On a peg on a wall in a dusty corner of my workshop hang the collars and tags of some of the best friends I ever had. The collection started with the old leather collar of Sunshine, a brainy golden retriever who lived with us nearly a decade, long enough to help raise the children but not long enough to know them in her old age. She died early of cancer.
Then there's the red-web collar that belonged to Maggie, another golden who specialized in playing tug-of-war with children and putting away impressive amounts of Oreo cookies (and who is the star of a short story — still to be written but often told — called "The Dogs of Lakemont”). The blue collar of her playmate: a handsome, brave and none-too-wise westie named Mac. They engaged in hilarious faux fights, rolling around the floor with teeth bared and growling, but never seriously clamped down on one another. Mac was afraid of no one, and I believe he would have attacked a bear if he had ever had the opportunity. He wouldn't have won that fight but would have gone at it anyway, just for the sheer joy of tearing into something new and different.
Not long ago I put up the little red collar of Sadie, a gentle French Brittany spaniel who we had to put down just days before Thanksgiving after a long and happy run up here on Rocky Knob Farm. It has taken me this long to write about her, but I expected that. When Mac met her unfortunate end in the 90s after getting into a batch of splintery bones, and when we had to put Maggie down a year or so later of old age, we grieved for months that turned into years before we dared to bring on another pet.
Sadie came our way from a family down in Chatham County that rescued Brittanys, most of them the liver-and-white variety. The French Brittany spaniel is black and white, but Sadie had just a bit of amber in her topside hair, and an engaging clutch of it stuck up straight. We almost called her Spike, but that seemed disrespectful, and stuck with her given name of Sadie.
She had lived with an elderly gentleman in western North Carolina who became too sick to take care of her, and her foster family warned she might roam far and wide. She never did. Turned out, she liked living with us and rarely strayed out of sight up here on the farm. She would disappear for minutes on end, then reappear at the other end of the house or the far side of the garden or the other side of the barn. There was some photographic evidence of limited wanderlust, however; one of our hunters from Surry County sent me an email containing photos from his game camera down in our woods about 200 yards below my shop. There was a picture of two bears that appeared to be waltzing; several pictures of a part-albino deer, and the scariest of all: a French Brittany spaniel named Sadie, nosing around a patch of woods where the deer and the bear liked to feed.
A few years ago Sadie took sick. Went to the doc, went to the vet school in Blacksburg, and no one could diagnose what was wrong. The vets recommended exploratory surgery or preparing for the worst within as little as days if not weeks. We brought Sadie home and made her comfortable, started giving her forbidden treats from the dinner table, and three weeks later, after she had gained a few pounds, we realized we had been played. Sadie was trotting again, and soon running, eating at least twice a day, and there were a few more years of a lively, funny, loving dog on this farm.
Still, she was 15, and that's a mighty fine old age. She had slowed down last fall, and we knew. When we were gone on a trip, our house and dog sitter reported she was moving slowly, but she liked to ride in the car with the top down. Thus Sadie held court over north and eastern Patrick County — “Princess of the Parkway”— as friendly a dog as you will find.
By early November she was calling it in on some days — sleeping late, eating little, waiting for help getting up and down the three steps to the deck. A month or so earlier, she had been leaping up those steps. After seeing her throw herself onto the steps and sliding back down when she couldn't make the top, my heart broke a little for this proud dog who used to race us from the mailbox to the house — and win.
On her last day, I carried her out to do her business in the grass. Instead, she lay down, spread-eagled, eyes raised at me as if to say, "It's time." It was.
One day later this year, or maybe next, we'll go find us another dog in need of some farm life. Don't know when that will be. No rush, I guess. We've had four fine dogs who have graced and enriched our lives with their intelligence, heart, companionship and unconditional love. I suspect there'll be at least one more.