The dog found us—or we found him— I’m not really sure. He sat under a cedar tree by the side of the road on a morning in spring, his young body scarily thin. He had worn the dirt smooth under the tree, waiting for someone—for us —to take him home.
“He’s so pretty,” Sarah, my wife, said. “What’s he doing here?” But she knew, we both knew. This was in the country, a quarter-mile from our mailbox, no houses in sight, a place where people dumped deer carcasses, beer cans and unwanted dogs.
Sarah wanted to stop, but we were late.
“He’ll be there when we come back,” I said.
Somehow I just knew. So we didn’t stop.
Two hours later, he was still there. He came right to us hyper with joy, jumping and licking. He was nervous and unsure, but never really afraid. He had a perfect curl of golden tail, a velvety blond muzzle, and Labrador ears on a rounded Labrador head on an otherwise German Shepherd body.
When he shook, a string of drool whipped over his muzzle, a bridge of saliva across the bridge of his nose. When he leaned against us, he coated our clothes with dust, but we didn’t care. He rolled over and let us scratch his belly, and we knew he was ours, even though we already had two dogs, one who hated other dogs, one who attacked if we didn’t hold her back.
But this dog, this beautiful young male, was bigger than both of them. He could defend himself, if need be, and we could introduce them slowly until they got along.
We stood at the back of the truck petting his matted coat, feeling his ribs, getting to know him, when his name came right there on that first morning. “Jake,” I said, and he looked at me with those deep brown eyes as if to say, I’m yours, whatever the name, just love me.
“Do you want to go home with us?” Sarah asked.
He slobbered some more on her dress. He had knowledge of people—someone had loved him, a little at least, but not enough to put a collar on him with a phone number, and not enough to answer our “Lost Dog” ads. We figured that he’d become too large or rambunctious for whoever had dumped him. So he knew people, but not pickup trucks, not yet. He didn’t want to jump into the back, didn’t know how, maybe, even when Sarah climbed onto the tailgate, cajoling and calling. Instead, he just rolled back over and pawed the air. So I picked him up—me a stranger to him—and hoisted all of his 90 pounds into the bed, where he rode with Sarah the half-mile home to become part of the pack.
The “Find It” game quickly became his favorite. Jake would sit in the middle of the room in a stay, long strands of drool hanging from his lips and pooling at his feet. His eyes would follow Sarah as she hid treats behind the desk, on top of a chair and under a towel. Then she stroked his chest, holding his gaze before the release of “Okay, find it!” that sent him snarfing and sneezing and snorting out each treat, nosing up the towel, knocking over books, slobbering on the chair, sniffing until he found every one. Or we played the game with larger prizes: each other. I’d hide and Sarah would tell Jake to “Find Jim!” and off he’d gallop, his big paws thumping down the hall, sniffing me out as I stood behind a door. He loved to nose-dive between your legs to rub his happiness onto you, knocking you sideways with his joy.
Or he’d just stop halfway through, making you straddle his big body backwards, so that you had to pet him before he let you go. And then it would be Sarah’s turn to hide and be found and slobbered over.
Sometimes he found me when I didn’t want to be found. I’d be on my back, changing the tractor’s oil, and he’d come trouncing into the shed to lick my face. Or during hunting season; he knew what the gun meant when I cleaned it, just like he knew what the suitcase meant when we were about to go on a trip, and he’d hover close, hoping to go along.
Once, early on, I headed out to hunt and Sarah kept him in the house. I knew I couldn’t hike out—he’d definitely trail me—but maybe I could drive and he’d stay around the house like he did all the other times I left in a vehicle. So I drove the truck a mile away to the other side of the farm, parked and hiked to my stand. I sat for two hours before hearing a crashing through the woods, a huffing that sky-rocketed my heart rate like with any approaching deer as I turned slowly, raised the gun, clicked off the safety and sighted in the approaching dog—jesus—wheezed and released my breath and lowered the gun and clicked the safety back on and stared down at Jake, who by then was at the base of the stand, all grins at having found me, his front paws on the ladder as if he could climb and sit beside me on the little platform.
And he got his reward, for what else could I do but climb down, the hunt for that day ended. So I shouldered the gun and scurried down to hug the big bruiser and together, we hiked out of the woods and back to the truck, another reward. He loved that truck so much that he howled and sang as we drove around the farm, his nose high and taking in the wind. The whole time I heard in my head Sarah’s imagined Jakevoice, her voice going low, deep into her chest, saying, This is great! This is great, guys! Let’s do it again!
Sometimes he found things we couldn’t find, like wounded deer. We’d search for two hours for the blood trail that became clear to him in two seconds, and then we’d follow him at a run to find the dead deer. Sometimes he found things we didn’t want him to find, like skunks, or treed opossums, or the calf shit he so loved to eat and roll in.
Once he scented a bear and charged after it, only to have the bear charge back so that Jake and the other dogs ran to stand behind me. There I was, three dogs cowering at my feet, a young bear heading right toward us. I clapped and yelled, and that stopped the bear for a moment. He stood on his hind legs, all 250-or-so pounds of him, just 40 feet away. He tried to scent us but the wind was in the wrong direction. I kept yelling, standing my ground, the wrong thing to do. The dogs barked but didn’t leave my side. When the bear moved on, I grabbed Jake’s collar so he wouldn’t charge again and repeat the whole ordeal.
Jake knew other words, too, other commands, like “give,” which he understood on the first try. And he’d give even his most prized possessions, like a fresh deer bone or a groundhog he just killed. “Give,” I’d say, and he’d drop it at my feet.
But shortly after Rudy came to live with us, I almost didn’t want him to give. Rudy is the smallest dog we’ve owned—an 18-pound, black-and-white Boston Terrier mix—and it took a while for our three dogs to accept her. Eventually they did, or so we thought.
One morning, shortly after this pack-acceptance, we went on our usual walk. It was early spring, still cold, and because our neighbor’s cows were calving, we headed the other direction, away from the pasture. The dogs got lost, as they loved to do, off chasing a rabbit or fox, leaving Sarah and me to finish our walk alone. A half hour later, I looked down the lane and saw Jake, far away, walking slowly, tired from fighting or digging. He had something black-and-white in his mouth. Oh, shit, I thought. Not Rudy. Surely Jake, the most loyal and brilliant and kind dog we’d ever known, didn’t kill Rudy. I started to run. He kept walking toward me, wagging his tail. I couldn’t make out what he held in his mouth—the coloring was right, but I saw no head, just black-and-white fur, a shaft of it like her little body. When I got close enough, I shouted, “GIVE!” my heart not wanting to slow but then doing so as I laughed and cried and hugged him. At my feet, he dropped—not Rudy, thank god, not Rudy—but the black-and-white leg of a calf born in the night before our neighbor could rescue it, a calf that died because it froze—maybe its mother abandoned it or it rolled under the fence out of her reach—a calf that Jake found and tore off the front leg to bring home and give to me.
Soon after, Rudy and the other dogs came running down the hill, blood on their lips; they too had found the calf. Rudy was happy to be part of the pack, jumping up to lick Jake’s lips before he growled as if to let her know Enough! You’re one of us just because Jim and Sarah say so, but that doesn’t mean you can lick me.
Whatever the season, Jake always found the best spot to lie, like high on a porch so he could watch us while we worked in the garden below. In the house, he would often lie in the middle of the hall, blocking it, his nose in the kitchen, eyes following Sarah as she worked.
Or on movie nights, he joined us on the small sofa, Sarah and Rudy and I squished at one end while Jake sprawled over the entire other half. At “intermission,” when we ate popcorn, he jumped to catch a piece and covered the floor with drool.
When I was away, Jake stayed by Sarah’s side to watch her, moving with her from kitchen to bedroom (he knew the word nap) to bathroom to basement, where he would lie under and between Sarah and her cello as she played.
Or at the end of the day, when I stretched out on the floor with Rudy on my chest, Jake would lie down so close that I had to scoot sideways before he settled; otherwise he’d sit on my face. Always, he found a way to make his long body nestle against mine.
How many words did he know besides find it and give? Come and sit and wait; no and yes and by me; okay and supper and easy; walk and w-a-l-k and Milwaukee, as in “Do you want to go to MilWAUKee today?” He knew Jake and Jim, Sarah and Rudy, Becca and Little B; Let’s go home and mole-in-the-hole, treat and Go to the basement, busy and Kennel in the truck, and always after he did well, Thatta boy, good boy. He knew questions, like Where’s your man, man? Or Popcorn, you want popcorn? while we cranked the old-fashioned kettle, the kernels loud. And at the end of the Find It game, he knew to stop sniffing when we brushed our hands and told him, No more, Jake. All gone.
No more Jake, all gone.
No more half-sideways-half-backward jumps, his gangly body not knowing what to do with itself, so excited to get his food.
No more chest-deep gruff-gruffs from dreamland, where his paws danced as he ran after bunnies that never got away.
No more scratching his blond muzzle that turned gray and then white. Or the soft ears he didn’t really want petted, until the end, when he just wanted to be touched. I’d find the sweet spot under his chin or on his chest or, best of all, the one beside his “noogie” on the soft hairless stretch of his belly, a touch that brought such pleasure that his panting eased and he closed his eyes and sighed a deep sigh.
No more looking back as we head down a path, him leading the way but also checking on us, waiting at the fork to see which way we’d turn, waiting until we pointed, his eyes always scanning, and always that glance over his shoulder, that connection as deep as love can go.
If, before he died, we had had a chance to switch roles, what would Jake have told me to find? What would he have said?
Maybe this: Find your trail and follow it. Hold nothing back, even your grief, because grief is love and what is love if you don’t lick its face every time you find it?