The problem with dog stories is that they never have a happy ending.
“Marley and Me,” John Grogan’s hilarious and best-selling story of his whacky yellow Labrador retriever, and “Merle’s Door,” Ted Kerasote’s story about the stray dog that adopted him, are examples of dog stories that keep the reader laughing until, of course, the bittersweet end.
At the end there are always tears.
In the fall of 1997, Alix, our aging chocolate Labrador retriever started going downhill. On our way home from eastern Montana after the opening weekend of the pheasant season, we met with a Billings area Labrador retriever breeder who was peddling puppies. The retrieving and hunting background of the litter looked good and we made the deal to purchase a black puppy.
The pup had shown an early talent for digging holes in the yard, earning the nickname, Digger. As we got ready to leave, the breeder said, holding back a few tears, “Goodbye, Digger. Have a wonderful life.”
As she snuggled into the lap of whoever wasn’t driving, we discussed a name for the pup. It didn’t take long before the name of Candy emerged—simply because she was so sweet.
As that fall gradually turned into winter, Candy started going along on hunting outings. By December, Alix stayed home and Candy, just four months old, took over as my bird dog. On December 8, Candy retrieved her first duck, and ended the outing with three retrieves. A couple days later she retrieved five ducks and two Hungarian partridge. We were thrilled with this precocious puppy.
As that hunting season ended, I wrote a note in my hunting diary, “She has an irrepressible personality, and is absolutely ding-dong nuts about retrieving. It’s going to be fun seeing her develop as a maturing dog.”
In the following years she learned about blue grouse, ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse, and pheasants, as well following me through the fishing season, though she was sometimes less than helpful, continually bringing me sticks for me to throw for her.
Whether we were hunting, fishing, or just going for a walk, she was always ready to go. She also developed a fetish for retrieving tennis balls, culminating with her greatest achievement when we took a vacation trip to the Oregon coast, where she somehow found a tennis ball in the Pacific Ocean.
In October 2004, we took a trip to North Dakota, which included hunting pheasants with our son, Kevin. Walking back to the truck with vests full of pheasants I noticed Candy was limping, holding up her right rear leg. At home, a few days later, her veterinarian diagnosed a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.
She had surgery to repair the knee and she made a good recovery. The next fall, just before a new pheasant season, however, she blew out the ACL on her other rear leg. At that point we decided to retire her from hunting and invest in a new puppy, which is when a new Lab, Flicka, joined us.
We went to California, that Thanksgiving, to see our daughter, Erin, and she and Victoria asked to adopt Candy. It was a hard decision, but we agreed, and Candy began her new career as an urban dog, living in a house with two women and three cats. Instead of hunting she went on daily walks in their wooded, hilly neighborhood, occasional wine tastings, and otherwise enjoying her new career. She drew admiring looks from many people for her look of athleticism as well as her friendly demeanor. Heck, even the cats loved her.
Four years later, Candy is an old, old dog; her hindquarters atrophying, and walking, even just standing, was difficult. We were in California at the end of March and we could see, in just a few days, continuing deterioration. Erin said she had perked up before our arrival, but then quickly went further downhill. The day after we left she made one last trip to the veterinarian for a little help on her way to her last great adventure.
Candy had great careers as a family member, bird dog, and happy retiree.
She had a wonderful life and we’re the better for it.
Note: the photo is from 2004, about 50 dog years ago–and when we were both much younger!