It's Just a Damn Dog
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
-Robert Luis Stevenson
The barking was incessant, it was night one without momma or siblings and the newly acquired Rough Haired Slovakian pup was feeling out of place and distressed. Every sound was unfamiliar, every scent was new and nothing around the little beast was recognizable. The pup was letting his displeasure be known, and sending out the bat signal, hoping to be rescued. The young man who had brought him home was a first-time dog owner and was being tutored by a father who had trained many other hunting dogs. The young man wasn’t unaccustomed to new puppies or hunting dogs, for that matter, he had participated raising dogs on many such occasions growing up, but this was an entirely different ball game.
When the time had come for the young man to select his puppy he had sat down in a field, allowing the little devils the opportunity to play and mill around. He was observing their form, watching their natural reactions to scents and how they moved. The selection process was a mere formality however, as one of the puppies had already decided that this particular young man was his person. Immediately upon seeing the young man, the pup confidently sauntered over to the boy looking up into his eyes as if to say “let’s get this thing underway”. Moments later a search was made for the puppy who had gone missing and was eventually located, curled up in a comfortable ball, sleeping within the young man’s jacket. The dye had been cast. The young man was bringing Baloo home. A new partnership had been formed, and now it was “The Baloo Show”.
Puppies are much like a newborn baby requiring careful vigilance to their care, nutrition, and handling. They are cute, adoring, cuddly and full of wonder. They are also destructive, demanding and time-consuming. The young man knew full well what was at stake. He was looking to form a relationship with the dog towards a greater purpose. Baloo is an upland gun dog infused with generations of purposeful genetic engineering, designated toward specific attributes. The young man focused on forming an alliance with Baloo in a common pursuit of their mutual love for all things upland. There is a price to be paid for any worthwhile pursuit. It is no different when it comes to our canine hunting companions. Many folks start out on a mutual journey with their dogs only to have such intentions derailed by life’s demands or attention to other pursuits. For this young man, the journey he had just embarked upon, was a sacred endeavor and he treated it with reverenced devotion.
“Nature cannot be tricked or cheated. She will give up to you the object of your struggles only after you have paid her price.” -Napoleon Hill
The puppy slept with the boy, ate with him and went as many places as was allowed. The two companions could be seen daily trouncing through wooded edges, traversing nearby mountain slopes and working obedience measures. The young man had done his reading and had listened to gun dog breed experts and had decided his number one training curriculum was to expose Baloo to as many natural encounters as possible; to spend time with the dog.
When the puppy was not yet four months old the young man brought him on a family spring-break trip to the Oregon coast. As the family traveled the puppy had the opportunity to walk many different scenic trails. He came in contact with a multitude of different people, attended the Portland bizarre and was entirely acclimated to a variety of common commotions.
One particular day during the trip the family decided to hike the “Fern Canyon Trail” in the Redwood National Forest. The hike to the coast is a twelve-mile adventure through magnificent giant towering redwood behemoths among the richest nature imaginable. Various fitness levels of the family group necessitating the family divide into two groups allowing an advance group a more expedited trek to the coast and back. Reluctantly the young man left Baloo with the slower advancing family members and proceeded at a fast pace towards the coast. The young man purposefully made certain Baloo wouldn’t see his departure. Once the slower group commenced the journey Baloo broke free, putting his nose to the ground like a hound dog trailing a cougar and raced forward to find the young man. Baloo wasn’t going to be left behind even at such a young age.
The pup’s first summer included tons of water work. The young man spent an inordinate amount of time wading small non-intimidating puddles of running water progressively moving to more difficult waterway navigation. Baloo became proficient in the water. The team worked on retrieving skills and spent time at the family’s mountain cabin exploring a host of terrain. They spent nights under the stars, enjoyed campfires and continually bonded together. Elayne Boosler asserted,
“My fashion philosophy is, if you’re not covered in dog hair, your life is empty.”
Lousi Sabin’s statement would prove true when he said, “No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.” Baloo and the young man were experiencing the richest connection God may have endowed on mankind outside of our own family relationships.
As the first hunting season approached the young man and Baloo were as prepared as they could be. The grouse season got started off to a great start, finding some initial successes on early-season ruffed grouse.
The young man was also engaged with the commencement of his senior year of high school and determined to help his football team win games but he didn’t allow his time with Baloo to go unattended. As soon as practice ended, he would race home and get in some time with his dogs whenever possible.
Then tragedy struck, Baloo stopped eating and it was apparent he was in a serious health struggle. Baloo was rushed to the vet where it was quickly determined he had contracted a serious case of Parvo and was in a fight for his life. There were other hunting dogs at Baloo’s home and so fear set in that not only was Baloo infected but that the deadly plague was going to quickly spread through the kennels. Baloo was hospitalized and eventually released in the young man’s care with significantly less than a 50% chance of survival. Other family members took vigil and turns to administer to Baloo. For days it was nip and tuck, as the family fought alongside Baloo administering IV fluids and medicines and doing their best to keep Baloo comfortable. It would be eventually confirmed, that Baloo’s sickness was traced to an ineffective improperly handled vaccine package. None of the other dogs got sick. For days the young man cradled his companion in his arms fearing the worst. I am convinced the attention Baloo received and the dog’s understanding of the great outpouring of love inspired his courage to live. The dawn did come and Baloo fought, progressively getting better. As the weeks went by, his strength returned and for the time being it appeared as if Baloo would prevail. Eventually, the young man and Baloo returned to the field and continued to upland hunt in advancing stages.
Baloo started to catch fire, pointing birds and demonstrating significant prey drive, retrieving and showing he was going to be a formidable bird dog. The hunting duo grew inseparable in purpose. Their ability to innately communicate with one another was uncanny. For example, It was inexplicable how Baloo knew when the young man was headed home, but somehow moments before the young man would arrive Baloo would show up at the door with his throw dummy ready to retrieve. Robert McCammon claimed "After years of having a dog, you know him. You know the meaning of his snuffs and grunts and barks. Every twitch of the ears is a question or statement, every wag of the tail is an exclamation.”
Towards the end of the young man’s senior high football season, he tore his ligaments in pre-game preparations. The young man had worked his entire life for his senior year football experience. The injury ended his football career and disappointment transitioned into downheartedness. Baloo somehow felt the young man’s emotional pain and would stand sentinel while his person rested and iced his injury. It was Baloo’s turn to help the young man heal. Doris Day expressed "I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source."
"Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen." -Orhan Pamuk
Most recently, the young man took Baloo with his father and family members to do some early spring Sharp-Tail training in some nearby steep western mountainous terrain. The cloudy overcast day provided perfect ambient temperatures and a slight breeze helped the dogs scent as they moved into prime Sharp-tail cover. The pack found an initial pair of Sharp-Tails, and as the birds flushed southbound, the hunting party grew increasingly enthusiastic about finding the early birds, the dogs were intent on finding additional opportunities. Baloo, in particular, was moving out well, working with the young man as they traversed the sharp vertical rocky edges. The hunting party hunted for a few hours culminating the days training next to small livestock pond. It was decided the group would take pictures of the pack since all of the dogs were present. As the canine pack posed for their portrait it became apparent something was seriously amiss with Baloo. He laid to the ground and eventually rolled to his side unable to move. Baloo started to lose all bodily functions and was starting to seize. The young man and his family spent the following 45 minutes racing out of the hills and trying to find an emergency vet available late on a Sunday afternoon. In an attempt to safeguard the sacred tender experience of the last remaining minutes of Baloo’s life I would only offer up that Baloo fought valiantly encased within the young man’s arms as somehow both knew this was it and the young man was doing his best to encourage Baloo to hold on to life and at the same time saying goodbye.
I’m not sure what would have happened even if Baloo would have been able to receive medical attention sooner, it is unlikely the outcome would have been any different. It was apparent to the vet Baloo had suffered a massive heart attack and the life-ending shut down of his vital organs. Baloo’s system failure is likely the ultimate cause of his earlier Parvo sickness.
I recalled my own father’s experience when he had lost one of his dogs. My father was a tough man having experienced many of life’s hard lessons. He had also known great joy. He had been blessed with many canine companions and would often talk about their exploits with an endearing affection. In this particular instance, the dog had been a companion to my father for some time. It wasn’t a dog the rest of the world would have found remarkable in any way, in fact, the dog was less than ordinary in most respects, but the dog had been a companion to my father through some very difficult times, keeping him company through some lonely stretches of life. One day, my father went to a neighbor’s home to help them move. Like was customary with my father, the dog tagged along. Somewhere in the commotion of the move, someone spilled a container of antifreeze. The substance was not cleaned up and subsequently, the dog partook of the spilled liquid and died. After dealing with the aftermath of losing his dog and burying him in a nearby field, we started driving to nowhere in particular. We traveled on through the night with no apparent end destination. I could feel and sense the poignant pain my father was struggling through. The air felt heavy and the mood was dark as coal. I had no idea what to say to my father. Eventually, I turned to him and said, “Dad, I am so sorry your dog died.” With tears streaming down his cheeks he looked stoically out through the front windshield and said,
“…at the end of the day it’s just a damn dog”
It was as clear to me that night riding shotgun with my mourning father, as it was recently with the passing of Baloo that these canine companions are immeasurably more than just a damn dog. My father’s huge heart was broken and the loss of his dog was exacting a heavy toll.
We brought Baloo home and combed his hair and washed his body. We made a small wooden box and encased the inside with a velvet blue blanket. A rooster wing was placed inside the box and lid was sealed.
Baloo was loaded into the back bed of a truck that had previously taken him on innumerable upland hunting excursions and the family headed back into the hills where Baloo had enjoyed his last day. All of the young man’s brothers met up with the family somewhere along the route. The procession journeying into the dark night with no mortal words adequate to quell the abject pain of the moment. Just as the procession was to arrive at the intended burial location, a group of seven sharp-tail grouse flushed over top of the truck. Some might suggest the occurrence was mere happenstance but I believe otherwise. The brothers took turns digging the muddy rocky ground under the beam of two flashlights. The wooden box was entombed within the earth and enveloped within a host of gathered rocks and small boulders to help protect Baloo’s final resting place. Once Baloo was buried, the family sat in prolonged complete silence under a star-filled sky. The young man’s pain at the loss of his beloved Baloo was palatable, inconsolable and heavy. The loss of Baloo’s companionship was an unspeakable reality that his mind simply could not adequately process.
With time, it is likely the young man’s intense loss and pain will subside. Baloo’s memories are indelibly imprinted on his soul. The short life span we have to spend with our dogs is one of life’s greatest inequities. I am with all others who proclaim, “that when I die, I want to go to the same heaven as my dogs”.