Jake was tall, dark, and handsome, and like many of his type, he possessed a charm that often made him irresistible. I can’t say he was always honest, but he was never mean, and in the end any of his transgressions were easily forgiven.
Jake was a black Labrador retriever, and I said goodbye to him last week after more than a decade of good fellowship. It was a difficult parting.
I heard of a pastor one time who assured a worried lady that if dogs were necessary for happiness in Heaven, then God would make sure we had them there. Now there was a man of the cloth who really knew his God.
Jake was already a teen-ager when we took ownership of each other. He was an exuberant youngster of 16 months, given to heading for the horizon on his own, the leash and whoever was attached to the other end be damned. His owner at the time suffered a broken rib and facial bruises when he didn’t let go in time. It was decided that Jake had to go.
On the ride home I happened to come across a radio station that featured a diva hitting the high notes in Aida or some other operatic classic, and when Jake joined in from his crate in the back, I knew I had taken possession of an interesting character.
Jake’s propensity to take off led to some challenging and dangerous adventures. Skipping along just out of reach, he’d lead me through the streets of Howell on a merry chase. I’d follow him and call him (well, maybe more than just call), all to no avail. I did shock him one time by trapping him in a neighbor’s yard and tackling him in the snow. Oh how the Lions could have used me that year.
The situation turned ugly one time. Trapped on Michigan Avenue near McDonald’s Funeral Home, my dark nemesis had one more trick up his sleeve (or whatever canines wear). He leaped over a four-foot snow bank onto Michigan Avenue. I watched in horror as he disappeared under a Jeep Cherokee.
The woman driving the vehicle slammed on the brakes, and just as the car came to a halt, Jake came squirting out from under it, no worse for wear. I assured the weeping lady that all was well, that my idiot dog was at fault and not her, and headed home knowing that desperate measures were in order.
I started out with long check cord (basically a long rope). I called or tooted a whistle and jerked Jake toward me until the idea seemed to sink in. A while later I would cross a field with a longer cord and repeat. Once I knew that there was no doubt about his understanding what I wanted, I put an “invisible leash” (an electronic training collar) on him. If he ignored by voice or whistle, he got a light jolt, which usually was enough to make him a believer.
(Of course, for those who believe any training of animals is cruelty, an electronic collar is an abomination. Such folks are misguided. Jake would never have lived another year without the collar. In the right hands, the electronic collar is a blessing).
Within a few weeks Jake was another dog. Once he knew that his rambling days were over, he became my constant companion, following me around the yard, content to be in my presence. In the field he was a diligent hunter. In the house he was content to lie at my feet and watch television, rising occasionally to sniff the screen to make sure the pheasant on the screen wasn’t real. He was a good buddy.
Occasionally, Jake would revert to his teen-age behavior, and wander off, I suspect, in pursuit of female companionship. In his senior years he developed a convenient deafness. If he became bored with retrieving, he would find a lily pad to sniff, leaving me to wade out and retrieve the fake duck I’d thrown. He was always forgiven, because by then I’d come to realize that there are no perfect dogs any more than there are perfect masters.
Is it harder to lose a Lab than other dogs? I’ve owned many breeds and it does seem to me that the departure of a Lab is more wrenching. That’s probably foolish, but there is something about the breed’s clumsy affability and trusting and trustworthy nature that is so special. Why can’t dogs live for at least 30 years?
A year ago Jake developed an immune deficiency disease. He was put on steroids and antibiotics, and he seemed to bounce back. I was able to drop the steroids and for a while things seemed all right. Then his muscle weakness seemed to worsen, and medication did not help. One day he just collapsed on the lawn and rolled over on his back, his legs kicking uselessly in the air. I knew it was time.
A few weeks before, I sensed that we were getting near the end. I took Jake out to a hunting preserve and let him track a pheasant for a while. He lost the trail, but soon was onto a chukar, which he flushed and I shot. His retrieve was a proud moment for both of us.
I will always remember that retrieve, just as I will always recall that tackle in the snow. Or the way that gentle giant would allow lie on the grass and let a pointer pup chew on his throat, letting the youngster pretend he’d brought down a moose or a bear or some other big game.
Goodbye, Old Fellow. Maybe we will meet again. If not, what we had was good. Very good.