You would think that someone who’s spent a lifetime raising, showing, training, and hunting dogs would get used to the fact that they don’t live as long as we do.  And I guess I have, in a way, at least accepted the inevitability.  12 or 15 years is a long, long time for a dog to live, and many don’t make it that far.   Lucky, who died last night, only made it to five.

I’ve seen an awful lot of dogs come and go… show dogs, hunting dogs, and a few that were just pets.  But what they all had in common was that regardless of their “job”, what they really were was companions.  Whatever purpose these animals had, it was always tempered with the overwhelming desire to please… to make us happy.  This was Lucky in spades.

I’ve never had a “bad” dog.  Some were more independent than others, some smarter… and some, well, not so sharp. 

I’ve had a couple of boneheads who were so goofy I couldn’t help but wrap my arms around them and laugh at their lolling tongues and their rollicking, galumphing excitement whenever they saw me coming.   I’ve also had hunters, so bred to the purpose that they practically became machine-like in the field… dogs who’d rather hunt than eat. 

Lucky was a little bit of both. 

She was a medium-sized, yellow lab… the product of an unintended brother/sister breeding, and a sole survivor of the litter that was supposed to have been aborted.  Unlike her breeding, her name was no accident.  She came by it honest.  Maybe her foreshortened lifespan was in the cards all along. 

At some point in her fetal development, something misfired and she developed some non-typical physical attributes.  No, not a fifth leg or an extra tail… but her ears came out too small for her head, and her body was too long for her short legs.  We called her “Yoda” when she was a puppy, because of the funny way her ears stood up and flopped over, just like the Jedi Master.  If she was stocky and green, she’d have been a spitting image, but instead she was long and a rufous, golden color that was slowly lightening to yellow over the years. 

I mentioned goofy.  Lucky was one of those dogs who seemed to be totally self-unaware.  It was like she had no idea where her body parts ended and the rest of the world began, and whenever one of us would walk outside or if she was allowed in the house, she’d demonstrate this by literally bouncing off of everything around her like a furry pinball.  A word of praise or a single stroke of her head would send her into paroxysms of pleasure, which could lead to the kind of mass destruction only a labrador’s sweeping tail and bulky shoulders can create.  I’ve seen her literally run headlong into walls, trees, and people in her giddy joy. 

Like most labs, Lucky lived to retrieve.  I knew enough from experience not to teach her to fetch sticks, so at least she didn’t drag logs around the yard or pull down trees, but anything that resembled a tennis ball was fair game to her, including the apples, persimmons, and oranges that hung too low on the trees in my backyard.  If she saw me drag out the training dummies, she’d practically turn inside out with excitement.  She’d fetch and run until she could barely move if I let her, but usually my throwing arm gave out first anyway.

But underneath that goofy exterior was the heart and mind of a prime hunting dog.  By the end of her first season in the field, she had totally tuned in.  When we’d hit the field, she stayed focused and concentrated, and she channeled her excitement into the hunt.  The bouncing, wriggling, mass of crazy dog-flesh suddenly became a focused and driven hunter.  The excitement was still there.  You could see it in her shivering body as she waited for the shot, and in her proud posture when she’d return with a retrieve.  She was doing her job, making me happy, and she knew it.  I sometimes wish I’d had the time to put more training into her because I have a feeling she’d have been competition quality… but that’s not really what we were all about. 

And then, as soon as we came home, she’d revert to perra loca, as if the hunt had never happened.

For all her energy and craziness, she had a strange sensitivity around my daughter. Miriam.  Mim has some disabilities, and among other things she doesn’t have a lot of muscle tone or balance so it doesn’t take much to knock her down.  While I’ve seen Lucky literally bowl over other dogs, an occasional table or chair, and even my wife a time or two, she learned very quickly to maintain control around Mim… slowing down and exhibiting a kind of gentleness.  That dog, for all her energy, would sit quiet and still for an hour and a half or more at Mim’s side while watching a movie.  Anyone who didn’t know Lucky would have found the scene sweet, but for those who know that dog, it was nothing short of phenomenal. 

I don’t know why she died. 

I had her with me up at Coon Camp Springs during our hunts this year, and for the entire three weeks she was a regular companion.  She ran alongside when I took the horse out to scout, or rode in the back of the truck when I’d drive around the property.  The only time I left her behind was when I had the clients out, or when I needed to scout an area on foot… but boy, when I came back to the cabin you’d think I’d been gone a week!   

I noticed though, that during the trip she wouldn’t eat her dry food unless I sat down with her.  She wanted to be with me every moment.  She was afraid she’d miss something if she stopped to eat, I suppose.  I didn’t worry over it too much, though, because she often did the same thing on other hunting trips.  I’d feed her while I sat by the fire with my evening drink, and she usually ate then.  She lost a little weight, but I didn’t think much about it because she had some weight to lose.  She usually trims up when we’re gone hunting for a while, and she was actually starting to look fairly athletic. 

But then, sometime around the last week of the hunt, something changed. 

Earlier that week I took her to jump shoot the ducks off a couple of ponds, and she’d had a spectacular wreck jumping out of the truck and landing, literally, on her face and then wrapping herself around a rock.  (She’s was never very graceful, and I would usually try to lift her out of the truck, but she was too excited to wait for me this time and bailed out as soon as I dropped the tailgate.)  I thought she’d broken her fool neck, but she jumped right back up and was eager to go.  I checked her over and she didn’t seem to be hurt, so we went on down to the pond where I shot a mallard and she made a great retrieve.  We went on to do a long, scouting hike before heading back to camp.  The next morning, she seemed a little sore and stiff and limped around, but after a couple of days, she wasn’t even really limping any more. 

A few days later, we wrapped up the last hunt.  I noticed she was acting a little listless, and she’d gone back to not eating again. 

I figured she’d get back to normal once I got her back home… but she didn’t.  She began to look gaunt, and then one day she came up so lame she couldn’t put her foot down at all.  I took her to the vet, and after bloodwork and X-rays, the vet couldn’t really tell me anything specific.  There was nothing broken, and no internal bleeding or indication of internal injuries.  She had a high fever, which could indicate some kind of infection, but nothing else to indicate where the infection was or what caused it. 

I got a prescription for a wide spectrum of antibiotics and a pain killer, and took her home. 

The leg got better, and she seemed to get back to her normal self… bringing the tennis ball to anyone who ventured into the back yard, sitting with Mim on movie nights, and generally showing pretty good spirits.  At first it looked like she was making a full recovery, but she didn’t seem to be putting on any weight.  Last weekend, she started limping on the opposite leg. That lasted until Tuesday, but by Wednesday, she wasn’t eating at all, and we decided to make an appointment to get back to the vet on Friday. 

But she couldn’t wait.

We came home from dinner last night, prepared to decorate our Christmas tree.  Mim wanted to let Lucky in for the occasion, so Debi went to the back door.  She came back with a look, and I knew before she even gestured. 

I went out back to find Lucky laying limp at the door.  I put my hand on her coat and petted her.  Her fur felt so much softer than usual… but also cold.  I lifted her big head, and felt the last stirrings of life as she tried to look up at me.  Her brown eyes stayed clear, locked on mine as I held her head and stroked her.  Then they appeared to focus intently on something across the yard.  She seemed to try to stretch her neck out, but then I felt her relax and her head drooped into my hand.