In a typical day, Ryan Arens sees one dozen dogs along his Bozeman, Montana route. There are office dogs in the morning, and ranch dogs in the afternoon — sometimes as many as five or six dogs on one property. After 14 years with UPS and six years on this route, he knows them all by name — long before he knows the names of their owners.
In fact, that’s his favorite part of the job. The dogs. He even keeps handfuls of dog treats in his pockets. Originally from Holland, Michigan, he comes from a dog-loving family, where he grew up with Airedale Terriers and Shetland Sheepdogs and learned about almost every single breed of dog.
On Thin Ice
Three weeks before Christmas, one of the busiest times of year for package delivery, Ryan began his day as he normally does. He said goodbye to his girlfriend and his 14-year-old dog, Hara. For Montana, it wasn’t that cold of a day, he says, with temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees. He finished his morning office deliveries and then headed to his residential route in the afternoon.
As he drove past a pond, he began to hear what sounded like a dog screaming.
“It sounded like somebody was beating the dog,” Ryan says. “Like if you’ve heard a dog in distress, and if you’re an animal lover, and if you have a heart or a conscious, you’re gonna want to know what’s going on.”
So he pulled his truck around, closer to the noise. Once he turned the engine off and hopped out, he saw a rowboat containing an older man who was chipping away at the ice with a rock and a woman holding a baby on shore. Ryan assessed the scene quickly.
A Wirehaired Pointing Griffon was struggling for air, almost completely submerged below the ice.
“Whose dog is that?”
Neither the man nor the woman knew.
“How long has he been out here?”
They didn’t know that either.
Running Out of Time
Ryan realized the dog probably didn’t have much time left. The animal was almost completely underwater. Without spending any longer thinking about it, he began stripping off his coat, boots, and pants. He kept his socks and boxers on and shimmied onto the now-empty rowboat, pushing himself out closer to the dog.
The water was freezing and 16 feet deep, with an immediate drop. It wasn’t long after pushing the boat out and chipping at the ice that Ryan lost his grip, slipping into the freezing water.
His loved ones suddenly flashed through his head: His parents and sister in Michigan, his nephew, his girlfriend, his senior dog.
As Ryan’s body became submerged, he had to act fast. His biggest fear was not being able to get back up to the ice, so he grabbed onto the boat with one hand and swam toward the dog with the other. Once he got to her, he scooped one hand under her collar, swam toward the shore, and hoisted her up on the ice where the man and woman waited.
Onshore, the woman handed Ryan the blanket her baby was bundled in. But instead of drying himself off, he immediately used it to wrap the shivering dog. The dog couldn’t walk, so he picked her up and ran toward the man’s house, just as he was coming back out with a rope.
“Oh my goodness, you got her out already?” he said, in shock.
But they couldn’t celebrate just yet. Ryan knew they still needed to warm up the dog’s body as quickly as possible. The two men ran with the dog into the house and started a hot shower. Ryan knelt down by the tub, holding her head up while the other man rubbed the dog with water to get her body temperature back up.
Finally, they saw after checking a thermometer, that she was out of the danger zone.
The two men finally had a chance to breathe. It wasn’t until then that Ryan realized the man who had been helping him was a retired veterinarian.
As the dog’s owner, police, and animal control arrived, Ryan learned the dog’s name was Sadie. Knowing she was safe and with her owner, he slipped back out to his truck and changed into a dry uniform (he always keeps one just in case).
He still had 20 stops left on his route, and he knew he needed to get back on the road.
For the Love of Dogs
That night, after completing his route later than usual, he walked into his house with an armful of sopping-wet underwear and socks. His girlfriend raised her eyebrows.
“You’re probably wondering why my socks and underwear are completely soaked,” he began.
He went on to tell her the story of his afternoon. She was impressed, but she wasn’t shocked. It wasn’t the first time her boyfriend had risked his life to save a dog’s life. And it wasn’t the second either.
The First Three Rescues
In the summer of 2012, Ryan had just undergone back surgery and was off of work while he recovered. Although he could walk, he was warned not to run, jump, or do anything rigorous.
He and his girlfriend decided to take their dogs on a walk down to the river. After the couple and dogs relaxed for a while, their Newfoundland, Luca, jumped into the river and started to struggle. Suddenly, the dog was sucked into a current and trapped in a logjam. Half of the dog’s body was underneath the log, and he was treading like crazy to keep his upper half above water.
Ryan wasn’t supposed to run. He certainly wasn’t supposed to be jumping in the water. But he ran straight into the current and swam for Luca, pulling him out from under the log and swimming with him back to shore.
Then there was the time his friend Leah visited with her Labrador Retriever mix, Cosley, in the winter of 2013. They decided to go hiking, tossing snowballs for their dogs to play with. But as Cosley chased one of the snowballs, she lost control and slid right off of a six-foot cliff. Without hesitating, Ryan ran to the edge, scaled down the cliff, and scooped up the dog, who had luckily fallen on a pile of snow and had no injuries.
Next, there’s the dog he saved in a subtler way when his good friend Jon passed away suddenly at the age of 34. Jon’s dog Luna, Hara’s littermate, was left behind. So it seemed only natural for Ryan to take her in.
Reuniting With Sadie
The day after saving Sadie from the ice, Ryan was dropping off a package at a house and saw her in the driveway. He couldn’t believe it. She instantly recognized him and greeted him excitedly.
Her owner was so thankful, he insisted to Ryan he wanted to do something for him.
Ryan looked up from petting Sadie. “You know, I didn’t do it for the accolades,” Ryan said. “I did it because I would hope that somebody would do it for my dog. I’m just an animal lover.”
And it’s true. Ryan defines himself by his love for dogs.
Ryan and his girlfriend threw a 13th birthday party for Hara and Luna in 2017. They invited all of their friends’ dogs, made dog cupcakes, and got out hats for the dogs to wear. Every year, Ryan says, is a blessing. He often wonders why dogs don’t live as long as humans.
The following year, Luna got liver cancer. By Halloween, Ryan realized he couldn’t save this dog. She was suffering, so he made the agonizing decision to have his vet come to the house and put Luna down. He felt like he was killing her.
Two years before that, they also had to put down Luca, the Newfoundland. Which leaves Ryan and his girlfriend with Hara, the first dog he’s owned outside of his family.
Holding on to Hara
After going from a household of three dogs to one, Ryan emphasizes that Hara is more than enough. He cooks food for her every day — sometimes steak — now that she’s 14. And he’s built ramps for her around the house since she can’t get up the stairs.
But Ryan knows that the clock is ticking, and in the next few years he will have to make the most difficult decision of his life.
It was an easy decision for him to save Sadie, Luca, and Cosley. If he could save Sadie all over again, he would decide to every time. It wasn’t time for her to die. Now he doesn’t want to have to decide when it’s time for Hara to die.
After saving four dogs, it might seem strange that before Ryan goes to bed every night, he says a prayer that Hara passes in her sleep when it’s her time. He sees one dozen dogs a day on his UPS route, but his favorite waits for him at home.