by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
By some series of unfortunate events, I have had the pleasure (and the pain, and the chewed-upon sneakers and other various household items) of having three puppies in just over four years.
Puppies are marvelous creatures, especially when they are just being cute. But they are also hard work, and messy, and after four years of near constant puppyhood, I can honestly say there’s a very strong value and loveliness in a grown-up dog who knows how to sit, and stay, and is potty trained like a pro.
A few months after my husband and our youngest dog were killed in a car accident, our older dog, Freddy, let out a yelp one spring day and keeled over. My house was so quiet after that; there’s only so much company to be had by turning on the TV or radio when you get home. So, I found myself on the dog market, and then I found myself in a giant barn on the O’Neill Family Farm, half a dozen fat white puppies dozing in the hay. They were pretty much identical, and asleep, and other than the fact I decided I wanted a male, there wasn’t a good way to choose. Since he was snuggled up sleeping next to his sisters in the corner, I brought home the infamous Captain, and the rest is nearly history.
I’ve never had a dog like Captain. Even when he was little, he didn’t have much of the silly, exuberant, hyper energy to him that most puppies employ. He played, but he was cautious. Reserved. Solemn even. He was a livestock guardian breed of dog, a mix that most closely resembles the Great Pyrenees, and he carried the instinct of protecting and observing close to his heart. At our home, every time a train would rush by and shake the house, no matter what time of day it was, he would get up and position himself between me and the rumbling danger. He had a habit of trying to hide his left-over food, probably a product of competition among his 11 litter mates in the barn. One night, he was nudging his bowl around the room trying to get it under the couch, his favorite hiding spot, and he bonked it up against my banjo that was leaning against the wall. It made a banjo sound. He cocked his head, staring intently, then reached out a paw, hooking a string with a nail, and plucked. He did one of those happy, front feet little jumps in the air at the sound, still staring at the resonating device, and plucked again. I watched in wonder as my dog taught himself to play the banjo.
He was a happy, solemn little ham, who slept all day under my desk at work. But one day he started limping. First, they thought it was a torn ACL, which would require surgery. When we went in for the procedure, the vet took one look at his leg and said “That’s not a torn ACL. That’s a tumor.” To be certain, we tried several biopsies, and while we waited for the results, he got sicker and sicker. He wouldn’t eat — after awhile, not even the fancy stuff, not even human-grade meat. I would sit on the couch with him, hand-feeding him bites, begging him to just eat a little more, every night. And finally, after the last inconclusive biopsy, we couldn’t wait, and his leg was amputated.
It turned out it was cancer — bone cancer, which is very aggressive. We did chemo, and he did really well, gained weight, and was a very happy camper. But the prognosis was bad — it’s worse to get bone cancer when you are young, especially when you’re still a growing puppy. At most, we had a year, according to statistics. I started thinking about those days with just the TV and radio for company at home, started thinking about what I was going to do when Captain had to say goodbye. I knew I would get another dog, but I wanted to be certain to get a good one, a boy like Captain. And when the O’Neills announced they had another litter of little Captains, and that they weren’t likely to have another for quite awhile, I decided to bring home Anchor, Captain’s cousin of sorts.
Well Anchor was nothing like Captain. Where Cap was reserved and cautious, Anchor plowed along with clumsy puppy confidence. Where Captain was quiet, Anchor was loud. And where Captain was, for a large-breed dog, rather thin from his sickness, Anchor was a giant monster. He probably weighed 60 pounds at four months old. And as some of you have read on this page, he wasn’t much older before I lost him, too. The two got out one fall morning and ran through Merrick State Park as groups of duck hunters were packing up for the weekend, and Captain came home, but Anchor didn’t.
I looked for Anchor for a long, long time. I drove to the Canadian border on some grainy trail cam photos of a frightened stray dog who looked just like him. (It wasn’t him; it turned out to be a female who had been shot and who was terrified of people. But, she was finally captured and rehabilitated into a very happy young pup, and her name is “Traveler.”) But Anchor never came home, sadly, despite so many of you helping me look and giving me tips. And, sadly, last fall, Captain’s cancer came back, this time, in his only remaining back leg, and so we had to say goodbye. He lived for much longer than the best-case scenario, and he ate many a cheeseburger during those years.
So I found myself listening to the radio at night, looking for a new dog, and hoping that I would end up with a good one. Incredibly, I found another farm, this one with a litter of half Great Pyrenees, half Saint Bernard, right away. I brought home the runt, another boy, and my niece and nephew named him Axl.
He’s a pretty good kid. I wouldn’t say he’s solemn or careful, but he gives great kisses. And when I first brought him home, my friend Lexi and I went out to lunch at the creamery in Alma. We brought the little nugget along and sat outside in the sunshine, talking as the creamery workers came outside, one by one, to coo over the puppy. And a train went by, screaming its horn and shaking the building, and my little boy ran back to me, stood in front of me facing that frightening sound, and sat down. It was as though he’d read Captain’s playbook, and Lexi and I fanned tears from our eyes.