I know I am not the only person who has ever been affected by “man’s best friend.” Many of us have owned dogs of various breeds for various purposes. I believe that a very special bond forms between a man and a hunting dog. There is always that one dog that simply seems to understand its owner better than all the ones before, sometimes maybe even better than the people around them. This story is about that sort of dog, my golden companion.
Having grown up hunting behind my grandfather’s shorthair and behind my first dog, a Brittany, I was reluctant to accept my brother’s gift—the pick of his golden retriever’s litter. Having admired the steady discipline of pointers, I didn’t think that I could ever chase behind what I perceived as the maniacal wanderings of a flusher.
Jake was the runt of the litter. I first saw him when he was two days old. He was so small and weak that my 14-year-old niece bottle-fed him to keep him alive. Always one to pull for the underdog, my mind was made up and I accepted my brother’s gift. The next few weeks were touch and go, not knowing if he would even survive. He pulled through though, thanks to my niece. For the rest of Jake’s life, he always seemed to remember her, even if they had not seen each other in a year or more.
Mother’s Day was the big day that Jake came to meet his new family. A young couple with a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl were his playmates. At 12 weeks, Jake was up to 12 pounds and as affectionate, playful and adored as any puppy had ever been. He immediately began to show his hunting and retrieving instincts, and we began to form that bond that comes from curling up on the floor together after a daily training session. He seemed excited to be alive, whether splashing in the kids’ wading pool, playing fetch with our children or escorting my wife on her daily walks.
When he was 4, he was introduced to a new canine hunting partner—another golden named Gus. I had obviously gotten over my original opinion of flushing breeds. Jake was never an aggressive dog, but he was protective of my wife and children if any strangers came to the door, especially if I was not home. He was always on high alert every year when I would leave for a week of deer hunting, barking at every leaf that might blow across the yard.
His keen senses and intelligence were never more evident than in the three or four years when I experienced some heart arrhythmias. The condition was not life-threatening, but I would frequently have to rest while pheasant hunting to let my heart stop skipping and racing. Somehow, he could tell the difference between my stops to catch my breath and stops to calm my racing heart. When I stopped due to my arrhythmia, he would immediately come and lay at my feet. If I just stopped to catch my breath, he would look back and keep on hunting as if he was thinking, He’s okay, I’ve got to find a bird!
We may have taken 500 ringnecks together over the last 12 years. He was a hunting machine in the field, but at home he’d stay calmly at my side. He was always following closely behind me, lying at my feet or nosing my hand to be petted. He was a welcome obstacle to step over in the morning when getting out of bed.
In the summer we would swim together, and he would jump off the pier after me. In the fall when the nights started getting colder, I’d awaken in the morning to find him looking at me as if to ask, “Is today the day?” He knew hunting season was approaching.
His presence was even more noticeable during the previous year due to the weakening of his back legs, which caused his nails to drag slightly across the floor. Last week I couldn’t keep him out of the water while vacationing in Arkansas—I didn’t have the heart to end his fun, because I feared it would be his last swim.
Yesterday my wife and I discovered Jake lying on the floor having some difficulty breathing. Tests showed he had an enlarged heart, likely the result of a ruptured tumor on the lower part of his heart. In trying to comfort him, I realized that he was no longer excited to be alive, but our bond was still intact. My wife and I had to make the difficult decision that we knew was coming. I smelled Jake’s fur, petted him, looked into his eyes and said goodbye.
My golden companion was laid to rest one day before his 12th birthday. He died of a big heart, but not before leaving an indelible mark on mine.