In 2005, two little yellow furballs came home with me from separate breeders, and the legends of Ryder and Bella began. Bella came home in May and Ryder came home in October. Both puppies had all the potential in the world and would make any Labrador Retriever owner proud.
But, one thing that never crossed my mind was that dog years are not equal to human years and that the time would come all too soon when I would have to say goodbye. Thankfully, that is not the case yet. Ryder and Bella both entered their fourteenth year, but they are beginning to show their age.
Ryder is getting long in the tooth and is having difficulty getting up and down in his crate. Bella has slowed down considerably, but she can still run when the spirit moves her.
But, what strikes me more is that our dogs are only here for a little while and they were not meant to spend our lifetime growing with us. If that were the case, the best hunting dogs would still be learning their trade at 20 years old, and some of our police dogs would take 25 years to meet the requirements of the academy. As it is, the best dogs are pros at three and retired at ten; the prodigies are pros at 18 months and continue to set the tone for others in their breed until they are 12 to 15 years old. Those dogs are ones destined to be called, ‘once in a lifetime’ dogs.
Are Ryder and Bella ‘once in a lifetime’ dogs for me? No, because I have been blessed with several dogs who were unique and exceptional in their own ways.
Tar was the first dog in my life, and she started my lifetime love affair with the Labrador Retriever breed. Dad picked her up in February 1970 before I was born in May of that year. Tar and I grew up together, and she taught me a lot about life and responsibility. She was my first hunting dog, and she taught me a lot about life. At 16, her body and spirit gave out just as I was learning to drive. It would’ve been the perfect time for her to teach me to hunt ducks on my own. For 16 years, Tar was a fixture in my hometown and the only dog that was grandfathered into the leash law. After we moved to town, every morning after I went to school, she walked downtown to my father’s business and kept watch at the back door until it was time for me to get home from school. Then she would make the walk back home in time for school dismissal. Her lesson for me was loyalty and her dog years were far too brief, but she left a lasting impression on me.
Brittany was the next pup I picked. She wasn’t purebred Labrador like Tar, but she had her own place in my heart. Her dog years were filled with apartments and college and finally, Mason Pro Rodeo. I went to work for the Masons in 1995 and moved to Gainesville, Florida. Brittany and I lived the life of a cowboy for a couple of years before she was hit by a car and killed. On the ranch, she was never confined, and she learned to herd cattle with the best of them.
From black Labs to yellow Labs, when I finally moved back to North Carolina after my travels to Florida and Tennessee, I picked out a yellow bundle of fur. She was Maggie.
She would be my protector and my buddy for only a few short years. She lived in the house I owned on Ford Street with me and is the only dog that I have allowed to sleep in the bed. She didn’t like the water, and she definitely had some noise issues, but she made up for both shortcomings with her ability to bring me a beer from the refrigerator or deliver a coke and smile to any guests. For five years, she lived and worked with me, and we made a formidable pair.
Then, after several years without a dog, I decided that I needed another one, but not just anyone. I wanted a Labrador that would hunt ducks and that I could field trial. I picked out Bella in Rockingham and at six months old sent her to a professional trainer to learn the ins and outs of the retriever game. While she was away at ‘school,’ I figured out that I needed ‘another’ one and Ryder came along. With Ryder, I trained him myself, and we learned what it meant to be a team. Dad and I talked a lot about wanting to hunt quail and other upland birds. In November and December, we found a hunting preserve in Statesville and a love affair flamed for Ryder and I. The thrill of the hunt; finding birds with his nose and flushing them to flight became his passion.
Meanwhile, Bella was being schooled in hunting ducks and playing the HRC Hunt Test game. Bella earned her Started Hunting Retriever title, but her unwillingness to handle doomed her progression into the Seasoned and Finished ranks in the hunting retriever world. Well, that ended up being a blessing because she too blossomed as an upland flushing dog. Both dogs for the next several years tore up the National Upland Classic Series and the Bird Dog Challenge tournament trails. In 2008, Ryder won the National Upland Classic Series National Championship, and Bella earned the Quail Unlimited Flushing Dog of the Year title. These two dogs taught me the meaning of try and that we never stop learning, and that is what I will take with me when their time comes to cross the Rainbow Bridge.
Dog years are too short. I wish we could spend more time with those four-legged friends that give us so much joy, but alas God gave them faster body clocks so that they would be ready, willing, and able to serve us quickly. That dogs are a man’s best friend is an understatement. Dogs are more than just our best friend. They are the confidant whom we share our darkest secrets. They are a bundle fur to cry into when life becomes too difficult. They are the hero of the day on occasion. While some say they are ‘just dogs,’ any dog lover knows better.
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