01/30/09 — Second-hand dog grabs owner's heart

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Second-hand dog grabs owner's heart

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on January 30, 2009 1:46 PM

His name was Santana with XVIII added to be AKC-specific. A man named Herman who sojourned in the U.S. acquired a girlfriend who acquired a black Labrador retriever as Herman's gift.

The girlfriend could never handle the black ball of energy or Herman the girlfriend. But because of out-of-date inoculations, the Lab couldn't fly home with Herman on plane to South America.

It was my wife Carol's birthday.

It had been a while since we had lost our previous Lab, Smitty, and I felt I couldn't handle another just yet. But after the second visit, Santana clinched the deal when he never gave up on retrieving a ball. He was already six months old and I could tell the class of retriever he was going to be with proper attention. A younger puppy, like a small child, gives no real clue as to what the adult will become.

The first day home, Tana "retrieved" some marsh hens tossed in the yard. Soon he was retrieving doves and ducks. But he was almost too much for me to train while raising a teenage son, so Tana went on vacation with trainer Jerry Simmons at Castle Hayne.

"There's something else in his pedigree you haven't seen," said Simmons. "He's not just a backyard bred dog out of Brunswick County."

Thirteen ribbons later, with a training regimen intended more for me than the dog, Jerry made us a team. From the Deep South to the Midwest, guides and hunters said, "If you can't come back, please send your dog."

The first time Jerry returned without a ribbon after handling Tana in a hunt test when I couldn't go, he said, "I wish I could have whatever it is you have with that dog."

Early in training, Jerry said Santana would never work for me like he did for him -- something about trainers and authority. He also said petting and lavish attention are more for the owner than the dog.

Santana continued to amaze and was invited to retrieve pheasants at preserves and tower shoots. We flushed wild pheasants, quail, woodcock and marsh hens and retrieved a thousand ducks, geese and swans. When Carol finally checked his pedigree on the AKC website she found Jerry's assessment was correct. The blood of field champions ran through his veins.

"Snake Eyes genes will give him longevity," said Jerry. "That's good because you only get so many years out of a Lab."

He was the dog we all needed. Jerry needed a Lab of Tana's caliber to train and I needed a dog like Tana for Jerry to train me. He said I was his only owner capable of handling a retriever like Tana. My son, Justin, was a teenager. Carol successfully surmised that training a dog and a teen at the same time would diffuse tension.

After a particularly contentious day, we all fell asleep in the living room. Carol was in her chair, Justin in his and I was sleeping on the couch. The television was murmuring background noise when I awoke to a paw petting my cheek. Santana was sprawled across the floor, sound asleep. His head was on his mama's feet and his hind foot rested on Justin's thigh. Despite the distance and the emotion-filled day, he had stretched himself as far as he could to connect us all in peace.

Santana and I traveled the world for 12 seasons, but were happiest hunting wood ducks at our farm. He retrieved a pair of woodies I shot from an impoundment. Then I sent him after another shot down in a greenbrier tangle.

He had never lost a duck that struck land. But this one was elusive. His mouth snapped at the duck's tail feathers as it ran through the briars like a quail, but Tana's shoulders couldn't slip through. With his reputation at stake, I wasn't going to give up as long as the dog didn't.

It took thirty minutes for that incredible nose to locate a root hole where the duck had gone aground. It took 30 more minutes for his teeth to rip roots as big as my wrist and dig the hole big enough for me to reach my arm inside to grab a wood duck that drowned itself rather than be caught by a Lab.

Two days later, Tana busted ice and briers chasing woodcock. The next day, he could hardly rise. Although he had showed signs of nothing but advanced age, a frantic day of bloodwork, x-rays and exploratory surgery found a tumor the size of a decoy.

We petted him while he laid his white-bearded chin in my hands one last time. I had to be a tough as Tana, to give permission to put the old boy to rest.

"Labs only live to 9 or 10," said Dr. Moore. "You're lucky he lived so long and hunted hard to the end. Hunting dogs like Santana have so much heart they don't let you know they're hurting. Then suddenly..."

I didn't hear the rest because my heart was breaking. We buried our water warrior on his bed at the spot where he had stood vigil during our hunts. Into his grave went a wood duck, a worn-out bumper and three smoking empties. At his final, three-shot salute, a pair of wood ducks flew from the swamp, the hen circling and squealing overhead.

He was latest in a line of second-hand dogs spanning more than 40 years -- dogs someone else couldn't handle because of the hunters' spirit coursing in their veins. Their names were Red, Jill, Danny, Buckshot Bill Island Point Red and Smitty. They all came to me with problems. But dogs are born perfect. It's what we do to them that creates problem dogs.

"You've had such great dogs because you like to mess with them," said Jerry. "Dogs do things for you because you expect them to do them and you know what they are capable of doing. They trust you."

I think I've had great dogs because I love them as much as I love the hunting days they give me. They say a dog can't love. But I say a dog is love.

Somewhere there is a puppy someone can't handle, black as midnight and chewing everything in sight. Perhaps he'll arrive at my doorstep like Tana and the others.

There's must be a sign across my heart that says -- "Wanted: Secondhand Dogs."