Losing a pet Lab hurts to the bone

January 10, 2002|By Bill Earls

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - The guy I feel for right now is Bill Clinton.

Buddy, the chocolate Lab retriever that went to the White House in 1997, about the time the president needed a real friend, was killed by a car last week.

Losing any dog hurts, but chocolate Labs - all Labs, I guess - have a friendliness, sincerity and work ethic that make them not just a companion but a soul mate. As I type this, my own chocolate Lab, Snickers, is resting under my desk - her customary spot when I'm writing. When I go into the kitchen for coffee, she'll come with me, watch me pour a cup, follow me back and assume her customary place under the desk.

This afternoon, when we go onto nearby trails, she'll race 50 yards ahead as I begin a warm-up jog, then she'll scout the area to be sure it's clear of dragons, monsters and squirrels, before sprinting back to sound the all-clear. She'll do that for the duration of the run, ducking out to the sides of the trail, looping back to be sure nothing is sneaking up on us; by run's end, if I've covered 3 miles, she'll have done about 6.

She's our second chocolate Lab. The first, Toby, joined our small farm 13 years ago, linking with our senior dog, Guinness, to keep us safe from squirrels, woodchucks and UPS trucks.

By day, they'd patrol our fence line, checking things constantly, accompanying me on every trip to cut firewood or patch fences. Occasionally bored with farm work, they'd slip the fence for the swamp behind the house and come home after midnight, muddy, tired and ready to spend next day hung over and sleeping.

Toby was massive, with a head like a bear's, but he intimidated only strangers. Although he was hell on woodchucks - one summer he killed six - I saw two 4-year-olds sit on him and pull his ears, and I had to rescue him before they hurt him.

I think Mr. Clinton saw that same combination of toughness and gentleness in Buddy, and everyone who saw them together responded to it. Buddy literally dancing as the president greeted him, racing ahead of him in joy as Mr. Clinton walked behind, Buddy flopping onto the couch beside a Cabinet member, insinuating himself into photo opportunities, glad just to be with someone he loved.

Maybe that was part of the appeal: White House staffers loved Buddy - he'd bound around, cadging food and accepting greetings from everyone - but he was Mr. Clinton's dog. And Mr. Clinton, though he couldn't be around as much as he might have liked, was always Buddy's best pal.

I know what that's like. Snickers is friendly to everyone at family gatherings and greets people we meet on trails. But she follows me everywhere. "Bill's dog," people say. It's nice to be loved.

Toby died two years ago as we ran trails, his favorite activity. He collapsed and literally died in my arms as I carried him into a mountain pond, hoping cold water would revive him. When I buried him in our backyard, I wept.

Contemplating the horror of Sept. 11, it's hard for some people to understand the pain of a dog's death compared to those of thousands of human beings. It's different, but it's real, too. And as I type this, with my own much-loved chocolate Lab at my feet, I want to echo Mr. Clinton's own words: "I feel your pain."

Because I do, and it hurts.

Bill Earls is a free-lance writer and a part-time college teacher. A similar article appeared Friday in the Hartford Courant.

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