Labs I've Loved

Labs I've Loved

by Kathleen Panek

“When can we get a dog?” was a frequently asked question while the kids were growing up. Because I was sympathetic to their plea, they knew I was the only one who might be able to convince their dad to give in to his many objections. When Larry was young, his dad had dogs but they were strictly for hunting and never lived in the house, so he was certain that an indoor dog would make messes, chew on the furniture, and become extra work for me. For several years we sought to satisfy the kids with other, less problematic pets: gerbils, rabbits, a turtle, a parakeet. But cleaning the turtle tank or the rabbit hutch wasn’t exactly fun. And, besides, those were not the kind of pets who would be stationed by the back door waiting to give you a big, sloppy kiss.

Finally, worn down by the endless pleading, and anxious to rid himself of the “bad guy” image, Larry agreed to begin the search for a dog, the caveat being that caring for the animal would not be his job. Everyone swiftly agreed, promising to do their part.

We researched and debated various breeds. Dogs that were known to be friendly, good with kids, and non-shedders were at the top of my list, but I didn’t want a lap dog. Tiny dogs get on my nerves with their high-pitched yapping. I grew up with fox terriers and they were OK, but I had always wanted a “real” dog and in my book that meant a medium to large dog who had the stamina to accompany me on long walks. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that this dog would be around even after the kids left home and I would be the primary care-giver, so it had better be one I could live with. Fortunately, the kids were in agreement and we settled on the only breed that made sense—the Labrador Retriever.

Brenna came from good stock, many of whom had won prizes for obedience. What I didn’t know at the time was that genes don’t guarantee obedience; it comes with lots of training. With four kids to care for, dog training was hit or miss. I did my best, but Brenna’s behavior let me know that my best wasn’t good enough. Larry’s worries turned out to be right. Several incidents proved that Brenna couldn’t be trusted. One Sunday morning while we were at church, a corner of a tablecloth hanging over the edge of a table provided too much of a temptation for a bored puppy and by the time we returned home, the cloth had acquired several holes. That cloth still serves us well; we covered its holes beneath appliques made from a dress fabric from the 80’s. No one else has one like it!

Another incident involved a batch of birthday cupcakes intended to treat my son Evan’s kindergarten class. During our short morning run to drop off his siblings Nathan and Heidi at school, Brenna decided to indulge in the sweets, pulling them from the table and consuming almost all, even the plastic in which they were wrapped.

Then there was the day I was in a hurry to get to an appointment and hustled Brenna outside to do her business before I left. I saw the devilish look in her eye just before she took off and led me on a goose chase through the neighborhood. I chased her for thirty minutes, the whole time practically in tears for fear that she would race into the street and an oncoming car. I was right to be worried.

In spite of her behavior lapses, we loved Brenna, and didn’t know we would have only three years with her. While Larry and I attended a conference in San Francisco, a phone call summoned us to the front desk. This couldn’t be anything good. The friend who was supervising our kids was calling to inform us of the sad news of Brenna’s death. She had been playing football with the kids outside, ran off, and this time was hit by a car. A Good Samaritan had picked her up and transported her to the local SPCA where our eldest son Tristan had to identify her. We were devastated by the loss and assured our friend she was in no way at fault, but I bawled during the entire flight home. At Brenna’s expense we had learned a valuable lesson: dog training must be taken seriously. We wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

It was probably three years after Brenna died before I broached the subject of getting another puppy. The kids were a bit older and required less of my minute by minute attention and it seemed like the time was right . After we had located a reputable breeder and found a female black Labrador that was ready to be adopted, we piled into the car to bring her home. The kids were enthralled with the cute, cuddly fur ball and fought for their turn to hold the sleeping puppy on the way home.

As smitten as we were with Daphne, we were determined to have a well-behaved dog this time around. Obedience training began immediately, much of it supervised by our son Nathan, and our puppy was soon housebroken and obeyed the commands everyone expects of a dog. Unlike her predecessor, she could be trusted. There was no destructive chewing, she didn’t trespass the boundaries set for her, and if someone happened to leave food within reach we knew she wouldn’t touch it. She wasn’t perfect, but she was close.

And we had our adventures. While everyone else was in school Daphne and I enjoyed our long, daily walks on the trail that ran behind the middle school. Off leash she could explore to her heart’s content, swim in the creek, and chase squirrels. But there was a risk in letting her off the leash. Daphne loved kids so much that when she heard their voices on the playground, her ears perked up and for a few seconds you could swear she was weighing whether or not to join them.  Once, she just couldn’t resist the temptation. When I finally reached the playground out of breath from my frantic uphill climb, I found her having a grand old time alone, running the soccer ball up and down the field all by herself. Apparently, the teacher had given up and ushered the class back inside because no one could keep up with the dog. I hope he thought the incident was funny!

Labradors have a reputation for being good with children and Daphne was no exception. She was very affectionate and would tolerate almost anything from the kids, particularly reveling in snuggle time on the family room rug. I suspect she even thought of herself as one of the kids: knowing that there would be a Christmas present for her under the tree, one year she took the gift distribution into her own, uh, paws. While everyone was opening their presents, she belly-crawled into the living room and took a small one for herself. Unfortunately, she had no use for the earrings she unwrapped.

Probably our biggest mistake with Daphne was not taking her out in the car more often. She was never comfortable in the car, mainly because her rides ended at the vet’s office for either a checkup or boarding, and she spent the entire journey trembling in nervous anticipation. But she didn’t hold grudges. When we returned for her, all was forgiven and she couldn’t wait to get back in the car for the ride home.

One of the most distressing days of my life was her last. She was nearly sixteen, long-lived for a Labrador. Apparently, she had had a stroke overnight and was unable to walk or see. Her hearing had already been diminishing for some time. and it was obvious what needed to be done. Obvious, but heart-breaking. I sat with her, weeping, as the vet administered the drug that would help her relax but I couldn’t stay for the final moments of her life.

For months after her death, as I left our bedroom in the morning, I heard the click of her claws on the floor at the bottom of the stairs—my pal, waiting for breakfast and her first venture outside for the day. I still hear them. I loved that dog. Despite the shedding, the occasional rolling in raccoon poop just after she’d had a bath, and the accidents on the family room rug, she remains my all-time favorite pet. My heart would melt when she laid her head on my knee and looked up at me with those soft brown eyes as if to say, “Can we play now?”

A new generation of Labradors visit us now, Sadie and Gretl, the pets of our children. Watching them scamper and play takes me back to my days with Daphne, and I’ll bet it brings back good memories for the kids as well.


Featured in our May 2021 issue, "Re:collection"