By: Mark Fike
Years ago I realized that the end of my buddy’s life was quite a bit nearer than I wanted to admit.
I knew it was coming and of course, no one wants to admit it, but the end of life comes nevertheless.
During his last season, I noticed with alarm that my four-legged friend had a lot less stamina than he used to have.
He had developed a serious case of hearing loss that I hoped was just a good case of selective hearing that many of us aging men tend to acquire.
I would shout out commands to direct him to a fallen duck and he would plunge ahead, albeit slowly in his own direction, totally oblivious to my shouts.
At first, it frustrated me.
Then I remembered, with a sick feeling that a person gets when they suddenly realize something terrible, that he often did not rouse when I came home and spoke to him as he lay on the floor.
I would often scare him as I rubbed his ears and he suddenly awoke.
Good thing he was not a dog prone to biting!
My second clue to his aging was the fact that he could barely move after a morning hunt. I chalked that up to being out of shape.
However, even after a week of rest, getting into the truck was a chore that now requires my help.
What happened to the dog that would jump and clear the tailgate before I bothered to lower it? Sadly, those days were no more.
Anyone who has had the joy of rearing a good pup from the beginning, can most certainly relate to the story I am telling here.
I recall very distinctly the day I went to pick him up.
I went to a reputable breeder, Southland Kennels, in Stafford County, Virginia.
I wanted a good waterfowl companion that would allow me to open more doors in my outdoor world.
I also wanted a friend and a family dog that my wife would fall in love with.
My choice was limited to two dogs by the time I arrived at the kennel, but as a testament to the quality of breeding and bloodlines of Diana Jagoda’s dogs, both dogs were equally good and the choice was very difficult to make.
I finally chose the black lab over the yellow lab simply on color.
The other dog was a great dog.
The owners of that dog surely faced the same heartbreak that I faced as he too coasted those final stretches of his life here on Earth.
I have pictures scattered around my office and home of our dog from the time he was a pup and on through the years.
One of the first ones we have of him shows his tiny size along a private beach in the middle of winter along the Potomac River.
My wife is standing next to him and he is just a little too big to stash inside her jacket.
Size did not matter to his heart that year.
I remember being terrified I was going to lose him before he was even six months old.
I had winged a bufflehead duck off a creek and it splashed down into the river off that same beach.
My waders were quickly donned to retrieve the duck. However, the duck was still alive and began swimming.
The pup saw the bird and dove in, paddling through the icy December waters to bid his calling.
I just knew that he would not make it the hundred yards to the bird.
By the time I waded out, he was nearly done in but not about to give up.
I waded back to the shore, put him on the beach, covered his shaking little body with my coat and commanded him to stay.
The duck was now 120 yards out and still feebly paddling.
The tide was also pulling the bird downstream.
I waded back in and after going approximately 75 yards I heard some whining and to my amazement, the little guy was right behind me chugging along with only his eyes and nose above water.
I was whipped by the time I got that bird.
I had to carry the pup and the duck and the water level was right up to the top of my waders by the time I was able to head back to the beach.
Another picture that brings solace to my mind is the one that I have framed of the two of us sitting on the tailgate of an old pickup truck I owned some time ago.
The picture was taken when the dog was three years old.
I had taken a beautiful gobbler that morning and had commanded the dog to sit on the tailgate with me as my wife took the picture.
He wanted no part of the turkey. I suppose the thought of retrieving a bird that large made him nervous.
You can see the look on his face as he peered at the bird.
The picture reminds me of the story the late Jerry Clower used to tell about a coon dog he had.
The dog supposedly could be shown a coonhide fur stretcher and it would run off for a few hours before returning with a coon whose hide would perfectly fit the stretcher.
One day according to Clower, Mama got hot in the house and took the ironing and the ironing board out on the porch.
The old dog awoke, looked at the ironing board as he had all of those old fur stretchers and then made for the woods.
He was never seen again!
One April when we were fishing in Fredericksburg, Virginia along the Rappahannock River I thought I was going to get a ticket from the game warden.
I was casting for shad and herring among the rocks as we both watched the schooling fish swim in circles at our feet.
The game warden was coming up the bank checking licenses and I knew my turn was about to come up to produce a license.
Just as the guy next to me finished showing his license, my dog decided he had enough and dove into the water among the swirling fish.
Amazingly half his body remained under for a few seconds and when he backed out of the water he proudly displayed a squirming shad in his jaws.
I was speechless. The warden sure wasn’t. Without a second pause, he asked me to show him a fishing license for the dog.
I stammered and tried to explain the dog had never done that before and the warden finally cracked a smile and began laughing.
Everyone around us was grinning. I was embarrassed once again.
When you have a good dog that you raise from a pup these types of memories are the ones that make the relationship so incredible.
But, the good memories also serve another purpose as well.
They bring comfort when you watch your old friend attempt to paddle out into the water to retrieve a duck and he heaves and groans in effort.
At some point, he is unable to fulfill the yearnings of his heart and yours. At what point do you have to call it quits and leave the dog at home?
Can you replace him before his time on Earth is over?
Should you wait until he or she is gone from this world before you put a new dog in the truck with you?
There are no easy answers.
When you have a friend who has really given their all over the span of twelve years and they cannot do the job anymore the predicament is a tough one to be in.
It sure is a sad time when you have to make a decision to “retire” your faithful companion.
I came to that point in life and his life when we realistically needed to let him sit out the retrieves.
Relish those memories and relive them often.
Take pictures and then when the time comes you will have a lot to look back on to make you smile.
I leave you with a quote from a respected American.
I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness. If it takes my dog being there [in Heaven], I believe he’ll be there.
The Late Rev. Billy Graham