39: Take the First Step

39: Take the First Step

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Did What?

Take the First Step

The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different.

~Hippocrates

Thirty years ago, we lived in Edwardsville, Illinois, a small town that charmed us with friendly neighbors, a library that closed promptly at six, and Sunday concerts at the bandstand during the summer. It was a little bit of country, and we liked it.

Our best friends were Annie and Ted Zulmer, a young couple who had four rambunctious kids, all under the age of eight. They lived a few towns over, deeper in the country, so a visit usually meant packing sleeping bags and staying overnight.

Our baby, Lacey, usually clung to me or defended her playpen by throwing toys at any wannabe intruders. Her large, brown eyes viewed our friends’ chaotic world suspiciously, especially their dog Max.

Max was a mutt, but once upon a time he’d earned respect as a hunting dog. He was retired now and acted like a grumpy old guy, sleeping in the sun and avoiding the kids. He didn’t have the patience for squealing voices or small hands stroking his fur. He didn’t bite or snap, just wiggled away if they got too close.

One April Saturday, when the crocuses finally popped out and summer seemed right around the corner, we were enjoying a lazy morning. The kids were watching cartoons in the playroom and the men were outside chopping wood. Annie and I were laughing at my efforts to knit. Nine-month-old Lacey sprawled on a blanket at my feet, playing with building blocks and her dolls.

As my stitches hopelessly tangled, Annie whispered, “Karla, don’t panic, but look.”

I looked. Lacey had crawled across the room, pushing toys out of her way. She grabbed a handful of Max’s fur, struggling to stand up. I edged over quietly, not wanting him to wake up and maybe knock over my baby girl.

His eyes opened. I dropped to my knees, ready to grab her, a silent prayer in my heart. Max wasn’t a mean dog and even now, his relaxed body was reassuring.

Somehow, it was okay.

The dog and baby stared at each other for what seemed to be an endless moment. Then, he nudged her, gently, as he would a young pup.

Lacey wavered to her knees, then her legs. Her balance was shaky and she broke into a babble of baby talk.

He stood up slowly and took a step.

She plopped back on her bottom. Her lips quivered. The springy carpet had cushioned her fall, so her wail was pure frustration.

He lay back down and nudged her again.

“I don’t even believe this.” Annie knelt by my side. “He’s helping her. Kids, look.”

We all stood transfixed as Max coaxed Lacey to stand. It took several tries, but finally she was successful.

He stepped forward, then swung his head around to peer into her face. Neither the animal or the baby could understand each other, but communication passed between them. His paternal instincts, long dormant, had kicked in. She sensed that he was an ally, able to calm her fears.

Though the old dog could no longer hunt, he could teach. He wanted Lacey to take that first step.

We all did.

Max stepped forward, slow and easy.

Lacey followed him, clutching his coat.

He took another.

Bouncing slightly on her feet and smiling, Lacey took another step.

They managed three steps before she fell into my arms. I hugged her, laughing as she described her wonderful experience in adorable baby talk. I joined the circle petting the old dog, his head lifted as proudly as any father.

“Good boy.”

That weekend, we marveled as they repeated the performance. By the time my family left, Lacey was standing and taking a few steps alone.

All it had taken was an old hunting dog, past his prime, but full of heart.

Max never taught another baby to walk, but I told him that one day I’d tell his story as a special thank you.

So, I did.

~Karla Brown

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