost every Lab I’ve known, she was filled with unbridled enthusiasm and a lust for life no leash could contain. She’d sniff every tree and butt, shout hellos, cover your hand with wet licks, and investigate everything. If only us humans could go through life (heck, even just one day) with a similar zeal—to feel so existentially alive and perpetually optimistic.

In spite of her spastic jogging habits – and my frustration at her horrible listening skills – she was, many days, the only force strong enough to lift me from my malaise, to nudge me – sometimes literally – to the leash, then the door, then the front seat of my car. She loved sidewalks, asphalt paths, grassy trails. She would cry in ecstatic anticipation in the car as soon as she recognized the route.

I’ll admit it: Frankie forced me to exercise. And while I’d like to say I did it to improve my health (and some days that was true), it was predominantly a sense of guilt that drove me. The dog needed to run, and it was up to me to let her.

She was only eight weeks old when we first met. The runt of a rescued litter, she was the first one to ignore her playful siblings, look up with dark brown puppy eyes, and wiggle to the front of the pen, tail straight up, to say hi.

The walks and runs and swims we’d take together over the next decade and a half have helped me live a healthier life. I’ve never been a workout nut, and forcing myself to lace up the running shoes is often like moving a mountain. But Frankie was my accountability partner—never judging how slow I might jog, or if I needed to walk the last half mile. She’d just run over to me, tongue wagging, slobber dripping, with a look that said, “Let’s go some more! Isn’t this the best?!”

She was right, too, and maybe we’d go a little farther. I wonder sometimes how many extra miles I’ve logged just from her encouragement.

Our last jog together was more than a year ago. She began to slow down in her old age. And as much as I always complained about her leash pulling, I missed her on my runs this past year. I missed taking little detours so she could sniff out some critter or explore a fallen tree. I missed that look of simple joy in her eyes—a look that only grew in appreciation and pleasure, no matter how many times we traversed the same few miles of track.

These memories came rushing back in a flood recently as I sat on the linoleum floor of an exam room, stroking Frankie’s velvety black ear, watching a young veterinarian speak gentle words of solace to my friend while she slowly compressed a syringe. I thought I had prepared for this moment, but as I pressed my head to hers, breathing in the smell of her fur as she breathed her last, I realized no preparation would have ever been enough. Not for this.

As Frankie’s heart stopped, I knew it was my heart that had been saved. It’s healthier in a physical sense, of course, from all of those trips to the trail, but it’s stronger in so many other ways. She taught me so much about perspective and purpose, unconditional love and boundless joy—mostly about friendship. And during one particularly rough year, I’m convinced she literally saved my life more than once.

No, Frankie wasn’t a good running partner—constantly yanking ahead, pulling me along. But that’s okay. I know instead she was my friend. She was only trying to lead me—and show me the way.