News From The Woods - October 14, 2008

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published October 14, 2008


"BEST DOG: The Tale of Bear"


The Christmas holiday of 1994 was a lonely time for me. My wife and I had separated and although I had yet to get a divorce we both knew it was all but over. My daughter Missy lived in Florida and they were in no financial situation to come and visit for Christmas. I spent much of my time working on my web site and writing articles to keep me busy as there is hardly any video business or recording business between Halloween and New Year's Eve.

My pal Ray Miller was in town and called to say he was driving out to see me, and wanted to make sure I'd be there. I went back to work after hanging up the phone and in about fifteen minutes I heard him coming down the stairs. I got up and greeted him and we both sat down to get caught up on old times. After just a few minutes he said "Hey Bob, I've got your Christmas present out in my car and I forgot to get it." I replied "You didn't need to get me a present for Christmas. I sure didn't get you one!" and we both laughed. He excused himself and went back up the stairs. I remained in my chair wondering what kind of gift it might be. Usually, because he is in radio, he gives me gifts periodically of some great new CD or even DVD's, like the time he showed up and gave me a promotional box set of the complete Star Trek First Season titles. I figured it would be some new music or something, but when he came back down the stairs he was holding a baby black Labrador. It was wearing a red ribbon and bow around its tiny neck. Ray walked over to the chair and lay the little bundle in my lap, saying "Merry Christmas, Bob."

I didn't know what to say. I looked down at the puppy that fit entirely in one hand and he looked up at me and immediately reached out with his little paws trying to get up to my neck. I raised him up and he nuzzled my check then gave me two tiny squeaks and settled down into my arms. Now, you all know how hard it is to resist tiny puppies. There's something so new and so cute about them that everyone wants to hold one, adults and children alike. They smell so wonderful and fresh, and their coat is soft and shiny. He was adorable. I looked back up at Ray and he told me the story of how he made the acquaintance of some folks who raised Labrador Receivers and how one of the most recent littler had picked Ray out. He told me the dogs parents were both "papered" AKC Labs and the father was a Champion, with a lineage of Labs in the "Bearenstein" family name. They explained to Ray that the puppy that had picked him out was the smartest of the litter and when he purchased the dog they had him registered under the name of "Bubba's Black Bearenstein". In American Kennel Club tradition, the family root name ("Bearenstein") should always be included somewhere in the pup's title.

I had just recently had the misfortune of burying my dog "Bubba" after he was hit by a car out on the highway. When I discovered him I loaded him up in my station wagon and drove to the vet, but it was closed, and so I sat in the back of the wagon with the tailgate down and spent Bubba's last struggling moments holding him and cursing him through tears that he was stupid enough to let himself get run over. I slowly drove back home and as it started raining I went to the tool shed and retrieved a shovel. I went into the side yard and began digging Bubba's grave. My next door neighbor Ron saw me from his kitchen window and came out in a raincoat with a shovel and we silently dug the grave in the rain together. I wrapped Bubba up in a trash bag and laid him to rest right in the spot where my mother always used to set up the picnic table for our Fourth of July lunches. He was just a mixed breed and was my companion during a bad period of my life and so I was sad to lose him. Later, I even planted a pear tree over his grave in memory of him.

I really wasn't ready so soon after Bubba for a new dog, but Ray thought differently and decided to find just the perfect dog that would be more than just a junkyard dog for me. And so he searched around and found "Bear" and brought him to me knowing I needed something to help me through troubled times. And so began my life with Bear.

For the first few weeks I was so proud of the puppy. He never seemed to poop in the house and so I allowed him to roam freely through the house while I was working. From day 1 I allowed him to sleep on my bed and he always settled down right next to me when he was tired of scampering all over the bed. After several weeks cold weather, it finally warmed up a bit and I opened the long curtains in the living room which gave access to the Lanai porch. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Bear had been using the small space between the curtain and the sliding glass doors for a "poop zone". There was several weeks' worth of droppings in various states of decomposition. I don't know why I never smelled anything. Perhaps the curtains themselves acted as a "smell zone". In any event Bear got quite a scolding and I had a lot of carpet cleaning to do. From then on I left the curtains open and whenever he attempted (or succeeded) to relieve himself I rubbed his nose in it, said "BAD DOG!" and put him outside. This was my mom's method of toilet training and it also worked pretty well for me, although he was quite stubborn and it took me longer than I expected to train him.

After the first of the year on warmer days I would drive down to my boat dock and allow Bear to roam around the shore. On his very first day he immediately scampered into the shallow water and played. He was surely a bona fide (bona fido?) Labrador and with each successive visit he ventured further and further out into the lake. He could swim almost before he could run. The Ozark winter chill meant nothing to him at all as he emerged from the water. He'd be shaking from the cold and yet kept trying to get back into the water and I had to prevent him from jumping back in because I was worried he might get hypothermia. Our trips to the lake became a regular daily occurrence as Bear would not leave me alone until he got in a swim. I remember when he was just six months old I took him for a ride on the pontoon boat. He was so excited when we took off and he ran right up to the bow of the boat with his nose to the wind. As I watched him get more and more excited I started to worry and right at that moment he dove right off the front of the pontoon boat! I immediately turned off the ignition, killing the motor instantly. I heard the water rushing by the pontoons and then I heard a bump as his head must have come into contact with the bottom of a pontoon. I rushed to the stern and saw Bear paddling out from under the boat as it glided over his body. He had a look of panic in his eyes but he had sense enough to turn around and swim after the still moving boat. He swam around to the bow where a drop-down ladder was located. I barely got it dropped into the water before Bear arrived, and I pulled him out by his collar as he climbed up the ladder with all four paws. He never did that again, and he had learned how to exit the water using the ladder. In time he learned how to climb the ladder without any help. After that he could come and go as he pleased as long as we remembered to stay away from the ladder when he was swimming for it.

When Jane moved into the house Bear lost his spot on the bed. At first he acted hurt, but he soon warmed up to Jane and accepted the inevitable, but not without some complaining in the very beginning. Each evening when we retired he would come up to the edge of the bed and whine until Jane stroked his head and told him to go lay down. Obediently he reluctantly removed his snout from the bed and got up on his new spot, which was an ottoman chair only mere feet from Jane's side of the bed. That was his private bed for the rest of his life. Later on after Robert was born we allowed him the pick of the litter when we paired Bear up with her brothers yellow Lab. Actually, like Bear, Ranger picked Robert on the day we drove down to Searcy to select a weaned pup. We went out to the back yard where all the puppies were cavorting. Robert looked around for a while until he noticed a puppy hiding behind a junked hot water heater. When the puppy saw Robert he came out of hiding and laid across Robert's tennis shoe begging to be petted. Robert looked up and said "This is the dog I've been waiting for all my life". Robert was 4. As Ranger matured he found his own spot in the house because he knew the ottoman was off limits.

As he matured Bear made friends with neighbors and their pets, except for a dog named Duke that belonged to a neighbor down the street. Duke was only slightly smaller than Bear and very aggressive. Duke always rode in the back of his master's pick up and always taunted Bear when passing by our house. Bear would bark but not chase the truck. Whenever the dog, some kind of mixed Husky breed, roamed into our yard he always marked the bushes in my yard lining the street. This would aggravate Bear to no end, and so then he had to go relieve himself to remark the spot as his territory. Occasionally, whenever the neighbor stopped for a chat, Duke would jump out of the truck and tease Bear. Sometimes they broke out into a snarling match and Duke's master would go over and kick the dog. I suppose that was his method of training, but it never worked. Duke would repeatedly pick at Bear and Bear usually kept his cool and would throw dirt at the dog with his hind legs as a show of disgust.

Bear had a favorite stick. It was a chunk of wood that a beaver had chewed off both ends, almost two feet in length. Bear found it on the shore and retrieved it when he was still a year old and kept that stick until he died. One day when he was two Robert and I took Bear on his daily walk to the lake where we usually spent the afternoon throwing the stick way out into the lake and Bear would happily dash into the lake after it. He swam like a champion. More than once did I have men stop by the house after spotting Bear playing in the front yard and ask if I took him to shows or canine sports competitions. I told them that he was just the family dog and I was happy than that. One fellow almost reprimanded me for not letting the retriever world see such a fine and exemplarily specimen as Bear. His cut was spectacular. It was easy to see that he obviously came from good breeding, but he was content just being "Bear dog" and took great pride in his place as protector of the household.

He was having a ball swimming after the stick when we heard the sound of a pick up coming down the dirt road to the dock area. Sure enough, it was the pick up with Duke barking in the back the moment he caught sight of Bear. We continued to play with Bear and kept him in the water while the truck passed by and went two docks down. He forgot about the dog with the very next throw and merrily took off after his quarry. The neighbors went down to their dock to do some fishing and let Duke run loose. It wasn't long before Duke made his way over to our dock. Each time Bear swam in with the stick, Duke would carry on and want that stick so bad, but Bear would bring it immediately to me back on the dock for another throw, and Duke would have had to chase him onto our dock to get the stick from Bear and was understandably reluctant to do so. As Bear once again made his way back to shore, Duke actually stepped into the water and barked right at Bear as he strolled by with his prize in his mouth. Bear stopped about six feet from the shore and dropped the stick to shake. Duke saw the moment and jumped forward to snatch the stick but Bear was way too quick for him and nabbed him in the back of the neck. Before Duke knew what had hit him Bear drug him down into the lake and shoved his muzzle under the water while still firmly holding onto Duke's neck with his teeth. He could have really injured Duke if he'd have chomped down hard, but he was giving Duke a lesson in manners in a positive manner. Duke learned his lesson. After five seconds under water Bear let him come up for air and the dog took off for his master gasping for breath. Bear shot us a look as if to say "Sorry. I just got sick of it."

One day Jane, Luke, Robert and I took Bear to the dock. The lake levels were unusually high and there was a submerged tree sticking its branches up towards the sky located right next to our dock. It was late fall, just coming into winter and the air had a brisk chill to it. We were standing on the dock and Robert threw a stick into the water. Of course Bear (literally) jumped at the chance to retrieve it, but during the course of fetching the stick he got tangled up in a piece of rope which had wrapped around the tree. In seconds Bear was struggling for his life, and before we could even react to the situation Luke jumped right into the water and freed the dog. When they both emerged from the water Bear walked over to Luke and started licking his hand in a gesture of appreciation. From that day forward Luke and Bear have always had a special relationship.

If Bear had one flaw it was his penchant for barking. Whenever anyone would venture outside, especially in the front yard, Bear wanted to play. He wanted attention and the only way for him to show us that he wanted to be included was to start barking. If there was a stick he'd bring it over and insist that you throw it. Bear loved chasing the stick. Forget about baseballs and tennis balls. The only other toy to him besides a good sized stick was a Frisbee. Of course if he ever caught a Frisbee (which was often and always in mid-air) he'd run off with it to the edge of the yard and start destroying it, so we didn't do a lot of Frisbee throwing around the yard. But if you ever had a stick he would go absolutely nuts until you threw it. As an adolescent, when he was in his prime, he would amaze friends and visitors. Our house is built on a bluff, and when the back yard lawn stops there is a very steep embankment leading directly into very heavy forest. Perhaps 100 feet below that is a sheer drop off cliff right into 60 feet of water. The studio door opens up to the back yard and so whenever I took a break from work and stepped outside Bear would be my shadow. If I didn't pick up a stick he'd always go and find one and bring it to me, dropping it right on my foot, then look up panting with a sparkle in his eye. I could throw that stick as far as possible and that dog would bound off the bluff and return with the same stick within 90 seconds, dropping it at my feet for another chase. He was incredible. His sense of smell and hearing was as acute as any dog I'd ever owned. All I had to do was hold that stick for sixty seconds, just long enough to get my scent on it and he'd always find it. Occasionally the stick would land in a bush and I could see the bush violently being jerked back and forth until he got it to fall far enough where he could reach it. In time I had to resort to crafty measures just to keep him interested or to give him a challenge. The first time I faked a throw he went over the hill not suspecting foul place. Five minutes later he returned and eyed me suspiciously as I held one arm behind my back. He went behind me and bumped his nose on my wrist, signifying that he knew he had been fooled. Immediately following this deceit he never left his gaze off the stick when it was time for the throw. No matter how I faked it - even using extreme body movements - he was never fooled again. Sometimes he'd jump but then hold himself in check to make sure it was thrown and not faked. Then I escalated the game by faking to my left and as he jerked his head to see if it was sailing through the air I would quickly throw it off to the right. Still, that only delayed the inevitable. He would simply start at one end of the property and run parallel to the house until he caught the scent. Once he did that it was mere seconds before he'd locate and retrieve it. Our UPS delivery man loved making stops because he'd get to see me work Bear. I would fake a throw and then throw it as far as I could into the most densely wooded brush all the way down to the Government strip. Bear would disappear over the bluff in two seconds and always return with the same stick in under two minutes. Sometimes I'd throw it three or four times before the UPS man had to return to his scheduled tasks, but he always loved petting Bear before he left. During sessions when we were overdubbing and everyone but one player had time on their hands I'd often see them throwing that stick off the hillside and marveling at how that dog could retrieve. Sometimes I had to go out and ask them to take a break because I could tell Bear was exhausted. He would never quit. If he still wanted to play he'd bark until someone came to play. That became a problem in the front yard because there was no place to really throw the stick unless it was a neighbor's yard. And during family barbeques he was almost a nuisance as he never stopped barking even when we all yelled at him to cease and desist. Almost all our home video over a period of 10 years has Bear's barking in the background.

As he passed his ten year mark his muzzle and chin turned gray. He still had the desire to chase the stick down the cliff but his stamina and youthful power had diminished. I tended to only throw the stick once or twice, and although he protested when I made for the studio door, he readily followed me inside and took his place on the studio couch. I still have the bite marks on the bottom shelf of my video console where, as a pup, he laid right beside my left foot and gnawed away on the shelf. As he grew he got too big to lay there so the couch was his place after that. Even though he accepted the fact that he couldn't run up and down a cliff all day long, he was still in top shape for swimming. Whenever we took him out on the pontoon boat with family he still had the strength to climb up the ladder by himself. But in a few more years he just couldn't make it and we had to help him. By his thirteenth year he began sleeping a lot more. He still enjoyed taking a walk and even ran occasionally when a rabbit crossed our path, but his stick chasing days were over and we all knew it. We started discouraging friends from throwing the stick for Bear because even though he didn't have the strength he had the will, and we didn't want to risk his health. One Robert and I went four wheeling on our ATV. We took the "back forty" route which follows an undeveloped dirt rood down in the woods. Bear was outside at the house and must have heard us and so he struck out to find us. When we got to the house and discovered Bear was not present I panicked. We retraced our route and found Bear laying alongside the county road, completely helpless with heat stroke and not even trying to get up. When I reached him his breathing was labored and his heart was beating dangerously fast. The adrenaline kicked in and I picked him the 80-pound dog by myself and placed him across the front rack of the ATV. With Robert screaming "He's dying Daddy…He's gonna' die!" in my ear I drove like a maniac with one hand while I hung onto his collar with the other. He didn't offer to move. When we arrived at the house I ordered Robert to turn on the water hose. I jumped off the vehicle and somehow laid Bear down in the cool grass. Robert handed me the hose and I sat there for perhaps ten minutes watering him down until he started showing signs of recognition. In another five minutes he was trying to get up but couldn't. I kept him down and kept the water on him. Jane came outside and stood there crying. Finally, after more than twenty minutes of dousing his body with water and placing the water hose in his mouth until he could drink, he managed to get up under his own power. For a few moments when he tried to walk he almost collapsed as if his legs couldn't hold him up. After a half an hour he was back to his old self and we all agreed never to take the ATV out unless we knew he was inside the house.

Bear turned 14 last November, which in human years would be about 98. His muzzle and chin was now all white and his coat had lost much of its luster. He was showing signs of arthritis in his back legs and he had developed a kack cough which occasionally resulted in the act of throwing up, although nothing ever came up. He still followed me around but whenever I went upstairs he began barking at the bottom of the stairs. I think he was asking me if I intended to stay up there or if I was coming right back. If he didn't get an answer or I didn't respond at all, he would slowly make his way up the stairs and lay down on the living room floor. By spring we noticed he didn't seem to hear us. We'd call out his name but he'd just sit there. If I made my way around him and he caught sight of me he'd look up. I had to motion to him to get him to get up and accompany me outside. By July he became incontinent. I don't know if he was even aware that he was defecating on the floor, but he'd often get up and drop a package every other step. He didn't do it very often at first, and it was just a nasty chore for us to find. I told the family that I didn't think he would make it to his next birthday. On the last weekend in August the weather had cooled and we decided to take the dogs for a walk. We only got 200 yards from the house when Bear stopped. We called to him but he ignored us. Robert and I walked back to him and he was just standing there, panting for breath. He just could not walk another foot. We tried to get him to follow us back home but he started turning in circles and salivating. I sent Robert for the wheelbarrow. Jane, Luke and Robert ran out to my location with Luke running and pushing the wheelbarrow. Together we loaded him into it and wheeled him back to the house. He slowly made it inside and collapsed in the living room. We couldn't believe it! We had noticed that he didn't stray far from the house recently but never realized it was because he just couldn't walk for any distance.

We had a family meeting on the last day of September. Jane and I had been cleaning up dog poop and horrible smelling urine almost daily and she brought it to our attention that this was unhealthy for the household. I knew that but had so far been unable to make the dreaded telephone call to the vet. Jane looked at me and said "Honey, it's time to do something. This isn't the Bear dog we love and he can't be happy either." Robert said "Yeah Dad, he can't swim, chase the stick, or now even take walk and I'll bet he is in a lot of pain from his arthritis". I have a very smart family. I agreed and she called the vet and made an appointment for Saturday October 11th. I only had ten more days with my dog and it finally sank in. Those were the most miserable ten days of my life. I wanted to enjoy every last minute but in his condition there was little he could do but mull around the house. Life went on. When I cleaned up poop or mopped the floor after he'd peed I didn't get mad at him, it only made me more sure that this was the right thing to do.

On Saturday morning the 11th I got up early, rode my exercycle three miles, took a shower and just after breakfast we took Bear for a last swim in the lake. It was a chore to get him into the back seat of my car as he just didn't have the strength. He hadn't been near the water for at least six months do we didn't know what to expect, but when we got to the waters edge he managed to get out of the car by himself and he struck off in search of a suitable stick. I took my camera and got some pictures and video of the event. Cautiously I threw the stick he returned with only a couple of feet out into the lake. He immediately strode after it and returned it to my foot and shook himself off. Luke then picked the stick up and tossed it out maybe twelve feet into the lake. The water was over Bears head and when he reached it I thought for an instant one of us was going to go in after him, but he managed to keep afloat and retrieve the stick. As he walked out of the water, grunting and walking away with a great deal of difficulty, we all then realized the extent of his discomfort. I put the top down on my car and we loaded him back up - despite his protests to stay - and headed into town. Jane and Luke were in her car and Robert rode in the back seat of mine with Bear while I drove. I thought having the top down would be a treat for him as he always loved sitting up in the back seat and sticking his head out into the wind. Robert said he was shaking a little and so he covered Bear up with a blanket we had brought along. As I drove I was so glad that Robert was in the back with the dog because with each passing mile the tears welled up inside me and I was driving through tears into town. Robert was using his MP3 player and because he had his headphones on he wasn't aware what was going on up front. I periodically looked back in my rear view mirror and Bear was laying there with his head in Robert's lap. Robert was singing along with an Eagles song and stroking Bears head for the entire trip. Bear looked so content.

I managed to pull myself together as I drove into the parking lot at the vet. Jane and Luke were there waiting. We all went inside and sat down with the dog while she did the paperwork. Then she came back and sat with us. We looked at each other and then looked away lest we both break out into a crying jag. In a few moments an assistant came out of an exam room and motioned for us to enter. We went inside the tiny room and she said the doctor would be right with us. I allowed Bear to roam around as I sat down on the tiled floor. We sat in silence for a moment, taking turns at talking to Bear and stroking his head. No one said a word. In a few more moments the female vet doctor came in, holding a syringe. She explained that this shot would let him slip off into sleep, and then when he was completely out she would then give him the fatal injection that would stop his heart. At that point I started losing it, but then Bear did a strange thing. He walked up to each one of us and licked out hand and looked up to us as if to say "It's all right……I'm ready to go". He went first to Luke, then Jane, then Robert, saving me for last. Even the vet noticed it and said "I hate this part of my job." She gave him the injection - he didn't even whimper - and in thirty seconds he made the motions of sitting down. No one said a word. Finally, he settled down on the floor right next to me and laid his head in my lap. As he dozed off I tried to talk but every time I opened my mouth I broke out sobbing. Finally I mustered up the courage and scratched behind his ears, which he always loved, and softly told him how much we loved him and how he was "Best Dog". Since he was a young pup and had captured our hearts we always called Bear "Best Dog". It was a sign to him that he was the best dog I ever had, and I believe he knew what that meant. I repeated "Best Dog" over and over and stroked his head. He made soft moaning noises and gently snuggled his head ever deeper into my arms. Finally he lay still. The only movement was his deep breathing. I looked up at the vet. She was crying too. She gave me the look that said he was ready for the second shot. She said "Do you want to stay here for this?" and I said I didn't think I could stand it. I got up, and as gently as I could I laid Bears head down on the floor. Jane said "I'll stay here with him." Luke also elected to remain, but one look at Robert and I knew he needed to go outside with me. He and I stood out by a tree at the entrance to the building. I had my arm around his neck and we both did some crying.

After sharing some tissues I grabbed on the way out, we returned inside and sat out on a bench in the waiting room. I looked up when a little lady came out of another room, eyes red and obviously in great distress. She looked at me and we both knew how each other felt at that same moment. She offered a weak smile as a consolation and walked out the door. T that moment Jane came out. I caught a glimpse of Bear's body on the floor. She was completely red-faced and openly crying. Luke looked sick and walked outside. Jane said "Bear dog's heart was so strong it took a second injection to do the job." I started crying again because just the thought of Bears strong heart made me so very sad. We all knew he had a big heart and strong heart but this was the proof. She had his collar in her hand. I didn't want to see any more of him and so we left the vet to do the rest of the task. We had decided to have him cremated. I wanted to spread some of his ashes over the lake at the dock, his favorite spot, and place the rest in an urn that we plan to place somewhere in the house along with his original stick, the beaver log that he had whittled down to 1/3 its original size over the span of 14 years. Those two items will be placed on the mantle over the fireplace in the master bedroom.

There will never be another Bear Dog. He will always be BEST DOG in our hearts.

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