Tulliver came to us as a rescue looking for a new home. He immediately bonded with my soul dog, Tadcaster, who was coming out of remission with an aggressive variant of malignant lymphoma. Both red dogs thrived on the relationship, with Tadcaster seeming to take the younger dog under his wing. When Tulliver was having a difficult time getting a cottage cheese container to hold still so he could reach the few remaining treats at the bottom, Tadcaster took the container from him, demonstrated how to use paws to keep it in place, then nosed the treat back to Tulliver. Tulliver would then emulate the older dog.
The two red dogs were inseparable in the three months before Tadcaster lost his battle with cancer. Both were driven to capture errant tennis balls and Frisbees, were much more athletic than my blonde dogs, and tended to listen to me but not my wife.
With Tadcaster gone, Tulliver noticed there were two other dogs in the house. He played with them, but became much more focused on me. His goofy side came out, and still grieving from Tadcaster’s loss, I cherished the similarities in the two dogs. I try never to compare dogs, as each has his or her own personality and it’s unfair to expect a newcomer to compete with a ghost, but in this case it was easy to love Tully as he had adopted so many of the traits I held dear.
I decided to give Tulliver a sidecar tryout. He did okay, but clearly his interest was in being with me and he found no joy in the ride. Where Barley found the world around him endlessly fascinating, Tulliver was simply bored, waiting not so patiently for the next opportunity to chase a ball.
He cuddles well, sleeping stretched out by my side on the bed, but Tulliver is essentially a ball fanatic. He will retrieve it till my arm is too tired to throw, then happily chew it for hours.
Backyard breeders have taken a lot of flak in the dog world, justifiably so for those who treat the pups as a cash crop. But painting them all with that same broad brush is inappropriate. Some truly love the breed but are just not into the politics and time requirements of showing. Our friend, Charlotte, from North Bay, Ontario, was such a breeder. She did her homework, carefully researching available studs to mate with her very sweet and athletic girl, Maia. She and her husband had raised phenomenal children in a loving home, so when one of her pups was available we jumped at the chance.
Charlotte used colored collars to differentiate the pups. One of the boys had a blue collar. Collectively they were summoned with a cheerful, “Pitou, Pitou, Pitou!” (Little One in French) Later, when the blue boy became a kisser, she called him “Bisou” (French for Kiss). All these names rhymed, so of course we needed to find a name the puppy would respond to. We settled on Kazoo because in addition to kissing he made a variety of musical notes.
Kazoo is, and has always been, a delight. He had the shortest puppy stage of any dog we’ve ever shared our lives with, growing quickly into adolescence and then into adulthood. He started going white around the muzzle before age two and by five his entire face, shoulders, and rump had gone white. He grew very large by golden standards, and by his second year weighed 92 pounds. But despite that size and a booming bark, he has been from the beginning an extremely sweet and intelligent dog. When Tamara taught him to retrieve her slippers, he quickly learned to hide them so he could play the hero by “finding” them for her. He retrieves all the food bowls at chow time, sometimes stacking them together and bringing all of them at one carry. He remembers where the ball was left outside, or where a squirrel was last seen. He is our early warning system, letting us know with a very impressive, very deep WOOF! if any animal, person or vehicle is passing by.
For all that he is not a particularly brave dog. He hunts mice in the field, but until Barley’s passing would invariably lose them to the smaller, more aggressive hunter. And should a rodent a fraction of his size stand its ground, a woodchuck for example, Kazoo will back away where Barley would charge in and crush its skull without hesitation. Kazoo loves water, and will lay down in any puddle no matter how small or disgusting it is. He also has a comically bad sense of mouth to eye coordination, missing virtually everything thrown his way. He also has the most finely tuned senses of hearing and smell of any dog we’ve had. You’ve probably seen videos of wild foxes leaping in the air and diving nose first into snow to hunt mice. Well, ninety-two pound Kazoo does that as well…and more often than not comes up with a mouse! He loves rough play and looks quite ferocious with his long fangs.
In his seventh year we brought a puppy into his life. And in raising Glenlivet from a sharp-fanged bundle of fluff to an intelligent and well-adjusted young dog, Kazoo has shown the patience of a saint. In fact, we sometimes refer to him as Saint Kazoo, the Patron Saint of Puppies.
Kazoo is not a fan of travel. He tolerates short sidecar rides but is physically too large to fit comfortably. In the car he generally lays down with an “Are we there yet?” expression. He is a homebody, loves his mother most of all, and is content to sit in the yard surveying his personal domain when he is not stretched out on his favorite piece of furniture. At his size, he takes up the entire piece of furniture!
Tadcaster came to us as an eight week old pup, an example of a field golden to round out our pack of blondes. The idea was to have on the ground examples of the various types and personalities of golden retriever. By watching how potential adopters interacted with our own dogs, we got a better idea of what they were actually looking for in a rescue.
A few years earlier my mother-in-law had been watching as I groomed Tetley, my previous red dog, in the living room of our home. “That dog really loves you,” she observed. It was like she had flipped a switch and illuminated the room. I looked at Tetley in a whole different light after that, giving more of myself, strengthening a bond I hadn’t even known existed till Gretchen’s offhand comment. Two years later he was dead, taken from me by a cancer all too common among golden retrievers: hemangiosarcoma. No dog could possibly measure up after him, so I had extremely low expecations when Tadcaster entered our home.
But he quickly wormed his way into my heart…
He followed me everywhere, that big red dog of mine, always with a paw on my thigh or a head on my shoulder. He rode in front of me on the ATV, quickly learning that pushing on the throttle made us go faster. He was best friends with Tuppence the Wonderbitch, and when she was confined to a pen during her recovery from knee surgery he would use his nose to push a tennis ball to her.
Tadcaster was lost to an aggressive variant of malignant lymphoma at the age of five. It was a bitter loss for me, equally bitter for Tuppence. As I buried my dog in the family plot located in our meadow, little Tuppence dropped a tennis ball into the grave, took several steps back, and let loose a long, mournful howl. She had never howled before and never did so again, but in those few seconds she gave voice to all the grief in the world.
I first saw the sidecar that would be mine at the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America rally in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was attached to a 2007 BMW R1200GS, a virtual twin to the bike I already owned. This meant I already had the tools needed to wrench on it, already knew how to perform routine maintenance on the bike. The Hannigan sidecar was a sleek fiberglass affair painted a bright metallic yellow with the bike painted to match. The design included a clamshell lid with a high rim that, to my mind, was more dog safe than the traditional hacks with the step-through tub.
I returned to Vermont with sidecars on my mind. I investigated other brands, but while I found them attractive I always came back to the sleek lines of the Hannigan. A year later the gently used rig from Tennessee went up for sale. I put a deposit on it immediately. The dealer asked to use it one last time as a static display at the Americade Rally in Lake George, New York. Bonus for me! Americade was just a few hours away from my home, while the Hannigan factory was located in far away western Kentucky; I quickly agreed to meet Dave and Ruth Ann Hannigan at their motel as the rally was wrapping up.
The plan was to enjoy a leisurely trip in perfect weather, with me taking to the feel of piloting a sidecar as naturally as I’d done with motorcycles four decades before. The reality was a harrowing ride home in driving rain, herding a rig that seemed intent on ignoring my efforts to stay in my lane, leaving me wondering if I could turn around and get my money back! Puddles at the side of the road seemed to pull me toward the drainage ditch, roadway debris was difficult to avoid with an extra wheel to worry about, wind and crowning of the pavement seemed to require an awful lot of strength to compensate for, and steering was about as easy as doing figure eights in an antique truck with flat tires up front.
But after a hundred miles or so the sun came out, the wind dropped off, and I began to sense a very different type of thrill. It wasn’t fast, it didn’t lean, handling was not effortless, but there was a certain coolness to navigating the roads of Vermont in a vehicle so different!
Thus was born the crap-eating grin.
There were no sidecar classes in New England, and the thought of driving my new rig one thousand miles to learn how to drive it properly didn’t sound like a very good plan. I figured by the time I arrived at the class I’d be pretty good. So I bought The Yellow Book, a sidecarist’s bible, studied the lessons and practiced endlessly in the parking lot of our local high school. When I felt fairly proficient I convinced my wife to don her helmet and ride with me, but it didn’t work out.
I found her screams somewhat distracting.
It was time to train the dogs to ride with me. I had four goldens at the time. My hope was that Tadcaster, who had just been diagnosed with an aggressive variant of lymphoma, would take to it like a fish to water and we’d have one adventure together before I lost him. But even though Tadcaster loved riding with me on our ATV, he was terrified of this rig. I tried Tulliver next. While he was comfortable on the dog bed, the moment the clamshell lid was closed he would try to claw his way out. Not good. Next came an abortive attempt to convince 18 month old Kazoo that this was a real treat, but at that age he had zero interest in anything he couldn’t eat or hump. That left Barley, the runt of the pack and my last hope.
“Hey, Barley! Wanna go for a ride?” I asked, kneeling next to the rig holding the lid up. He jumped right in and sat facing forward behind the windshield like a natural. I clipped him in and closed the lid while he smiled happily. I started the engine – no change. I slipped into gear and pulled slowly forward to the edge of the driveway; he looked at me and wagged. I pulled out onto our dirt road intending to check our mailbox at the start of the pavement a quarter mile down the hill. Barley did just fine, peering ahead to look at the world with interest, noting every bird and rodent along the way, so I kept going. We passed the nearby Trapp Family Lodge where tourists pointed and took his picture, introducing him to celebrity.
He did just fine.
For the next couple of months we did training rides every day. They were short at first, with frequent stops for treats or play. Rural Vermont is extremely dog friendly, and many merchants keep treats behind the counter. Barley quickly memorized the good spots and gave me the evil eye if I passed any one of them. “There’s bacon in that building you just passed. HELLO!”
The cancer took Tadcaster in early Spring. He took with him a mountain of joy. Barley felt it too, as Tadders had been his constant playmate. We needed to recharge, he and I, so set off on our first multi-day trip, a trial run of sorts to iron out the bugs and find our shared rhythm of the road.
Tuppence the Wonderbitch joined our core pack when Molson was in his prime, and when Ragtag Golden Retriever Rescue first began to specialize in the rehabilitation of badly abused goldens. She loved me from the start, and remained absolutely devoted to me her entire life. Though she got along just fine with male dogs, she took an active dislike to other females and became so, well – bitchy – around them that we found ourselves reluctant to rescue girls.
She became the protector of baby chicks, and as they grew up was often surrounded by her flock. But she could also be quite unladylike, rolling in mud and wrestling with her brothers. At a young age she blew out her cranial (cruciate) ligaments and had surgical repair of both knees. We had a board-certified orthopedic veterinary surgeon perform a TPLO on one side, but were so put off by his utter lack of caring that we had the other side repaired by our local vet using the traditional ligature method. The TPLO healed more quickly, but after a year we could tell no difference between the sides, and she had no orthopedic problems for the rest of her life.
Tuppence was a ball fanatic. Her favorite toy was a junior sized soccer ball, closely followed by a Frisbee. She would chase both endlessly. Generally submissive among her packmates, she reacted with fury if one of them was attacked. When Molson, our magnificent Alpha male, was nipped by a squirrel he had run down, it was Tuppence who raced to the scene and shredded the offending rodent. And when a tourist’s uncontrollable Jack Russell terriers ran onto our porch and attacked Glenfiddich, it was Tuppence who sent both back home bleeding.
She lived a month after being diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma. We went for a slow hike the day before she passed, and on the morning of her last day I knew she was bleeding. Her belly was hard and her gums very pale. I worried about her all day, and left work early to be with her. As I stepped out of the truck all my males ran to greet me. Little Tuppence staggered out the door and collapsed at my feet. All day she had waited by the door, bleeding internally, waiting for me to come home. She died in my arms.
Molson slipped oh-so-gently across the bridge on a brisk September morning, bathed in autumn sunlight and held in my arms. We had a long chat while waiting for the vet to join us outside, and while he couldn’t hear me because of his deafness, for the first time since he came to us he looked right into my eyes and held my gaze with steady confidence. When the vet arrived he bared his fangs just once, briefly, as if warning the man not to harm his Dad, then lay his big white head in my hands and closed his eyes as I kissed his face, dignified to the end, the way a dog should go…
He is buried in our family graveyard, slightly uphill from Tetley, Glenfiddich, Harley, Oliver and Mercedes because he was, afterall, Ragtag Golden Retriever Rescue’s Alpha male.
You wonder, up until the final breath, if you’re doing the right thing. If your friend has a few more weeks of quality life left. In Molson’s case the fact he slipped away when only a tiny fraction of the sedative had been injected told me the timing was right, that there was just a bit of wag left in the dog. My only wish is that he had come to us as a pup and known nothing but love in this life. But hard as his first years were, he found love and purpose, which is a lot more than most dogs can claim.
Molson came to us 11 years ago when a no kill shelter a few counties over called us with a problem dog. Molson, aged 4, with a vague history of being a stud in a puppy mill where he was controlled with cattle prods, had bitten a child in the face in his first foster home, then bitten and nearly killed a cocker spaniel pup in his second adoptive home. Because goldens are considered by so many to be warm and friendly dogs, the danger of an aggressive golden was, in our opinion, an unacceptable risk for the breed. So we drove to St Albans intending to take him directly to our vet to have him euthanized.
But the entire trip took place in a wicked heavy blizzard and our vet, being an avid skier, was on the slopes by the time we got home. We had stopped for fast food on the way, and when I offered Molson a few fries he took them with exceptional gentleness. I’ve been around troubled dogs for a while, so felt confident taking Molson for a snowshoe walk (on a tight lead) while waiting for the vet. Before long I realized that this beautiful dog was terribly afraid of me, wincing every time I reached down to pat his head. He was also moderately well trained and loved tennis balls. I had a pom-pom on top of my ski hat; once as I bent down it shifted and I noticed Molson opening his mouth and starting to lunge as if to catch a ball. Could that be what happened with the child? And biting an eight week old puppy who had been curled up in his belly at night? I rolled Molson in the snow and sure enough, there were puppy fang marks on his penis. Heck, I would have bitten too!
When the vet finally called back I had decided to neuter the dog and watch him carefully for a few weeks before making a decision. During the post-op recovery period I slept with him on the floor; it was obvious he had never been treated with kindness before. He really didn’t know how to handle it. If he curled his lip at me he was immediately Alpha rolled…and I can snarl into a furry throat with the best of them! So he controlled his aggression out of fear of me, but openly snarled at everyone else, including my wife.
I’m not sure why I tolerated it other than he was VERY good with our other dogs, Mercedes and Glenfiddich, and had a marvelous way of breaking up fights without causing any injuries. He had very large fangs and in his prime was heavily muscled. He fought like a wolf, but backed off the moment the opponent submitted. Watching his behavior I could only wonder what sort of abuse he had suffered before finding us.
About six months later he reached the conclusion that I was the best thing in his life, and started obeying out of something other than fear. That was also the point at which he became very protective of me. Raise your voice or gesture wildly in my presence and he’d sit on my feet baring his fangs at the threat and sounding like Cujo. He had the most colorful canine epithets I’d ever heard! More work, more training, and he reached the point where he would face a threat to give a warning growl, but fall silent the moment I acknowledged him.
After a year he expanded that protective nature to include my wife, protecting her from possible threats. And at that point we started bringing other rescues into our fledgling program, noticing with surprise and delight that he would not allow a dog to be aggressive in any way toward us. So instead of rescuing just any golden, we started specializing in abused dogs, fear biters, dogs that wanted nothing to do with humans. And Molson set the rules. In the rigid structure of his pack dozens of abused dogs were socialized, learned the rules of canine etiquette, learned to trust people and went on to good homes. Should they display fangs or any other signs of aggression toward us, he’d wade in with that beautiful tail flagging, that big chest puffed out, and all fangs bared as if to say, “None of that crap with THESE humans!”
He saved my life one winter when I fell down an icy well-shaft head first and couldn’t get out. The waterline to our home had frozen, so I was forced to get water the old-fashioned way one bucket at a time. The well was about 200 yards from the house, and with my head five feet down just above the water level I had little hope of Tamara hearing me at home. But then I heard Molson snarling above as he pulled me to safety by the cuffs of my pants. (Tamara later told me Molson had been resting in front of the woodstove and suddenly went berserk, hurling himself at the plate glass windows repeatedly until she opened the door out of fear it would shatter.)
When Molson was 7 or 8 he started trusting most people, saving his snarls for those who looked untrustworthy or anyone who made aggressive moves toward the pack. He actually went belly up for a few people, mostly women, and loved anyone who scratched his butt. And at that age he started touching me anytime I was within reach. A paw on the shoulder, a head on my lap, or his entire body draped over my feet. By 10 he was an absolute mush of a dog, assuming people were decent unless they acted inappropriately.
And that pretty much characterized the last five years of his life. A big, lumbering dog who had learned to balance his belief in the pack hierarchy (which is why he had never met my loving gaze) with soft skills learned in our home over the years. The net result was that he found happiness in life, the contentment that comes to a dog who knows he is both loved and respected.
At the bitter end, when I spoke to him and he met my gaze for the last five minutes of his life, he spoke volumes to me of love and devotion. He had experienced both the best and the worst in humanity, and my old friend went out with a wag.