Over a lifetime of living in rural areas, much of it spent among self-sustaining “can-do” farmers, wood cutters, and hunting or fishing guides, some of my best memories concern dogs.
No, not little lap-hopping yipsters who are cuddled by their owners as if they were human babies, but working dogs who doubled as loving, trusted companions. Some of them, as the author Gene Hill liked to say, were rocket scientists and others were street corner loafers, but if you’ve never owned a dog you can’t understand the strong bond that normally exists between human and canine.
My memories include a Chesapeake retriever, Neptune, who died at the advanced age of 15 not long after his last goose hunt on an Eastern Shore waterfront farm. The Chessie, Neptune, wasn’t very fond of strangers. True to his breed, he loved his family, jealously and zealously protecting it, while thoroughly disliking man or beast that he wasn’t familiar with. When strangers approached our property he wanted to tear down his kennel fence to “protect” us.
Neptune tolerated some of my hunter friends whenever he had to share a waterfowl blind with them. As long as everybody had a shotgun in their hands, he posed no threat to anyone. He knew what a gun looked like and whenever he saw me taking one from the cabinet he nearly turned somersaults because he knew he’d accompany me on a hunting trip. Incidentally, he was the only hunting dog I’ve owned that never quit. No matter the cold, sleet, rain or snow, Neptune never refused to do his job. Upon the sound of “Fetch” and seeing a directing hand motion, Neptune leapt into the iciest water as if he were vacationing on the sunny French Riviera. His dense, oily, smelly, woolly coat protected him far better than our Gore-Tex hunting suits ever could.
Not many of the breeds I’ve owned worked as enthusiastically as Neptune, especially one that I came to love dearly after Neptune went to his reward. It was Shiloh, a golden retriever and a curly-haired reddish-gold charmer that we rescued from the hangman’s noose in a local shelter. We adopted Shiloh even though he had heart worm and had to undergo several debilitating treatments to rid him of the parasites that already had done considerable damage to his heart.
He never had enough stamina to swim even short distances and I never asked him to. Instead, when I placed my duck decoys in knee-deep water, Shiloh would stand up to his belly in the river near shore, carefully observing me, wagging his tail, swishing water back and forth whenever I said a few words of praise.
His value came to the fore whenever ducks approached from behind the duck blind. Shiloh would suddenly look up and point his head into whatever direction the birds would come from. Sometimes I thought he might be wrong, but sure as tootin’ before I knew it there’d be a brace of black ducks or a small flight of mallards “tearing” over or around the corner of the camouflaged hiding spot and I’d do my best to shoot a dinner for my clan. Shiloh was part of the family and he’d share gizzards, necks, even some rib or leg meat after the ducks were roasted.
Some of my fondest memories also include Betsy, a friend’s Brittany spaniel that could out-point, out-retrieve and out-charm any of the bigger bird dogs I’ve had the pleasure to walk a frozen field with in search of pheasants or quail. Betsy even held her own rousting cottontail rabbits from dense thickets. She was the best multi-purpose hunting dog I‘ve ever known.
But not all my canine friends were hunters. For example, there was Dozer (as in bulldozer), a gigantic Great Dane owned by my daughter and son-in-law. Dozer was very friendly, so friendly in fact that there were times when he couldn’t stand to just be with you. No, he wanted to be “on you.”
That meant he’d climb onto a couch or easy chair and plop down in your lap as best as he could. Have you ever had a 150-pound dog collapse on your lap? It was an experience, let me tell you.
Then there’s my friend Harold Toder, the owner of Otis, a 160-pound bull mastiff. Otis likes everybody, but if you rub his head or his belly, he immediately wants to be best friends with you and he’ll begin to “lean” on you.
I mean he’ll lean his entire considerable weight against your legs and lower body, easily knocking you off balance. But that’s Otis’ way of saying, “I like you.”
And, Otis, I like you.