We got him when he was a year old, heading for two, confirmed in all the good and bad habits that make yellow labs so memorable. His given name was Forrest Gump, after the academy-award winning film, earned because of a broken leg incurred as a puppy. When he arrived at our home some six years ago, he ran with a slight limp, but nothing worse than his new master’s arthritis.
And when he ran, he ran and ran and ran. His noble head and face looked a bit too big for his body, which was very strong, but he attracted favourable comment wherever we walked. He proved friendly to human beings, to other dogs, and especially to people with food. Our previous dog, Tuborg the Dog, had lived to fifteen, loving people, rides in the car, and food. He did not like birds, other dogs, and anything with wheels. Tuborg knocked more than one skateboarder and inline skater onto his keister, and (poor eyesight, perhaps) made like a wolf when he viewed a perambulator from a block or two.
Both Tuborg and his successor early earned kudos for their ability to eat anything and everything--and survive. In his first month with us Tuborg took care of five individually wrapped Nanaimo bars and lived to tell the tale. A decade later, meanwhile, Forrest Gump, opened and ate a poorly placed, double-deck Laura Secord box of chocolates. On both occasions the vet informed me that I was lucky to have retrievers—they were, he advised, “garbage guts.”
I showed my displeasure with the dogs, and later, discussing the Laura Secord incident with my daughter, received the advice “not to get mad at your dog, dad. He’s only a dog.”
Good advice. I’ve practiced a Spockian philosophy of understanding since that conversation, and even when pressed, now maintain a demeanour as calm as a placid lake in early August. My partner, Roberta, endures the shedding that turns the interior of our leased Chrysler from grey to camel, and we both smile at Forest when we come home and find him lying like Cleopatra on the living room couch.
Despite my owning a “Run, Forrest, Run!” and “Stop, Forrest, Stop” T-Shirt, Forrest Gump became “Forest,” shortly he arrived at our domicile. More distinguished, Roberta said. Like his predecessor he bonded quickly (about fifteen seconds), and his bark quickly served as a doorbell for this child of a lesser god. As I moved through my sixties and into retirement, I found Forest a wonderful goad, always ready for a walk (ranking alongside food the other big part of his small brain), all the better to sniff the day’s newspaper, the ground and all else.
Yes, the yellow lab species is in fact a nose, surrounded by the body of a dog. That nose is super-powerful, hence the lab monopoly with the federal anti-drug racket at airports. The trouble with Forest, however, lies in the indiscriminate character of his olfactory power.
Like Tuborg the dog before him, Forest is a Labrador non-retriever. When I throw something for him to fetch, he runs up to it, sniffs it, and then keeps running—sort of like the dog in Chevy Chase’s film, Summer Vacation. But when he gets something into his small brain and it sticks, woe betides anyone who gets in his way.
Having established Forest’s species, I now move to assess this dog’s behaviour, best defined as idiosyncratic. When I first dove in the lake at our summer cottage, he dove in right on top of me. My life hung briefly in the balance. Again, I have had to find kind words when he raked my face with a dive on top of me, and I suspect that he explained that he was only trying to make sure that I was OK. He was playing lifeguard.
Tuborg had enjoyed a special kind of relationship with the cottage lake and property. An alpha-male, he did not concede any part of the area to large birds, snakes, porcupines, or raccoons. On numerous occasions he would suddenly dart from a sitting position where we swim, his tail swirling, and rush through the forest to a point where a great blue heron stood. Of course the heron took off, and Tuborg returned, king of the hill, but without the bird. On several other occasions, Tuborg noted loons about fifty yards from shore. He dove in, swam mightily, and got to within a first-down’s length or so, and then the loon dove.
And Tuborg swam round and round looking back at us on the rocks, as if to inquire, “where did that bird go?”
Tuborg never learned that he could not catch a heron or loon. He had the same problem with the crows that dive-bombed him at Queen’s Summerhill.
Forest does not have that difficulty. He could care less about birds. When we fed a family of geese off the shore a couple of years ago, he was more interested in the bread than the birds.
No, Forest’s favoured pastime at the cottage is fishing, literally. He spends a lot of time in the water and has been known to bat a small bass or two out of shallow depths.
More problematic, bonded totally to his master, he stands at attention when that fisherman casts from the shore. Then, despite the instructions learned so well in dog school a couple of years ago, he decides that he can do a better job than the pole holder. Invariably he slowly wades in and swims around and around, coming back to check in, and—despite my warnings—showing unhealthy interest in the hook and lure. When I am lucky enough to catch a fish, he’ll catch it before I bring it in, or catch it again when I throw it back.
And then when it inexorably escapes, he swims around and around again, wondering how that fish disappeared.
Truth be told, I catch few fish in the best of conditions. And I throw most everything back. Clearly, I get my main enjoyment from enjoying the gorgeous summer days and watching my dog Forest focus mightily, as he never focuses on anything else (save dinner), deriving his own brand of pleasure from the piscatorial challenge.
Geoff Smith taught history and kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University for thirty-seven years. He has been known to bark at dogs, and they to bark back at him.
This article appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard 22 August 2007.