Roughly once every ten years the esteemed editor of this stalwart publication is gracious enough to allow me the opportunity to eulogize a dog. Although Belgrade isn’t the small town it once was, its paper by all accounts still is, and as a result there are occasional slow news days which can be compensated for with a feel good story. Except this story doesn’t feel good to me — yet. The memory is still fresh, the call to the vet too recent. Time, I am told, heals all wounds, but time wasn’t terribly kind to Hugo.
Hugo — that was my dog’s name — was a big, black Labrador Retriever. In many ways Hugo was my best friend and he is the reason I feel the need to intrude upon these pages.
Inoperable tumors have cheated many a homo sapien out of their life expectancy, and I can now tell you that tumors play no favorites when it comes to canis lupus familiaris, either. The tumor Hugo suffered through was excruciating. It was probably unfair for me to keep him living as long as I did, but one thing Hugo did was live a full life — and for all of his eight years I lived it right along beside him. He was my hunting dog, my fishing dog, my skiing dog, my jogging dog, to a lesser extent my herding dog, and perhaps most importantly my porch sitting dog. Many a warm summer evening was spent in a rocking chair on the front porch shelling peas, Hugo patiently at my side waiting for me to ‘accidently’ drop a plump, green pea for him to devour.
Although Hugo’s pain was all too real, some activities provided a distraction from his suffering. One was a good, old-fashioned belly rub. Another was hunting. Hugo’s last season in the field was a successful one, and I tried to get him out as much as possible. He possessed an incredible memory and at the dozen or so places we have frequented through the years he always remembered where the birds were most likely to be located. He was also somewhat impatient with his master, because he knew I wasn’t a very accurate shot. As a result he was all too happy to run ahead of me and show me the spots where the birds were — or at least where they used to be, once he flushed them out of range.
I suppose I could have modified this unwanted behavior via an electric collar, after all Hugo was used to this type of arrangement at home. He was subject to the restrictions of an invisible fence around the perimeter of our place, courtesy of one of his predecessors (who frequented a neighbor’s chicken coop too often.) This unseen boundary was seared onto his brain, and for the last few years of his life Hugo didn’t even need to wear the collar to be constrained by this invisible force. Of course all the other creatures knew the limits of his boundary, so free-ranging chickens, goats, and barn cats all tormented the poor lad by walking just barely on the other side of the buried wire.
Earlier I noted the scientific nomenclature for Hugo’s species, and from it one can easily ascertain how closely related our beloved dogs are to wolves. Allow me to pass along an anecdote that will demonstrate how more wolf blood flows through our pets’ veins than we might suspect. One day several years ago Hugo and I were hunting along the Gallatin River and came across a dense thicket that seemed a promising place to hold pheasants. Hugo recognized the potential before I did and instinctively started to investigate. I stood ready at the most likely exit point, but instead of a flushing rooster a whitetail doe came bounding out of the cover. Bounding is actually a poor choice of words here, because the deer was limping noticeably and dragging her back end which had undoubtedly suffered and then managed to survive an encounter with a hunter at some point. Hugo came charging out of the brush and easily overtook the poor, frightened doe. In a shocking display of ferocity he went straight for the jugular and dragged the poor deer by her neck into the river. It took everything in my power to get Hugo off the doe. Once released the deer skedaddled to the far side of the river and disappeared into the trees. Hugo howled for a bit, but then transformed back into the goofy, human-pleasing Labrador he’d always been.
This past summer — when we first found out Hugo’s time on this mortal coil would be truncated — we got a puppy to help fill the impending void. The pup, a yellow Lab, is now seven months old and appears to be holding his own. He accompanied Hugo and I on several hunting trips this year and has showed glimpses of promise. It will undoubtedly take a couple years for the pup to progress to Hugo’s level, and that lengthy process has me considering my own mortality. If this pup lives to his normal life expectancy I will be in my seventies when it comes time to train a new one. Will I be up to the challenge? Only time will tell, and hopefully time will also help with this dog sized hole in my heart.
Dan Holland regularly contributes articles to the Belgrade News. He is an accountant and all-around good guy.