How the Infectious Joy of My Dog Got Me Moving—Again and Again

Gingerly, Lieutenant Baxter Bear put one paw literally in front of another, crossing right over left, left over right to center his balance. His arthritic elbows were increasingly unyielding; medication, acupuncture and physical therapy could only do so much. Behind them, his back legs didn’t quite shuffle but were certainly not as sure as they were a year, a month or a week before—even with the added traction from the yellow rubber booties he’d gotten used to wearing outside.

He stopped every few steps, presumably to sniff. But after more than a decade as his outdoor adventure partner, I knew better. At nearly 16 years old, he was still a proud and regal dog; admitting his need to pause in our slow progress down the sidewalk visibly grated on him, so he’d pretend the patch of grass before him was his reason for a break, not to catch his breath. I let him have his little charade as I kept mine going too—holding the retractable leash he no longer needed and praising his every step forward, forcing a brittle smile even as each one shattered me a tiny bit more.

Baxter’s advancing pulmonary fibrosis made even short ambles around our townhome community in Atlanta difficult. Even so, he loved to walk. We spent years exploring neighborhoods, trails and parks on foot from New Orleans to Long Island. However, his mind could only triumph over matter so much, so I’d bought a folding beach wagon sturdy enough to hold his 75 (and dropping) pounds so he could go as far as he could … though never as far as he wanted. 

“You ready to go in the wagon, Baby Bear?” I’d ask him. He’d look at me with sorrowful but determined eyes, admonishing me and making his next step pointed and deliberate. He always declined the first few times before finally giving in with a relieved sigh as I scooped him up to gently place him in the wagon. After 15 years of getting me on my feet and through the great outdoors, inspiring me to make moves, both literally and figuratively, it was finally my turn to return the favor—to carry him as he did me.

Learning to Walk

I wasn’t intentionally active in my youth. My parents didn’t have the money to put me in organized sports, but truthfully, I didn’t have the hand-eye coordination for most anyway. Every year, I power-walked my school’s fitness test mile instead of running, not wanting to break a sweat and risk getting made fun of. In college, I tried a few classes at our state-of-the-art gym because it seemed like the thing to do, and we were paying enough in usage fees. Still, I never cared a great deal about being outdoors. 

That is, until I started walking with Baxter, a mixed-breed rescue pup I adopted fresh out of college in New Orleans, after years of sporadically volunteering at shelters and a lifetime of longing to have a pet of my very own. 

I’d never had a dog before, nor walked one alone. My volunteering was mostly in community outreach and at events. So, boy, did he surprise me with his strength, fast growth, and hunting- and working-dog DNA.

The world was fresh and exciting to the year-old Baxter, a new adventure every few feet. There were scents to smell, bushes to mark, trains to chase and trash to devour. Not to mention all the creatures that preoccupied him: squirrels to lunge after, dogs to sniff, cats to scare and bees to catch. What was old was new again as I rediscovered New Orleans at the wildly erratic pace of a scampering explorer. 

In training Baxter not to drag me down the uneven sidewalks of the city, I slowed my ingrained native New Yorker power walk. As he sniffed out fire hydrants and garden fence posts, he made me stop too, and I learned to identify sweet olives, gardenias and jasmine. His frequent breaks to mark his territory gave me an excuse to idly observe the architectural details of the grand homes of Uptown and the narrow shotgun houses of Black Pearl, where we lived. And when those routes became too familiar, we started driving to other areas of the city just to walk and to better develop his focus and manners.

Experiencing the delights of New Orleans with Baby Bear, I fell in love—with not just where we lived, but with the entire city in a whole new way. From there, together, we began to run. 

A portrait of a brown dog.
Lieutenant Baxter Bear

Learning to Run

I had tried once, in my late teens, to get into running. They were short spurts, just a couple of miles. I’d sometimes hear catcalls or drive-by slurs through the tinny earbuds of my iPod, but ignored them, since I literally only needed to run past them. One day, a van crept up on me during a jog in a nearby neighborhood. A window rolled down and a man yelled, “You need a ride?” I shook my head, perplexed as to why anybody would ask this of someone obviously geared up for a jog. I discreetly paused my music, the hairs on my neck rising, and heard the driver say to his passenger, “Just open the door.” In a jolt of nervous energy, I took off up a nearby driveway into an unfenced stretch of yard between two homes and waited until I heard the van finally pass. 

That was the last time I ran … until I got my Bear, who proved that the cliché “You have to walk before you run” was annoyingly true.

While he would always be a scrawny, 26-pound puppy with gangly legs, bat-winged ears and too-big paws to me, by the time he was done growing, he was what most would consider a big dog. And big dogs give would-be harassers pause. From a safe distance, his confident stance, noble bearing and visibly harnessed power were evident—“safe” being the key word. 

A petite woman even walking alone can be a target, much less jogging with headphones on. But with what looked like a pitbull-shepherd–Rhodesian ridgeback mix at my side, I felt invincible enough to run again, relishing the freedom he gave me to explore with the confidence of a man, his self-assuredness contagious and his joy equally infectious. 

We’d started with brisk walking. Hypnotized by his half-perk ears flopping with each step and his tail swishing back and forth, the sight of them propelled me through miles. I barely noticed as I built endurance by adapting to his strident pace. Together, we discovered the thrill of going faster and farther … until suddenly, we were flying. 

As we took off, he transformed into a magnificent beast, ears folded back sleekly, legs extended as he shifted into a more aerodynamic form. His muscles uncoiled and rippled under his coat. Through Baxter’s leash, I felt the pure, unadulterated joy of moving ever forward, free in pursuit of happiness.

Learning to Hike

As an Xennial, I graduated into a recession, with no choice but to follow the money—in this case, back home to Long Island where my then-husband got a job in 2009. 

I didn’t want to go. The blue-collar area I happily abandoned after high school was a place of trauma for me and a hard, homogenous place for a daughter of Asian immigrants to grow up. My pride took a hit as my new husband and I moved into my parents’ basement while looking for a home, and I felt backed into a trap, spending money I didn’t have on a house in a place I didn’t want to be. But Baxter? He wanted to be anywhere I was, and experiencing life in the Northeast was only a new adventure. 

We began to chase the things that made the Island special—things I took for granted while growing up there. I showed him deer and beaches, docks and vineyards, bridges and farms. Then, we ventured even farther, heading into the woods. We started at nearby parks and preserves, with short, easy and well-defined trails. Then we made our way east to wetlands, then to the pine barrens. Soon we ventured farther afield to New York state, Connecticut, New Jersey in search of different scenery, more challenging loops, higher hills. Baxter learned how to sniff his way back to a trailhead and what mountains were. I learned to read trail markers … and that I knew how to be alone and still be happy. 

Because my ex was not active, running with Baxter had always been a solo activity with headphones providing distraction. But with hiking, I became comfortable with silence. With simply being, breathing and taking one dogged step after another, propelled forward by my dog.

This realization helped give me the strength to leave my marriage as our lifestyles increasingly diverged. It gave me the courage to leave New York after nine years to move during a pandemic to Atlanta, a city I’d never lived in. I knew that together, my Baxter and I could climb any mountain. 

This time, the mountain that would be his last was Kennesaw, the highest point in metro Atlanta. As Baxter’s arthritis creeped up on him and his seasonal New York allergies worsened despite weekly shots, it was time to bring him back home to the South. 

A selfie of a woman with her brown dog on a sunny day.
The author with Baxter.

Learning to Love

I’ve sung many an adapted tune to Baxter through the years. As many nicknames as he had, there were theme songs for each one. For car rides to the beach, it was “Gooey” by Glass Animals: “Hi, my little Boo Bear, wanna take a chance? Wanna sip the smooth air, kick it in the sand?” When I wanted to bother him, it was Winnie the Pooh’s “willy, nilly, silly old bear.” 

But during that last heartbreaking year, a line in a song by Death Cab for Cutie ran relentlessly through my head. As I helped him up from his frequent collapses, picked up his “sleep nuggets” before he could realize he’d soiled himself or listened to his labored breathing, my eyes burned with held-back tears and the refrain would loop in my inner ear: “ … love is watching someone die.”

I had spent the year prior doing exactly that, mentally denying that my mother would lose her battle with cancer. Although Baxter’s pulmonary fibrosis was not the same, I grieved in the same way, even as he held on, knowing I needed him desperately now more than ever. 

Lieutenant Baxter Bear was stalwart and brave to the end. He fought hard to keep himself moving no matter the cost, cooperating as his physical therapist and I made him do his exercises. His joints stiffened along with his lungs, but he soldiered on, trying to get one more step in every time I asked if he was ready for the wagon. During his final months in Atlanta, we continued the walks that got shorter every day, and it felt like we were going on challenging hikes once more. But this time, the mountains loomed larger in our hearts than beneath our feet. 

Baxter had carried me through six homes, three states. Hurricanes, floods. The loss of a home, marriage, a brother, a mother. Life-changing medical diagnoses in the family, a pandemic. Now, I carried him. Up and down the two flights of stairs in the townhome I picked out for its sunny spots for his aching bones. Into the wagon, the tub, the bed we shared. Inside from his bathroom breaks, from basks in the sun, from just standing in front of the house to sniff the outdoors he still loved so much, which he taught me to embrace for 15 wonderful years.

Learning to Walk Again

With his wagon folded up for good and my bed empty, another line replaced the Death Cab song in my head, a new one from “Carry Me Home” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On repeat, the soul-wrenching guitar wailed with my shattered heart, “Stick with me, girlfriend, I don’t want to be here alone.” 

Without the responsibility of caring for him, I had no reason to get out of bed anymore, to work out and maintain my strength to lift him up, nor even to go outside. 

I read somewhere that grief is just love that has nowhere else to go. It pours out of you. But the thing is, it has to go somewhere. At first, it came in torrents of tears. I cried every day. The love I hold for Baxter is forever; without him as a conduit, I channeled it toward Atlanta shelter dogs in crisis, plunging myself into local programs like Lifeline Animal Project’s Dog for the Day and adoption events with organizations like Bosley’s Place for neonatal puppies. It was my first step to getting back outside.

I didn’t think I could handle adopting again, but I wanted to build up to fostering. My first foster was a dog with immediate medical needs—a young, petite, pretty pit bull with a big head, slinky body and insatiable appetite for snuggles. My heart wasn’t ready for another dog, but she was ready for a home. Predictably, she’s now officially mine and currently snoring in happy little grunts, her short snoot pressed firm against me.

Sable Sugarpig is very different from Lieutenant Baxter Bear. She’s a messy walker who’s overly eager to greet friends of all species. She’s a sensitive dog who’s thirsty for approval but holds firm boundaries with prissy sass—a foil in every way for the disciplined, tolerant, stoic boy my Bax was. 

But one thing remains the same. Motivated by a desire to feel the joy emanating from a wagging tail and flapping ears, I found my feet again. I rediscovered my love of walking. Of running. Of hiking. And I remembered what Baxter taught me: It’s a wide and wonderful world out there. 

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