When I graduated from college I was given a 6 week old male black labrador retriever as a graduation gift. The two of us moved to Clinton five days later and we embarked on an adventure that continues to this day.
That dog and I were inseparable for years, we literally grew up and became “men” together. You see when I got him he was just a pup and as much as I thought I was a man, I was just a pup as well.
I thought I was ready to conquer the world after I graduated from college. Like all young men in their twenties I was invincible, I knew everything, I had a job, I had my own place, I could eat anything I wanted and not gain weight – I was 23 years old – the world was my oyster!
As I’ve matured I’ve come to realize that college really doesn’t prepare you for life as much as you might think. Sure you leave home, sure you live independently, sure you have some responsibility to maintain grades and graduate but until you get off your parents payroll and have the responsibility of a job and home you are only pretending.
I was fortunate, my parents made college a priority, they paid all the bills and God blessed me with the ability to make really good grades and not have to apply myself too hard. Not having the need to apply a significant portion of your time to school leaves a college student time to apply a significant portion of his time to social activities, I did, and college was fun. After five years, I left the University of Missouri Summa Cum Laude, got off my parents payroll, knew just enough to be dangerous and thought “this grown up stuff is going to be easy”.
Life isn’t easy and I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought I was but that puppy taught me lessons in responsibility. I had something to think of other than myself. I rented a house that didn’t have a fenced in yard so the puppy had to be house broken and I had to make time or arrangements to let him out when I wasn’t at home. That puppy was a labrador retriever so I was determined to “teach” him to be a great retriever and I learned valuable lessons in persistence and repetition.
Now that my dog could retrieve it only made sense that I should take him hunting. I had never duck hunted before I moved to Clinton and if I hadn’t been given that dog I’m not sure I’d have ever gone. Duck hunting is now one of my favorite hobbies, I’ve met some of my best friends while pursuing waterfowl, I’ve hunted waterfowl in seven different states and two countries and I’ve been fortunate to experience some of the most impressive wing shooting anyone could imagine; all because of that dog.
As that dog and I grew up together we formed a strong bond. We went everywhere together and until I got married he slept on the foot of my bed every night, or at least I thought he did. He had a habit of jumping up on my bed when I got in but when he thought I was asleep he would get up and move to the hallway as if to “watch guard” over me, then, just before the alarm went off each morning, he would jump back into my bed as if to make me think he’d been there all night. If I had guests for the night he would move a little farther down the hall to “watch guard” over both rooms – unless there was a child in the house. There weren’t many children frequenting my home in those days but my nephew would spend the night on a regular basis and when he did, that old dog would lay on floor right beside the bed. It was the only time he would sleep beside the bed.
If I were travelling on business or vacation without him he somehow knew when I was coming home. I attended a conference in Chicago and I left my dog with my parents. When I arrived to pick him up my Mom asked if my plane landed at 2:30. I had stopped at a friend’s house in Kansas City after the flight so it was well after 7:00 before I got to my parents and I was curious why she asked and how she knew that the plane really did land at 2:30. She explained that the old dog had been a perfect house guest for the four days I was gone until 2:30 that afternoon when he began to whine and pace back and forth through the house and there was nothing she could do to console him.
A few years later I traveled to Canada to duck hunt and ordinarily I would have taken my old dog with me but he had developed arthritis and several days of hunting would have been too hard for him so I left him at home. The hunting was great but bad weather was setting in so I began the trip home a day early. My wife called my cell phone about three hours after I had crossed the border back into the United States. She asked if I was on the way home, I told her that I was and asked how she knew to call my cell phone because I didn’t have any service in Canada and I wasn’t expected home for another day. She told me that three hours earlier my dog started to whine and pace the floor.
This time of year makes me think of that old dog. Every November, just before the start of duck season, that old dog would destroy one bush or tree in the yard. He would literally chew it to shreds. He didn’t tear up anything any other time of the year but you could count on losing some piece of landscaping prior to the start of hunting season. I think he was just excited to go hunting.
Three years ago today I had to have that old dog put to sleep. He had developed cancer and he was having trouble breathing. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I buried that old dog on an island in the middle of a lake and every year since a goose has built a nest and hatched her eggs on his grave.
My mother was dying of cancer at the time I had that old dog put to sleep and she passed away two months later. I’ll never forget what she said just a couple of days before she passed “Life has a way of preparing us for things that are difficult. Sometimes our children teach us lessons and sometimes even our pets teach us lessons”.
That old dog taught me lessons.