Gus, Papoo and Dixie

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On this glorious Fall day, I simply can’t resist telling you all about our most prized Labrador Retriever, Miss Dixie. It wouldn’t be right if I told you about her without first telling you how she came to be part of our family, for before there was Dixie there was Gus; and if not for that precious dog we would never have known Dixie…. and that is something I just can’t imagine.

It all started 15 years ago when our neighbor’s Golden Retriever had an unplanned play date with a Black Lab down the street.  This resulted in several unexpected puppies that were ready for homes right around Christmas.  Back then, my husband and I had a six year old boy who dreamt of a dog to call his own; so it was a logical choice for us to adopt one of the pups.  The fact we also had a three month old daughter didn’t even register as a reason to say “no”.  So on Christmas Eve, after the children were nestled snug in their beds, Gus came to stay.  He was the superstar of Christmas morning and we all loved him dearly.  He had a sweet spirit and added so much to our family…….for about six months.  

When Baby Sister started walking, it wasn’t all that fun for any of us–especially for Gus–who was spending more and more time inside while the children played outside.  We were fortunate to have the big, flat backyard where all the neighborhood children gathered to play and Gus would watch sadly from the window just wishing for a chance to run around with everyone else.  He was big like a Golden Retriever but solid black with the face of a Lab.  He could not have been more loving and it broke my heart to keep him away from all the fun.  We tried and tried to let him play with the children but he had so much “puppy” in him and on the day he playfully pushed Sister down (face first) on the concrete driveway we knew a change had to be made.

Papoo and Bird Dogs

My Father-In-Law had raised bird dogs all of his life so when we were trying to make the right decision about Gus’ future in our family, we were all so grateful that “Papoo” stepped forward.  My in-laws lived south of town on several acres of land and already had one Lab, Katie, who kept them company. Papoo had suffered a stroke when our son was two and he didn’t hunt much anymore; but that didn’t take away from his love of the outdoors.  He still loved the idea of training a dog and the companionship that offered.  He graciously and willingly took Gus; and a long time friendship ensued.  Papoo’s truck rarely left the driveway without Katie and Gus in the back.  He took them on his daily drives to fetch the mail at the post office, to the grocery, anywhere and everywhere he wanted to go.  If it had been allowed, he would have taken them to church every Sunday.  

Katie went on to be with Jesus a few years after Gus showed up and Papoo’s friendship with Gus got even stronger.  They continued their daily adventures and once in a while Papoo would drive him up to our house for a visit.  Gus would come inside and lie next to Papoo’s feet while he watched Alabama Football or Atlanta Braves games on TV.  He adored Papoo and they were truly the best of friends.

Papoo and Gus

Once when Gus was really sick and couldn’t walk, we “Googled” ourselves to death trying to find out what was wrong with him. It was late on a Saturday afternoon and visiting the vet wasn’t an option. After much family deliberation we deduced through our combined expertise that he had either been bitten by a snake, struck by lightening or possibly gotten into some antifreeze.  The best treatment we could come across was to give him a cup of vodka.  I’m not kidding–V-O-D-K-A.  Please understand that I don’t recommend this treatment and would strongly caution anyone against giving alcohol to their dog. However in this case it worked like a charm–and it saved Gus’ life. 

We never figured out what he had gotten into or what had “gotten a-hold of him” that day.  All I know is this— after my husband laid in the grass next to him and spoon fed him a measuring cup full of Russia’s finest, he got up for the first time in over 12 hours, ate a huge meal and kept on trucking for several more years. Gus got all the best scraps after supper every night and he was an excellent guard dog.  He and Papoo were inseparable and I’m not sure who loved who more.

Many years later, when my son was a junior in high school, Papoo had a bad fall and was not able to recover.  We lost him early on a Friday morning and it’s a day I won’t ever forget. We were devastated–and that “we” included Gus.  Our family maneuvered our way through the next few days as all families do in these situations. We were consumed by flower deliveries, packed visitations, loving tributes, covered dish after covered dish and then everyone moved back into the lives they led “before”.  Everyone except Gus.  That dog truly mourned for Papoo.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  He would lie on the kitchen floor for hours. He wouldn’t eat.  He cried.  He searched the yard, stood by the truck, and never gave up the idea that his best friend was coming back to get him.  

Then, just three days before Christmas, he got out of the yard and sadly never came back.  Before this, Gus NEVER got out of the yard–he never even tried.  We all firmly believe he was going to look for Papoo. He had walked circles around the house and I have no doubt that he was making one last effort to find the best friend he loved so much as he ran down that long driveway and out into the street.  As if our hearts could stand to be broken any further, Gus was hit by a car.  He didn’t suffer, but we did.  We were glad Papoo and Gus were reunited but it was a jolt we just couldn’t process. 

The very next day, I made a big decision.  We were getting a dog for Christmas. A BIG dog.  A Chocolate Lab to be exact. It’s what my son had dreamt of (and begged for) for years. A dog to take to the hunting camp. A dog to ride around with him in his truck. A dog that could see someone cast a fishing pole with a quail wing tied to the end and know exactly what to do. NOT a dog that would fit in someone’s purse.

In the years after Gus moved away, we had filled his void with our “little dogs”. We had a poodle and a pomeranian and they were tons of fun but our son always longed for another Lab. All of the loss in the preceding months had put me in a perpetual life is short stage and I was bound and determined we were getting another dog. 

I know you shouldn’t make major life decisions when you are processing major life changes, that wasn’t going to stop me.  I didn’t say a word to my husband or anyone else, I just got out my computer and searched for “Chocolate Lab puppies in the Birmingham area.”.   I hit the jackpot.  I found a man down near Willow Point who’s prize winning hunting dog had given birth to a litter several weeks earlier.  There were only two puppies left; the female pick of the litter he was keeping and one male that someone was coming to look at that same day.  I hid in the closet so nobody could hear me on the phone and explained my situation to the very nice man. It didn’t hurt that his wife did not want him to keep another puppy; so I tugged on his heart strings a little talked him into letting me have the girl he had planned to keep.  

I loaded up my son, refused to tell him where we were going, and drove out to a little house in the middle of nowhere for the Christmas surprise.  We pulled up in the yard and the prettiest little dog you have ever seen came prancing around the side of the house. My normally somewhat stoic teenage son lit up like I hadn’t seen since Santa brought him a John Deere pedal tractor when he was three years old.

Dixie and Jake

Our entire family fell in love with Dixie immediately.  She was the best puppy I have ever seen.  Having little dogs, one gets used to cleaning up “accidents” even years after the puppy stage has long ended.  Not with Dixie.  She had very few accidents, immediately learned to sit, stay and walk with a leash. Her excellent breeding was evident early on and she could not have been any sweeter. It didn’t take long for my husband to start talking about the beautiful puppies she could have one day.  I thought about it for about 15 minutes and then quickly vetoed the whole idea.  I couldn’t let some strange dog take advantage of that sweet baby girl! I surely wasn’t going to take her babies away from her–mercy.  I made an appointment for her to be spayed and the vet actually volunteered to keep her overnight.  She knew I wouldn’t be able to keep her in the kennel for 24 hours–which is where she needed to be for a safe recovery.  I would have heard one tiny whimper and she would have been right in the middle of our king size bed. 

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I freely admit I indulged her.  We all did.  There was more than one occasion when she jumped up on the kitchen table (after it had been cleared) to clean the crumbs–and we let her.  We quickly put a stop to that for fear she might decide to try her trick during a dinner party but other than that; she didn’t hear “NO” very often. The little dogs slept in bed with us so we let her do that too.  She wanted to ride in the car, so we started taking her everywhere we went. On the rare occasion we couldn’t take her with us, she would stay home with a babysitter.

Once when we were heading to New Orleans for The Sugar Bowl, we had to board her. Our sitter was going to be out of town and we didn’t have anyone to stay with the dogs at our house. We gave serious thought to boarding the little dogs and taking her with us.  We stopped short out of fear someone might come in the room while we were at the game and something could happen to her.  We were in our hotel about 7 minutes when a man got on the elevator with us……and he had his Chocolate Lab with him.  I started crying.  Ridiculous I admit but what can I say?  Nobody loves me like Dixie does and I felt horrendous guilt. She hasn’t been boarded since.

After almost three years of living like the Queen of the Castle, something terrible happened.  My husband was coming home for the afternoon and had very kindly offered to stop at the grocery on the way in.  When he drove up Dixie and I walked out to meet him in the driveway and help with the groceries.  In the craziest freak accident I have ever seen or heard of, just as he stepped out of the truck, Dixie ran by excitedly and the corner of the truck door caught her in the side. She let out a high pitched yelp I had never heard before.  I knew immediately it was bad.  I ran to her in the yard and the gash was worse than I expected.  I turned to my husband and said in a very calm voice (okay, yelled in a panicked voice) we are going to the vet, NOW! 

We threw golf clubs and shotgun shells and boat paddles and Piggly Wiggly bags out of his truck and on to the garage floor.  We loaded her up in the back seat and  I called ahead to the vet.  They were waiting on the ready when we pulled in the parking lot and our sweet, precious vet stayed late to stitch her up.  It was so bad they had to put her under to repair the wound.  They sent us home to wait it out and I was in quite a state.  I chased my husband back to the truck as I hit him with the dog leash and I apologize to anyone who drove by and saw that spectacle.  I KNOW it wasn’t his fault…..but it was still his fault.  It was a mighty long 3 hours waiting on that phone call telling us to come pick her up.

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When we got there she was pitiful.  She came out groggy, confused and wearing the dreaded “cone”.  We got her home and Rick sat up all night with her in his lap.  The next morning as she came out of the fog it didn’t take long for her to be settled on our bed. It also didn’t take long at all for her to clearly announce she would NOT be wearing the cone.  That meant I would NOT be going anywhere for several days.  I didn’t mind.  We took turns watching her at night and I rarely took my eyes off of her during the days.  We finally figured out that a soft old t-shirt was a perfect foil for her desire to nibble at the wound.  She was a trooper waiting for the stitches come out but she is healed up quite well.  In no time at all you couldn’t even see the scars……the one on her side or the one on my heart.

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In the past few years this dog has filled a hole in our family that I didn’t even know was there. She has taught me about love, tolerance, forgiveness and patience in ways I never knew before.  When she chewed through the fabric on the custom sofa in our den, I didn’t even get mad. I simply had it repaired and flipped the cushion. She didn’t mean to be naughty, I just know it.  A few years ago when my daughter had the flu, Dixie never left the bed.  She would keep a paw across Sister’s back as she slept and stayed by her side for days.  When we need more firewood out on the back porch, she will run down to the wood pile and bring back a piece.

IMG_4710When my son comes home from college, she goes crazy.  She knows the moment his truck pulls in the driveway.  It’s as though she can sense it.  For the brief moments he is home, she follows him around like, well…like a lost puppy. Even when he takes a shower, she lies on the floor right outside the door until he comes out. When she sees us pick up an overnight bag, she runs straight to the car because she knows there’s an adventure ahead.  

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She often rides with me to the beach and she knows when I stop at exit 130 we are both getting a Bate’s turkey sandwich.  Even as I type this on this beautiful first day of fall, she is laying right beneath my feet.

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It may sound hokey but I have absolutely no doubt Papoo sent Dixie to us.  I think he knew we needed her even though we had no idea.  She has a sweet spirit, just like he did.  She has just a little mischief in her, just like he did.  She loves her family, just like he did.  She holds a special place in all of our hearts, just like he did…….just like he always will. 

As the temperature drops, the doves fly overhead and the sun sets on the fourth anniversary of Papoo’s passing, I felt the need to share this story.  I’m not really sure why;  I just did.

I have had pets my entire life and I have loved them all but I never realized it was possible to love a dog the way I love Dixie.  

Precious Miss Dixie, the dog who came to teach us all a few new tricks. 

In my opinion, if you’ve never had a dog, you’re not living a full life.