Like the dog in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire named “Sorrow” who follows his protagonists, I have learned, having had to put several dogs to sleep, “Sorrow” follows us for a long time. Last week my wife and I had to put down our handsome yellow Lab, Jack.
Now I know that this is something that all of us who welcome these spirits into our lives are cursed to perform or witness at least a few times in our lifespan. But the truth of the matter is that, unlike other events that we survive, it does not get easier.
Jack came to us from a rescue situation, and my intention had been to train him to be another well-disciplined hunting dog. I had big plans for him. He would become a “Master Hunter” in a few years with the Lake Champlain Retriever Club. We would wake every morning at dawn to throw duck-scented bumpers in the back field. I would watch him take hand and whistle signals from 200 yards away. He was to be my partner in the duck blind, confidently retrieving waterfowl in adverse circumstances with genuine enthusiasm.
He had a big, square, blocky head that “squinched” when you held it. His eyebrows would twitch from side to side and up and down depending on certain magic words like “Go” or “Ride.”
I thought my heart would break when Jack showed no interest in actually retrieving anything. He wouldn’t even go in the water unless he “felt like it.” Who has ever heard of a Labrador retriever that didn’t want to swim?
Instead of hunting, retrieving, swimming and doing Lab-like activities, like chasing birds or harassing the cats, Jack chose to treat all our critters with genuine affection. He would lick the bunny’s head until it was soaked with slobber-love. He would walk the chickens down the hill to the coop in the backyard and sniff their behinds, making sure that each of them retired to their proper nest.
Clearly, he was not to be the dog of my dreams. But over time, he became the dog our family needed. He guarded the house and became my wife’s dream dog.
As of this writing his passing is only three days old, and the void is tangible in our house and in our hearts. Everyone misses him. Even the bunny runs to the side of her cage and stomps her feet when he doesn’t come in the door.
As a hunter I have witnessed a lot of death in my 59 years, and although there is a significant difference between a domestic pet and a wild animal, I recognize that we are all still brothers and sisters under the “Great Star Nation “above us. And there is grief and gratitude in every relationship. For me the lessons I’ve learned from Jack will become a part of me.
He taught me many things, but among them, the one I accept as the greatest challenge is to learn to appreciate every spirit for what it shares with me. If I eliminate my expectations of what I want, I will always feel blessed by what I receive.
Jack did have one strong Lab trait, and in his honor, tomorrow I will go out to the horse pasture and roll in the manure and feel the sun on my face.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor Mentoring, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.