By Andrew Gulliford
Special to the Herald
It has been enough time now that I can finally write this column without choking up.
These are some of the hardest words I’ve ever written. Tears have clouded my vision but not my heart. Earlier this summer, I lost my springer spaniel-Labrador retriever, the best dog I ever had. Mark Twain said that if dogs can’t go to heaven, he didn’t want to go either. I completely agree. Our pets, our canine companions, help make us human.
Finn was a true friend, but more than that, he had a fabulous character, with one white paw, a white blaze down his chest, a white stripe on his forehead and a howl that sounded half bloodhound. At 63 pounds, you knew when he wanted to sit on your lap or your feet.
We bonded like bricks and mortar. In the house, he followed me from room to room. Outdoors on mountain trails or in the bottom of desert canyons, he bounded forward, then back to check on me or my hiking buddies. He lived to be 15½ and was never out of my sight at home or in the field. In his last months, he couldn’t move much, but he figured out how to use the bathroom mirror to watch me from the bedroom. I miss him terribly, his warm scent, his soft velvet ears and those Labrador eyes that took in everything.
Like all good dogs, he listened well. We walked miles and miles together never saying a word, not needing to. He also knew how to collaborate with our cat, Gemmi, to knock food off the kitchen counter onto the floor where it disappeared.
My friend, Lynell, remembers him this way: “Finn running through the gate to greet me, or sneaking up on the futon (where he was not supposed to be), poking his nose under my bed covers trying to get me out of bed to feed him in the morning or laying his 40-pound head on my arm while I was trying to drive.”
HHHHe was the best trail dog I ever had. His outstanding exuberance occasionally smacked into friends along narrow trails or even bent a new hiking stick after he ran into it racing ahead in the South San Juan wilderness. As an older dog, he was a gem. As a puppy, he tried our patience.
He ate three pairs of my reading glasses. He chewed 2 inches off the top of one of my cowboy boots. Remodeling the kitchen, we had removed cabinet doors. When we weren’t home, Finn snuck into the pantry and dragged a 5-pound bag of flour all over the house, leaving a distinctive white trail across the carpet. The same night, to prove his loyal love, he found a large dead crow and carefully placed it on our bed between our two pillows. How do you scold a retriever like that?
Unlike other dog breeds, Labs never have a bad day. Their disposition makes them a popular breed, and because he was half springer spaniel, Finn had hybrid vigor and the best of both bloodlines. When it came time to go for a walk, he would sit and vibrate with excitement.
He flunked puppy kindergarten, never fully learning the essential commands. Friends said he wasn’t the brightest, and he could certainly be bullied by border collies, but put that dog outdoors on a trail and he was having fun, looking for dangers, enjoying every minute.
He also had legendary flatulence. On a cross-country ski outing on the coldest of winter days at 10,000 feet, he could fart and make everyone in the vehicle gasp for breath, roll down their windows in record time, stick their heads out and gulp mountain air.
HHHMy dog had personality. Once camping off Little Buck Road on the west side of the La Platas, we had turned in early just before dusk. As dark descended with no moon, Finn emitted a low growl inside my tent and the hair rose up along his spine. I felt for my pistol then grabbed a flashlight. I turned it on to find the tent’s zipper, accidentally blinding myself while I heard a loud clatter and commotion coming from nearby ponderosas. Finally, I got the tent open to peer around but saw nothing.
Finn didn’t sleep that night. He stayed up on guard. When daylight came, I surmised that the noise had been a mother bear and her cub in camp. When Finn growled, the cub scampered up a nearby tree and later came down in darkness. No breakfast for my dog that morning. As soon as he could, he jumped into the truck, sat upright in the passenger seat and made it very clear to me that we should leave. We did.
Another time, we hiked with a friend from the parking area near Sharkstooth Pass west 12 miles down to Transfer Campground. The middle of the trail, deep in the Mancos River watershed, is remote. Suddenly, on a narrow stretch of the route, we found ourselves cliffed up with a big, bad, belligerent pack goat blocking our path. Clearly, this goat was a runaway despite his ear tag. He wanted to play billy goats gruff and keep us from proceeding. This was his turf, and we had invaded his privacy.
Finn didn’t bark. He didn’t growl. He just flew into overdrive, running around that billy goat as fast as he could. The goat, never having seen a crazy dog like mine, kept jumping around to place his horns in a direct position to butt my dog. Because my dog kept flying past him in tighter and tighter circles, the old goat kept spinning and eventually fell over. My dog stopped. The goat wobbled off, leaving us free to walk on.
My wife worried about me solo hiking. I told her I wasn’t alone. I always had Finn with me. She made me promise not to climb any peaks, descend any slot canyons or go anywhere Finn couldn’t go. She didn’t realize he had four-paw drive and could go anywhere. We did, wearing out hiking poles, boots, dog tags.
He often knew where I was headed before I did, and he always stayed about 30 feet in front of me to protect me from anything that might be there. If I was on a trail, he never wandered to chase game. If there was no trail, he’d constantly look back at me to check my bearings, to read my mind, to head up the canyon bottom or across the flower-strewn alpine tundra. Summiting a peak, Finn got there first, waited and took in the sunshine, rain or snow. He’d let the wind swirl around his big springador ears.
If he got ahead of me, he’d quickly return for the sheer doggy joy of zipping back and forth, testing the air, keeping those sleek Labrador muscles in perpetual motion. When he stopped, he dropped like a stone, dead to the world, sprawling off the couch, deep asleep with the occasional snore or sharp woof as he chased animals in his dreams.
HHHI miss him terribly. Our veterinarian, Dr. Becky, wrote me to say, “I feel very honored to have known Finn for so long – what a handsome, smart, sweet, amazing friend he was. He will be missed by so many of us. Thank you for filling his long life with love and adventure ... and for knowing when he was truly ready to cross the Rainbow Bridge peacefully.”
Tears are coming. My throat is constricting. My cheeks are wet. John emailed me and said, “Sometimes, we have such wonderful relationships with our dogs. And it’s so hard when they pass on. I’m one of those that believe when I pass on, all my good dogs are going to be there waiting for me. I’m sure that will be the case with Finn.”
Yes, Finn has hiked on without me. He has never done that before.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].