I buried Josie today and with her a large part of myself.
It had only been three short years since the day in August that she picked me to be her best friend. From the start she was a special lab. You see I’d gone to the kennel that day looking for a robust male, you know the kind, a dog that once fully grown would make quarter mile retrieves, breaking ice that would make the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw flinch. A dog to rival any imaginary animal London or Kjellgaard could dream up. What I got instead was Josie.
After quite some time deliberating over my prospects this little bundle of black joy and enthusiasm persistently tugged at my shoelaces and looked into my eyes as it to say, “pick me, isn’t it obvious? I’m made for you.” Her puppy smile and bright demeanor completely shattered my visions of Magnum or Thor, the super lab. I took her home, happy with my petite sweetheart; brains and heart over strength and romance.
It did not take me long to realize how right my decision had been. Josie was smarter than any dog I’d ever seen. Her instincts coupled with an undying devotion and will to please made her a breeze to train and we progressed quickly as we grew and learned together. Her mastery of my obedience commands was astounding and fun to watch. However, what truly made my heart soar with pride and excited anticipation of things to come was how enthusiastically and determindley she retrieved. Nothing was too big or heavy, she found a way, often dragging the object backward all the way to my feet. It was watching her fetch in the backyard that I began to understand how special Josie truly was. But the best was yet to come.
September 15th has been the opening day of Michigan’s small game season for as long as I can remember and at this time very few of these “openers” had come and gone without seeing me in the woods chasing grouse. This year was no different except that I had a 10 week old lab puppy in tow. I held no illusions that day, Josie was just along for a walk. I did not expect her to do anything more than bobble along behind me but, true to form, she had something else in store for me.
Not far into the first cover a grouse flushed and I made a tidy crossing shot and the bird fell to earth in plain sight. As I walked over to recover the bird I thought, why not?, and sent Josie toward the grouse with an enthusiastic “fetch em up!” The bird was a scant few yards distant and she could see it plainly. Joyously she bounced over to the bird, mouthed it a bit and then picked it up and delivered it as though it were the knotted sock in the backyard.
I was elated, and when she delivered the bird, jostled and celebrated with her. Then tucked the Pat into my vest and continued on with my Dad flanking me. We did not walk far when another bird flushed, this time in front of my father. He knocked it down and marked where it fell but couldn’t turn it up immediately, so Josie and I went over to aid the search. We tramped about for several minutes looking when my father said, “Todd, look at your puppy.” I followed his gaze and there, with her tiny black nose into the breeze, was Josie, little tail whipping frantically and feet carrying her toward a small spruce. Without hesitation she dove under its boughs and emerged almost as quickly with a stone dead ruffed grouse, virtually as large as she was.
With her head held as high as she could manage, she pranced to my side and delivered the bird. Dad and I looked at each other in astonishment as grins spread across our faces. We had just witnessed the retrieve that would usher in three years of amazing feats and proud moments. That was Josie, 63lbs of heart and drive that delivered larger than life moments time after time over the next three hunting seasons.
I could write volumes about Josie’s hunting and retrieving ability, both were outstanding and deserving of remembrance. However, Josie was more than simply a hunting dog. True, She lived for autumn and would stand in my front yard on the end of the dock, eyes half closed, nose reading the wind, telling her of flights to come and hunting to be done. Yet, for as finely tuned a hunting dog as she was, she had the crossover ability that labs are famed and treasured for. Josie was a people dog.
Her smiling eyes and laughing tongue coupled with the spark of her enthusiasm and affection endeared her to all who had the pleasure of meeting her. Josie’s limitless devotion to me was perhaps never better displayed than when I would come home at the end of a work day. She would sit on the porch and wait for me to shut off my pickup and open the door, then she would race down the driveway and slam into me, whining, barking and spinning circles, all composure and self respect vanishing in an attempt to convey her affection. I never doubted her devotion to me, she never allowed that.
So you see, when the final shovel full of earth was tamped into place and her marker was staked at the head of her grave, it was more than a dog laying under that fresh dirt it was a large chunk of my broken heart.
My father’s wisdom still echoes in my ear, “first they steal your heart and then they break it.” That’s okay, I’d change nothing. I cannot turn back the clock anymore than I could have stopped the truck that crushed my Josie. Thus, I will keep her memory bright and shining, never forgetting how she always gave me all she had.
I only had three short years with her but the lessons learned and the memories made will not fade and every October when the Northwind carries flights of wildfowl, a particular day will come to my mind when an improbable puppy made her first impeccable retrieve and as the smile spreads across my face, a tear will slip down my cheek.