A Moment of Silence
3:30 in the morning, my breath all around me, I found myself briskly walking through a parking lot pondering how I reached this point in life. My thoughts were actually more colourful, but friends and family may actually read this at some point in time. I was alone…physically and in my thoughts. Coincidentally, it was the same time of year that a split second decision changed my life forever.
How It All Began
It was a beautiful Autumn evening (six years earlier), with a crisp mountain breeze blowing in. The night began with a finely brewed hot beverage at Starbucks with co-workers. As far as I knew, it was going to be like any other night as we discussed potential training activities. While the dog handler’s world is filled with action packed incidents, one will never be successful without realistic training. I’d arranged for some realistic hard surface tracking in a quiet industrial area.
For those unfamiliar with the dog world, or even the thought of tracking, a good tracking dog follows a trail of human scent. While tracking dogs typically follow a combination of human scent and ground disturbance on crushed vegetation, they can also be taught to follow a scent on hard surfaces such as gravel, pavement, and concrete. Think of scent as a microscopic trail left behind as we constantly shed skin cells…not much different than the trail of bread crumbs left behind in the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Dogs have a remarkable ability to detect and discriminate scents. The German Shepherd, for instance, has 225 million scent receptors (a human has 5 million).
At the time, I’d conducted over a hundred hard surface tracks with the faithful Black Dog. With that many repetitions, I was the dummy at the end of the line going for a ride. Of course I had to interpret the Black Dog’s behaviour, but we’d spent so much time together that understanding his body language was almost second nature.
Like so many other tracks, I deployed Nox on his leather harness and 30 foot tracking line. To this day, it still appears to be a miracle when I watch him track. Most dog handlers will say that tracking is both a science and an art form, as one must combine both to be successful. As Nox hooked into the track, across the pavement, the line quickly fed through my hands. My gloves quickly heated up from the friction of nylon against leather, with the sound of fishing line running through a reel and rod. It provided a bit of warmth against my cold hands.
The Black Dog was methodical as he tracked across the parking lot, with his wet nose and hot breath leaving impressions upon the surface. I was mesmerized as he occasionally stuck his tongue out. It almost appeared as though he was licking up the scent. This is where a split second decision, one moment of distraction, a minor misstep, led to a catastrophic event. Isn’t this the formula to so many catastrophic events?
The Black Dog led me up a ramp to a loading dock that was approximately six feet high. While my mind told me it made no sense to follow, I went with him. I could see no one hiding in this location, but allowed the Black Dog to work this track out on his own. By giving Nox the leeway to learn from his mistakes and follow the flow of scent, I’ve found this made him a better tracking dog. As soon as Nox reached the top of the loading dock, he quickly realized the scent continued below. He doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, but understood the loading dock of approximately six feet in height was much too high.
Life Can Change In A Split Second
This is where I should have listened to my “Spidey Senses” telling me it was a long way to the ground below. In my youth I’d jumped from trees, barn rafters, and the roof of my house, but I wasn’t wearing an extra 30 pounds of gear behind an 84 pound dog. The Black Dog hooked into a particularly strong portion of the track and fired like a rocket. Unfortunately for me, the line was still running through my hands. Startled by the fact I was standing on the edge of a loading dock, my hands clenched down on the line and I took flight. If feathered, with hollow bone structure, this may’ve had a more adventurous result.
I’m by no means a physicist, but it’s applicable that I apply Sir Isaac Newton’s Law of Inertia at this point. An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. We don’t need to provide a chart here, but I was the object at rest and the Black Dog was the unbalanced force. I landed with my right foot, on the pavement below, with an incredible force.
Life can change in a split second. Naivety, to this point in life, had led me to believe I was almost invincible. Like so many of us, I’ve done some stupid things and pushed my body beyond expectations over the years. I was accused of being a machine in my youth, pushing faster and harder than others. Others didn’t realize this couldn’t have been further from the truth. In my youth, I had the ability to focus on a happy place and ignore pain. I’m not the only one in this category, as soldiers, athletes, police officers, and fire fighters, to name a few, have all been guilty of this at some point. As a parent, I’m simply impressed at how teens with chronic pain do this on a daily basis. While I thought that I understood pain, I was just a novice and had only been briefly introduced to a sensation I truly wanted no part of. The force of impact, upon the pavement, created a jolt of electricity down my leg and up my spine. I knew, at that very moment, that life had come along and hit me like a brick wall.
A Series Of Events
This is where my story detours from that of the average normal person. While in excruciating pain, I persevered and continued with the training exercise…I continued working. Perhaps it’s the fact that I joined the military before I could vote, or I was like the Black Night from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. I don’t know the true answer. If you figure it out then please tell me.
I could write an entire chapter on how the following three weeks led to an even bigger catastrophic event. I found myself tracking through yards and over fences. It culminated on an exceptionally cold October night, with mud, snow, and ice everywhere. The Black Dog followed a track, over a fence, into an alley, in pursuit of a gentleman who fled on foot after hastily borrowing a vehicle. Honest citizens may call it a vehicle theft. In those days, Nox simply leapt over fences in pursuit of the scent. I pulled myself over a six foot fence, rolling over the top. As my chest slid over the top of an old rickety fence, the Black Dog, intoxicated by scent, accelerated my descent to Mother Earth. Unfortunately, my descent was a little further than expected as the fence was built on an embankment and my landing pad, approximately nine feet below, was nothing more than mud and ice.
I Felt Like I Was Dying
It’s surprising how much pain the human body can tolerate while pumped full of adrenaline. As the excitement wore off, I appreciated the game changing ramifications of what had occurred. I felt like I was dying. It’s surprising, when faced with so much pain, that my only consideration was to remain conscious. Words truly can’t do justice to pain so intense that one borders on losing consciousness. I continued with the track which magically disappeared near a set of low rent town homes. Handing Nox off to another handler, I hopped back to my vehicle on one leg.
Unknown at the time, I pinched a nerve in my back and tore my right hamstring. This isn’t a medical journal, so the fewer details the better. Returning to the Kennels, I found myself screaming in pain on the garage bay floor with Nox circling. This is where my foolish prided kicked in, and I share this as encouragement for others to seek help when injured. Crumpled in excruciating pain, I considered calling for an ambulance or at least asking someone to drive me to the hospital. Alas, this would admit defeat by the Black Night so I foolishly drove myself home.
While I may not have been 40 when this happened, this leads me to a Tim McGraw song that may strike a tone with others who’ve injured themselves in favourite pursuits:
“Live Like Your Were Dyin”
This leads me to a Tim McGraw song that appears to be my theme song:
“He said I was in my early 40’s,
With a lot of life before me,
And a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
I spent most of the next days, lookin’ at the x-rays,
Talkin’ ’bout the options and talkin’ ’bout sweet time.
Asked him when it sank in, that this might really be the real end.
How’s it hit ya, when you get that kind of news.”
I appreciate that not everyone likes country music, but the words from “Live Like You Were Dyin” are true for so many people. Life can change in a split second…it can hit us like a brick wall. Life can knock on the front door to say, “Surprise, we’re taking a different path today.” I’d taken life for granted before that initial Autumn evening six years ago. Change has crept along incrementally, like a glacier, since then. At some point in life, we all have to ask ourselves, “What’s important now?”
Back to my solo walk through the parking lot at 3:30 AM, I had an epiphany. My walks and long runs have provided plenty of time to contemplate life, experiences, and opportunities. I recently read a book called Resilience by a Navy Seal named Eric Greitens, I apply some of what I learned from that book.
Despite one’s career or position in life, it’s resiliency that gets us through. While I may have recovered from multiple dog related injuries over the years, I never truly bounced back. To bounce back would imply that I became the same person I was before these experiences…that would require a time machine. We power through, learn from our experiences, and incorporate them into our lives. Fear, suffering, pain, hardship, and tragedy are part of the human condition. We have two choices. We can fall prey to fear and blame others, or move through the struggle to become wiser and stronger.
I’ll always be a passionate dog man, but I’m comfortable with the fact that I can help others by sharing my experiences.
“There is only one road to human greatness: the road through suffering” – Albert Einstein. Life can change in a split second. A split second of time can mean the difference between life, death, or a game changing event; for others a split second of time is nothing more nothing less…be careful. Members of the human race have displayed forms of resiliency for eons, and we still do it today. When suffering hits us hard, we may have to struggle, reinvent ourselves and become pioneers.