I’ve always contended that God made Lab puppies as cute as they are to assure their survival. Really, if they looked like, say, turkey vultures, would the breed even have survived a generation?
We survived our dog Sam’s puppyhood due to his ability to mix in just enough sweetness with his destructiveness. And maybe helping words from my dad. Dad recognized Sam’s worth right off.
“That’s gonna be a good dog,” he’d say, noticing the good points in Sam’s over-the-top personality. My wife, Cheryl, has commented many times that those words might have saved Sam from a life without us – or us from a life without Sam.
We just hung in there, attempted to discipline him, and enjoyed his quirkiness. We were, as Dad predicted, eventually rewarded with a great dog.
Blasting from driveway to roadway once, Sam got struck by a car. He skidded to a halt eventually and was retrieved from the street.
As worried as we were, Sam was none the worse for the wear. It only added to his persona – he was indomitable and indestructible. He was relatively quiet that evening, then back to being his usual obnoxious self the next day. Cocky.
Any physical restraint was met with a spirited denial. Sam also routinely fought any disciplinary measures.
Softies that we are, Sam was allowed reign over the house while left alone – at first. He proved to be a destructive force in this situation
We took to placing Sam in the garage when we needed to leave him alone. He took personal offense when it was me that left him behind. I’d bring him to the garage and attempt to get out the door before he did.
He soon learned what was going on and would grab my arm if I made a move toward the door. I’d have to wander to far reaches of the garage and get Sam to follow. Then I’d have to race for the door. A foot race against a determined dog is difficult to win, no matter how short it is.
I even constructed a dog house within the garage, where Sam could lay in comfort. It was a big box with a hinged lid. A cool fort, I thought. Something I would have liked as a kid. Sam liked the box well enough, but much less than he liked tagging along.
Sam used the dog house and turned it into quite a nest. I’d open the lid and find many squirreled-away items, mostly stolen from the trash, but also boots, rugs, and anything wood – a favorite treat for Sam. Eventually, he was destroying the garage, too. So we ended up, much to our dislike, putting Sam in the garage and also restraining him with a chain. That lasted for only a very short while. Once, I think.
Sam managed to wrap his chain around his hind legs and hang himself from the garage door handle. Study it as I did, I could not figure out how Sam had managed the feat. It was like a reverse-Houdini act.
We never again tied Sam to anything unless we were present.
Frequently we took Sam to hunting camp, Muutka Lodge, which was his favorite place on Earth, not counting the couch.
On a night like many others, we were enjoying a campfire at camp while Sam roamed free. We didn’t worry much. Sam always favored the fire and the company in such situations – occasionally roaming the woods, always soon to return.
On this night, we heard Sam’s plaintive calls and some huffing noises. We shined flashlights around and eventually, found him under the hunting shack itself, scuttling along in an area of little clearance.
Our shack just rests on leveled blocks, and the clearance underneath varies. Sam was trying to squirm directly toward the campfire and the people around it. He didn’t fit and was nearly pinned. Still, he squirmed toward an impossible exit.
We were at once worried and amused. Sam clearly wanted to extricate himself through a space that was rabbit-sized – a physical impossibility that was hard to explain to a dog.
I rounded the shack to the only feasible 80-pound-dog entrance. There, I beckoned for Sam while shining a light underneath. He followed my voice and squirmed out. Soon he was happily curled up near the fire and the people he loved.
Basically, that was Sam’s best quality. He loved people. So much so, in fact, that we doubted his effectiveness as a protector. Until I came home at an odd hour one night.
I was working third shift – something I did for about eight years – at a manufacturing facility. Sometimes, equipment failure would result in an early release from the torture.
Often, times like this were used to engage in impromptu celebration with fellow workers. Sometimes it was a time to do some night fishing. Now and then, I went directly home. One of those nights, I was quietly slipping into my own house at about 3:30 a.m.
In a darkness lit only by our mercury yard light streaming through the windows, I navigated toward the bedroom. In the short hallway leading to it, Sam stood with his muscles tensed and his teeth bared, growling menacingly. I was never prouder of him than I was then.
Among Sam’s unique traits was a propensity for popping his teeth. He learned, even, to do it on command. This was no simple chattering of the teeth, but a powerful banging together of his jaws. It was amusing to those that knew Sam and menacing to others.
The habit was great fun while welcoming Halloween trick-or-treaters. Little kids would ask for treats while “Devil Dog” would pop his teeth in convincing pseudo-ferocity.
I’ve mentioned before that I “trained” Sam to search for cast-off deer antlers. There were other times in the woods and on the logging roads as well. Despite not knowing what he was doing, Sam would occasionally put grouse up for me. Not that I hit any of them, but I guess that’s not his fault.
I did down a woodcock on a muddy road while he was along once. He even let me have the bird, which had held so tight it was nearly gotten by Sam’s own teeth.
I watched Sam pin a chipmunk in a concrete block one time. He stared intensely at the hole in the block, waiting for the unfortunate rodent to vacate. When it did, it pulled a surprise maneuver, quickly scaling Sam’s snout before departing unharmed. I laughed myself to tears.
Sam was dangerously attracted to power implements. Often, he would zig-zag excitedly in front of lawn tractors and three-wheelers, sometimes kicking mud into my face. But his favorite was the chain saw. Sam would stand behind me in the plume of exhaust and happily sniff the air when I ran a saw. I’d turn and see his sawdust-covered face and be, at once, amused and angry.
Sam was apparently addicted to menthol cough drops, was definitely a pesterer of bigger dogs, and quite respectful of bears and cows if not much else. Sam also obsessively licked his front feet and was a connoisseur of soaps – for their taste. He took great pride in killing an especially big fly.
Sam became so easy-going later in life, though, that he would ignore things like a strange dog that wandered into our house.
Thinking I could use Sam to roust a dog that had barged through the door and buried itself under a kitchen furnishing, I called him over one day. He sniffed the invader, then looked at me as if to say, “Your problem, not mine,” and slinked off to a comfortable spot.
The aging of a dog is both a sweet and sad experience, of course. While the wild beast grows more tame, he or she also grows older.
Heart-broken when Sam left us, we quickly sought the healing embrace of a brand-new puppy. That puppy, Griz, is now approaching his 10th birthday. He’s not yet as calm as Sam was.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.