My dog is running around on me.

One of the several developments that occurred over the winter while I was getting a new knee installed was the golden retriever puppy became a full-fledged dog. Before my surgery, she was still the size of a pup who could be lifted onto the bed to snuggle up, her head on my shoulder during the night, and waken me in the morning by breathing deeply and peacefully into my ear.

Now, though, she has passed the 50-pound mark, the vet has pronounced her full grown and “the perfect size,” adding the cautionary note that he would not want to see her get any bigger.

Fat chance of that, now that we are back in Maine and she has the run of the woods. Every morning, especially on days when I am not quite up to walking at the fairgrounds’ track, I let her out to patrol the near forest and re-establish her territory.

Daily she returns covered with mud, leaping up onto the porch and regarding me with a teenager’s disdain and disobedience.

Dog-training classes, it is clear, are in her future.

But she is having the time of her wild life outdoors, even if she must accept domesticity indoors.

The other morning I was upstairs while she lounged in the wet driveway outside, gnawing contentedly on something (I hoped a stick). But I have known a lot of goldens, and while sticks and even stones appeal to them as chew toys, it generally requires something more likely to be the product of hunting to produce the certain hunch of the shoulders that proclaims self-assured dominance and genetic field superiority.

I crept out the back door, almost sneaking up to her. From several feet away I repeated the simple, familiar refrain: “Hey, what have you got there?”

She barely glanced up.

It was no stick.It was a broken jawbone. Half a rim of dried, cleaned, aged bone, with serious, sharp back teeth still intact.

I hauled it and her back into cabin, dropping the bone into a bucket, and sent the dog into the kitchen for water and a Breath Buster.

It wasn’t until I put some common sense to work that I concluded she probably had found the bones of a long-dead deer. Those large, complex back teeth belonged to a white-tailed deer.

Teeth – not points on the antlers – turn out to be the telltale indicators of age in deer. Combining an analysis of the type of teeth and the wear on the molars, biologists can predict the age of a fallen deer.

Our specimen had long since lost all front teeth, possibly nibbled away by mice in the seasons since its death, but the premolars and molars were all there and did not appear to have worn away. That and the size of the jaw suggested the animal had been perhaps not a fawn but still a young deer.

I stayed interested in the jaw and teeth a lot longer than the dog, who was satisfied with the diet I was providing and seemed to forget about the prize she had so recently been enjoying. But I am beginning to think the explanation is that for her, deer are nothing new.

I have watched her emerge from the same sections of forest for months, and last week, though mud made me tread carefully, I paced over to the break in the trees that she uses for a path into denser thickets.

“I want to know where you’re going now that the snow is gone,” I told her as she went berserk, running in crazed circles around me and then the house and finally across the scant path. We made our way in, covering 50 feet of spongy, sinking steps, and then the forest opened on a small clearing, almost certainly a deer bed.

I could make out the crumpled brush that could hold the bodies of two adults and the tamped down vegetation to provide enough open space for a few more deer or an area that the tired animals might circle before settling in.

We didn’t stay long. I felt like an intruder and the dog seemed agitated and protective – whether of me or the absent animals, I couldn’t say.

But I figure the golden needs her secrets, too – a fact that was borne out a couple days later when I whistled her home, out of the woods, and she came bounding back, pleased with herself and full of joy.

I began to administer a full body massage. But somebody had been there before me; the pleasing fragrance of cologne rose from her fur like a hypnotic cloud.

“Are you cheating on me?” I said. “This isn’t my perfume.”

She wriggled some more, and, I swear, smiled. She rolled onto her back, begging for a muddy belly rub.

“No way, you trollop. Let’s go clean you up.”

But I don’t really mind. She can get her caresses wherever she wishes. I’m glad she’s out of a fenced back yard and into the back woods. Whether deer or dear, love is where she belongs. 

North Cairn can be reached at 274-0792 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com