Dogs in the DarkI lie in bed, breath suspended.

In the darkness, something is moving.

It’s not that I don’t know the source of the noise–it’s that I do. My border collie mix is just making his watchdog rounds, checking each room, working the graveyard shift. His job for fifteen years.

Only for the last year Cal’s rhythm has been off. Clack clack clack drag. Clack clack clack drag. Then silence. I hope for the usual sound that ensues, the series of thuds as he circles and settles on his pillow. Nothing. Even before I sit up in bed, I know what I’ll see in the doorway: The dark shape of him, staring back at the dark shape of me, asking me the usual question.

There’s only one answer.

I flick on the light, slide on jeans, call softly as I lumber to the door. But my dog just stares–who goes out at 3:17 on a winter’s night?–then waddles back to his pillow, corkscrews down to sleep. I curl up in my own bed–spared the shock of pre-dawn cold, wakeful just the same.


Scientific research suggests that at night, I’m the only one in the dark. That Cal better delineates midnight shades. That day or night, he smells traces of spills–guacamole! soy! grease!– in concentrations 100 million times smaller. Hears animals–stalking of skunk! rustle of raccoon! yip of coyote!–at frequencies three times higher.

Personal research says that of my own senses, the only one that improves at night is my ability to hear my dog limp.


Cal used to bound into bed in the middle of the night. I’d open my eyes to the ceiling’s flicker of distant lightning, backdrop to Cal’s face, the white streak splitting the darkness of my fearful collie’s panting face. As if my superior intellect could stop the thunder only he, as yet, could hear.


Cal doesn’t jump into my bed now. (Neither does anyone else.) A concession he’s made to his arthritis and my box springs, the one I’d bought from a friend–a hard mattress is good for one’s back and one’s character, she’d said–without seeing the six inches I’d added to my dog’s ascent.

Instead, Cal sleeps out of my sight, rotating from sofa to guest room to his pillow, resting in the box canyon formed by cabinet, bed and bookshelf. Slumbers beneath the row of dog books.

Pack of Two. Unleashed. Last Days of the Dog Men.


In the daytime, I can see clearly at seventy-five feet what my dog can only see at twenty. As a pup, he couldn’t even see 10. One morning Cal sniffed every twist and turn of a scent trail while the rabbit who made it sat, fat and brown, in plain sight. The hare gazed over my dog at me–your dog’s an idiot–and didn’t bolt until, a long minute later, my dog lifted his nose from the ground and beheld the source of the mystery.


Six months later, Cal saw far enough to run a rabbit across a softball field. Hurtling so fast he seemed to flatten into a blur, parallel to the ground. So fast he out-ran his vision, failed to separate morning mist from the chain-link backstop.

Hit it full-speed, snout-first.

Bounced backward like Wile E. Coyote when he rams the rock face where, seconds earlier, Roadrunner had painted the illusion of a tunnel. I let out a laugh–Cal needs those Acme X-ray goggles–but then came the heart-stopping yelp. Then the continuous whimper as, frozen, he waited for me to attach the leash, now his lifeline. Then his slow walk, hiding behind my heels, waiting for my feet to clear each foggy cubic foot of a realm in which he no longer trusted his senses.


Now, lying in bed, I think of the other obstacle my dog cannot fully comprehend–the one in the form of the tumor, the one that presses on his stomach. The vet says he’s not in great pain. He’ll gradually eat less, drink less, move less. She says, you’ll know when it’s time. I think, Really?

Instead I believe I’ll hit the fence half-blind. It will seem to yield, then throw me back onto my haunches, where I’ll wait for my dog to thrust the leash into my hand and tug me forward, parting the mist that shrouds our former home.

Mike Land has published dog-related work in Iron Horse Review and The Bark: The Modern Dog Culture; his border collie mix Cal was his partner in those projects, as well as in his road trip manuscript, Travel in Dog Years, a canine-centric ramble from his current home in New England to his past haunts of the Deep South and Midwest. Land teaches at Assumption College, where he founded Thoreau’s Rooster: A National Journal of Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction.

Photo by Tory M. Taylor