September 23, 2010
How certain pups come to you usually doesn't matter; what counts are the results.
Buck was a Labrador retriever, big, rangy and dark as night. Granted, the name Buck was by no means original, but one that to me--recalled from a youthful passion for Jack London--implied a remarkable dog. From day one, my Lab justified his name.
He was born in the Southeast, sojourned in the Midwest, and spent his peak years in the Rocky Mountains. He adapted readily to each of many residences, restrictions, and ventures into, for him, strange and unknown worlds. As long as we were together, high chukar country was as good as coastal duck marshes, and rooting out roosters from swamp edges matched gunning geese on western waters.
Certainly Buck's background was pivotal in his affinity for people, his attachment to me, and his often amazing ability to focus on my actions of the moment. He had been hand-reared, the result of a mammary gland infection that almost killed his mother. His breeder spent long hours caring for the sizable litter--that devoted woman lavished all possible attention on the pups, and her concern didn't stop when the time came to sell the litter.
The passage of years has not dimmed my recollection of her grillings to determine my suitability to own one of her dogs. For a small-time breeder, she told me, money was not the sole point; where she placed each pup was the main issue. She produced a litter of her Labradors only once every year or two, and most pups went to professional trainers. I have no idea why the woman decided that I should have one of her dogs, but she lived by her word and sold me a pup at a fair price.
Although she gave me my choice of the remaining puppies, she picked up a squirmy, pink-tongued bundle of black fur and said, "I can't tell you why, at least not in a way that would make sense, but I think this is the one you should take." Then she placed the pup that would be Buck in my arms and added, "It's up to you."
Did the breeder experience a serendipitous moment before she handed me that particular pup, and did I apply greater-than-usual sense in accepting her choice?
Or was it a typical puppy-selection crapshoot--given similar experiences, would another male from that litter have turned out much the same? In truth, the why of how I came to hold a certain pup doesn't matter; what counted then, and still counts, were the results.
What made this Labrador different from other dogs I've owned was not good looks or sweeping skills or exceptional style but intelligence and, especially, extraordinary allegiance that commonly took away my breath. About midway through our second season together, I began to understand that Buck's greatest talent was his drive to always be where I was, to carry out what I asked of him, and, in some cases, to anticipate what he thought I wanted.
At a point early in our relationship he had decided that I was his reason for existence. And he never deviated from that decision.
Even as a pup, he was content to simply be with me and was tolerant of all that went on around him if I was a part of it. He would patiently watch me, attuned to my movements and the tone of my voice. He would lie stretched by my chair, eyes cocked upward, waiting for the last drink to be finished or the last friend to leave. Only when I was safely tucked away would he relax and take his own rest. And all he asked for such full-time fealty was to be there and to receive a scratch and a smile now and then.
But there was more to our involvement than occasional kind words. After his arrival in my life, it did not take long for us to become extensions of each other, at least as much as man and dog can achieve that state.
I've owned dogs with wider-ranging skills than Buck or that were superior to him at individual tasks, but for all-around, hunt-anything-at-anytime competence and for day-in, day-out performance, this singular Lab topped any other gun dog I've owned. For a good stretch of my life, I hunted everything feathered and furred that was legal and marginally available, over a sizable piece of diverse terrain.
During our benchmark years together Buck found, flushed, tracked, and fetched an array of animals that was more a measure of his unqualified devotion to my needs than of my common sense and judgment.
As a gun dog, a companion, and, yes, even a friend, he remains unmatched both in fact and in my heart.
Although the seasons have long since written that life-chapter's final page, my mind's eye can review its details and images at any time, beginning with a savvy breeder holding up a pup and saying, "I think this is the one you should take."