The other night, Rigby jogged through the shallow water at a lake near our house to retrieve a training dummy. As I watched, it was difficult not to compare him to Cheyenne, our older dog who sat at my side.
In her younger days, Cheyenne crashed into the water with intensity. As a smaller dog, she out-swam most other retrievers by the near manic force of her desire. In 12 years, I never worried if she would bring back a duck.
This night, I knew why she wasn’t interested in retrieving. Her hips gave her trouble. The right side, in particular, often froze so that her movement centered over three legs, the fourth stiff and hovering above the ground.
With her growing lack of interest in her once-favorite activities came a new quality of sweetness toward her people. She seemed more attentive to Steve and me than she had ever been. Her clouded eyes and graying face often peered at me for long spells, a behavior so new for her that I know it has meaning even if I can’t translate it into words.
She could no longer carry out the duties of a gun dog. However, all of the underlying qualities that go into a great retriever were still there and intensified — awareness, wholeheartedness and a willingness to serve others.
I might have once said the best traits of a retriever were “biddable and birdy,” just as she might have once wanted me to be a crack shot with daily marches to the marsh. Now, it seemed we were both resigned to personality over performance.
“You don’t have to retrieve birds tonight,” I told her. I just thought she might want to, and the water would float her hips, allowing her to move with less pain.
The ice had gone out on the lake a few days earlier, and I wanted to take the first opportunity to share it with Rigby and Cheyenne. In the back of my mind, I feared his first chance at water retrieves might also be her last.
I had brought two training dummies but soon set one aside since Cheyenne seemed to have no interest in retrieving. She had been sitting to my right as Rigby plopped his wet self to my left, hovering and panting in anticipation. This time, I threw the dummy just beyond the shallows, where the water got deep.
Rigby, born last October, had never swum. If he didn’t swim, and if Cheyenne didn’t either, I was in a pickle. Steve and I could go back to the house and get our waders, but we hoped we didn’t have to.
Three of us — Cheyenne, Steve, and I — watched from shore as Rigby slogged out and reached the point where he lost the bottom. He began to turn back to us just short of the floating bird.
“Dead bird!” I said.
That may not be the correct word — some people say “fetch” or “back” — but whatever the term, consistency is the most helpful. In our bird dog family, dead bird means “a bird is down, and might you please go grab it and bring it back?”
Rigby stretched for the bird, swimming. Steve and I cheered as he grabbed the bird and turned back with it. At this point, Cheyenne whined and stepped out into the water. Without thinking, I grabbed the second dummy and threw it for her — not far, just past the shallows.
She swam for it, and both dogs emerged with their birds, ready to go again. The second time, Cheyenne didn’t hesitate.
They looked so different from each other in the water. Rigby, a stocky, young Lab, swam with his head high. Cheyenne, an old pro, kept her chin at the waterline.
My heart flooded with love for them both — the dopey young pup with his soft nose and silky fur and the old girl with her slick otter coat and seasoned swimming style.
We had visited this lake for many years to train various dogs. But I feel sheepish using the word “train,” because mostly I watch and learn.
If anyone were to keep score, my minor contribution to their “manners” seems small compared to what the dogs constantly offer by way of example.
It’s fun to imagine a world built on dog values instead of human ones. For instance, a good-looking dog is a healthy one. Yet people often consider someone beautiful even if that person is far from healthy, such as the once reigning archetype of female beauty as an ultra-thin supermodel who struggles with addiction.
A supermodel may have a penchant to not get out of bed “for less than $10,000 a day.” Rigby jumps out of bed at the crinkle of a wrapper. Cheyenne would beat him to it, if only she could.
A human definition of success is achieving wealth, respect or fame. I wonder how a Labrador’s dictionary might define it. Perhaps success is getting food, fun, and love every day.
As I’ve lived and learned from dogs, I’ve taken notes on the things they do better than me. It’s a long list of healthy habits (although I am not apt to adopt some of their worst tendencies — rolling in salmon carcasses, barking at moose or drinking out of the toilet.)
While I can get lost in thought or automation, the dogs seem to put themselves entirely to a task. They stretch and nap often, they don’t have unnecessary things, and they express gratitude without restraint.
Living and hunting with as many as 11 dogs at any one time have tested my limits. Those of us who work to train our canine partners to point, flush and retrieve often end up learning how to stop, look and listen.
The greatest gift dogs have given me is not the many birds they have brought back. I’m grateful for the game the dogs retrieve, but the more significant gift is their presence. I often find myself trying to see the world their way. I admire how they live simply in the moment without human worry, regret or fear.
While we watched Rigby and Cheyenne swim out to the birds that night at the lake, it was hard to say who was training who.
And, luckily, I did not have to retrieve those birds.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.