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.