Swedes call it resfeber, that pre-journey feeling of anticipation mixed with anxiety. I’m feeling it already, with departure still half a year away. Though Tulliver did exceptionally well on our thousand mile trip last year, I don’t have the history with him – nor the absolute confidence – that Barley and I developed over so many miles. Running into canine recalcitrance 2500 miles from home is a whole different set of issues from experiencing it a day’s ride from home. And yet, I know from my years riding with Barley that things will turn out, that when traveling with a cherished dog the goal is never a particular destination, but rather the journey itself. The British call it coddiwompling: traveling in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination. For all my extensive planning of routes over the long winters, when I finally hit the road I tend to coddiwomple…
If Tulliver and I make it all the way to Salt Lake City we’ll have a great time at the BMW Rally meeting new friends and getting reacquainted with old. Last year in Hamburg NY a few online friends who had never met in person were told to look for a big red dog in the beer tent. With his friendly demeanor and cherished orange ball Tulliver was a big hit; that informal gathering was christened The Red Dog Saloon in his honor, and already plans are being made for another round this year. Even so, if storms, heat and humidity, or any other factors prevent us from getting that far, Tully and I will cut the trip short, find a string of nice spots in the Colorado Rockies in which to spend a week enjoying each other’s company before attending the smaller, more intimate Top of the Rockies Rally in Paonia, Colorado.
I recall an enchanted evening three years ago, cuddling with Barley on the cold shoulder of Mount Rainier by the light of the stars and the burble of a nearby glacier-fed stream. Sitting next to the campfire while gently tugging Barley’s ear it dawned on me that what he and I shared – that incredible bond based on mutual love and respect – was older than time itself. Thanks to that dog I know what is possible and more importantly, how to cultivate it. I sense it flowering with Tulliver…and budding with Glenlivet. That relationship is more precious than any timeline or destination.
If conditions permit, the week between those two rallies will be spent meandering from Arches National Park in Utah all the way back to Colorado’s Front Range. Before we head for home we’ll pass through Colorado National Monument, the San Juan Mountains (including the legendary Million Dollar Highway), wander through abandoned mining towns, cross numerous high altitude passes both paved and unpaved, camp in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, and ride to the summit of Mount Evans at 14,265’.
Stay tuned for updates on our training rides (once the snow melts) as we prepare for this trip. Right now, with Vermont locked up in winter’s icy grip, the bike and sidecar are being carefully dismantled, cleaned, and reassembled.
Friday, June 30th: One week remains till Tulliver and I head out on our Utah and Colorado adventure! Nothing is packed, though I believe all the pieces are present. I’d hoped to practice setting up the tent a few times before our departure, but that hasn’t happened thanks to our incredibly wet weather so far this year. As I type this, much of Vermont is under flood warnings after yesterday’s two inches of rain on top of already saturated soil. Tully’s tonneau cover has been modified with a larger zippered hatch to accommodate his much longer body. He is back to using his old memory foam mattress though, as the new bolstered version allowed him to lean out well past my comfort zone.
There is an art to packing for a trip like this, an art I’ve not yet mastered after repeated iterations. I get it right by the time the trip is over, but invariably forget the method in the year between each rally. And to be fair to myself, how things are packed varies depending on weather conditions, camping vs hoteling, whether we will be in bear country, and a few other factors.
While not experiencing the punishing heat wave that’s centered over parts of Arizona and New Mexico, part of our trip this year will take us through regions with highs in the high nineties or low hundreds. That’s too hot for my dog, and so I reserve the right to skip parts of our planned route and head instead for the coolness of the mountain heights. Even if it means we miss the annual family reunion that the BMW Rally represents.
That said, here is our planned route:
After our transit of the Midwest and Great Plains, we’ll visit the Morris Animal Foundation in Denver. These are the folks running the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, a well-designed prospective (as opposed to retrospective) study that hopefully will shed light on why so many golden retrievers are being lost to cancers.
The Peak-to-Peak Byway to Rocky Mountain National Park
Across northern Colorado to be at Flaming Gorge for sunrise
On to Salt Lake City via the Uinta Range and Emigrant Canyon
Two days at the BMW Rally at the fairgrounds in SLC
Capitol Reef National Park
Natural Bridges National Monument, Moki Dugway, Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods
Up Hwy 145 to Lizard Head Pass and Telluride, Colorado
Over to Ouray, then down US-550 to Durango, Colorado
US-160 to South Fork, Colorado, then Hwy 149 over Slumgullion Pass to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Over Kebler Pass between Crested Butte and Paonia to the Top of the Rockies Rally
Over McClure, Independence, Tennessee, Vail and Loveland Passes
Say goodbye to Colorado from the summit of Mt Evans, then head east
Visit friends in Tioga, Pennsylvania, and possibly attend the US Sidecar Rally in Corning, New York before heading for home
Remember, though, that in all my years of motorcycle travel I have yet to follow one of my carefully plotted routes!
I chose to go with a reputable breeder – not a rescue – to get the puppy who would be trained as my next long distance adventure dog. Susan and Steven, of Sunshine Goldens in southern Wisconsin, had met Barley and me several times on our cross-country adventures and had long admired the bond we shared. I, in turn, loved the way their dogs behaved, and how a seemingly endless supply of little girls in the form of their grand-nieces and their little friends managed to socialize each pup. We discussed the personality traits that had made Barley such a phenomenal riding partner: confidence, courage, calmness and a healthy dose of curiosity. As to color, Sunshine had two litters on the way – one red and one blonde. While color was entirely secondary to me, it seems people perceive the blondes as more approachable, more “golden.” Since we will be out together in public, I gave a minor nod to a blonde pup, more of a tie breaker in the case of two pups with identical personalities.
Armed with the knowledge of what I was looking for, Susan went to work once the pups were born in early July. She carefully observed their developing personalities, the way they interacted with each other and with people, and within a few weeks began narrowing the field. By the time the pups were six weeks old she was fairly certain she had a match, though the final decision wouldn’t be made till I met the pups. That process of collaborating on the match between well-socialized puppies and prospective buyers is one mark of a good breeder, one in it for the love of the breed and not just for money.
I flew to Wisconsin on a Wednesday morning. Susan and Steve picked me up and introduced me to the pups. Folks look at a litter of puppies and think they are all adorable and that’s true. But just like people, dogs are individuals. One needs to consider personality in the light of their lifestyle and expectations. There was the timid male favoring corners, the big female bullying her siblings, and several others between those two extremes. In just a few minutes I could see that Susan’s choice was the right match for me. Blue collared male of moderate size able to stick up for himself and fascinated by everything going on around him.
Okay, I admit it. I’ve never been a puppy person. Puppies leak, they chew on furniture and favorite boots, torment adult dogs, don’t listen very well, and interfere with REM sleep. My attempts to instill in them some manners have often been undermined by Tamara playing the role of indulgent mother, fussing over them and generally letting them get away with anything short of murder. Somewhere around the age of two, however, they seem to realize that Dad is more fun. He tosses tennis balls and rolls on the floor with them. He cuddles and grooms them and offers praise and treats…but only if they behave in certain ways. After a year of this, a special bond sprouts and soon blossoms. That was the case with Tetley, Tuppence, Tadcaster, Tulliver, Kazoo…and Barley.
Barley’s flame went out far too soon, but his legacy will remain in my heart for the rest of my life. He taught me that patience and love were the main ingredients of that incredible bond we shared, and that if I regifted his love he would not be my last soul dog. He also taught me that life is too short to wait, that I needed to bond to my next dog from the moment I first saw him.
And so I found myself early one morning sitting in the airport in Madison, Wisconsin, an impossibly small bundle of sleeping fur draped across one forearm. He resembled nothing so much as a fuzzy baked potato with stubby legs. Sunshine Goldens’ Shot o’ Glenlivet, Gilly for short, was mine. I watched him breathe, one tiny paw draped instinctively over my arm in a gesture so like Barley, and I realized that bond in my heart had already been primed.
I had forgotten how difficult it is to pee outside in the presence of a puppy who tries to catch everything! We’ve gone through the leaky phase, and while there are still occasional accidents they are generally when we’ve not paid heed to his signals – and usually in front of the door as if to say, “I tried to tell you!” He sits, comes, and takes treats very gently. He retrieves well, eats off a fork, and at the end of each work day runs to greet me in that comical puppy way where the front and rear legs seem to be racing each other to see who gets there first. In the evening when I lay on the floor, if he’s not engaged in tormenting Tulliver or Kazoo he trots over and flips upside down with his paws waving happily, his tail thumping the floor, reaching up now and then to nibble on my earlobe.
I’m always surprised to see confidence in a creature so small. From the start this little guy has been remarkably unflappable, save for two encounters with the electric fencing that keeps our sheep contained. He has no fear of water, and to my surprise began swimming in nearby Eligo Lake the day after he came home. He retreats from the sound of a tractor or chainsaw, but not out of fear. He loves toys and will make his own if none of the store-bought type are readily available, picking up sticks or clumps of grass to flip in the air and catch.
Late October 2016: Gilly will soon be four months old. It’s an adorable stage where the paws are disproportionately large, like Ronald McDonald’s shoes; the ears hang down like drapes cut a tad too long, and while the clumsiness of puppyhood is fading, the grace of adulthood is still elusive. His body is changing to that of a leggy, awkward adolescent dog. His shoulders and hips are getting definition, his chest is broadening, his puppy fluff has converted to fur and his tail is beginning to sprout the feathers that typify his breed. He is teething aggressively and will soon get a full set of permanent teeth even before his face takes on adult lines. He is discovering his voice, telling the world how he feels with puppy grunts and tiny barks, excited snarls and squeaks of surprise. He gets hiccups which cause his entire body to twitch. He makes funny sounds in his dreams, and accepts that he is entitled to half of my pillow. Gilly knows he is loved, and will never know anything else but love.
It’s fascinating to watch his personality develop, to see him recognize that his actions impact those around him, that his behaviors shape, and in turn are shaped by, his interactions. Gentle reprimands, whether from humans or older dogs, earn an immediate and comically contrite sit. He is torn between a desire to be cuddled and a desire to act grown up. He yearns for independence, but when frightened or feeling ill he burrows right into my embrace and reaches up to cover my face with tiny kisses.
He has learned to scale the baby gates we use to close off rooms. He humps the cat. He has the makings of an exceptional countersurfer and has learned to hook his paws over the edge of the kitchen sink to pull his entire body up onto the countertop. I’ll most definitely have to make sure the Stay command is ironclad before beginning his sidecar training! On the plus side, he is extremely eager to please and responds very well to praise…and appropriately to correction.
He is, in every respect, off to a good start.
Soon his training will start in earnest. Not the short and intense Sesame Street sessions of puppyhood, but two years of patient and repetitive drills that will prepare him for life as a long distance sidecar dog with a man counting the days till his retirement and eager to ride to places he has long yearned to visit, but hadn’t the time. The sidecar currently bears Tulliver’s name. Before it changes to Glenlivet the pup will have to earn that right.
Early November 2016: Glenlivet is coming up on four months. Gone is the puppy fluff. His adult coat is a lovely medium dark gold. He has a few adult teeth. More importantly his personality has moved beyond the egocentrism of puppyhood. He has passed through the “I am” stage and is well into the “You are” phase of his personality development. As we interact and begin to cement that bond I know is coming, the two of us will discover “We are” and all the joy that entails. As he begins to respect boundaries Tulliver has started playing with him. It’s a joy to watch them play!
Late November 2016: Gilly is more or less gracefully entering adulthood. Well, physically anyway! Emotionally he’s still a puppy. He still enjoys curling up on my chest, but wonders why he doesn’t fit as comfortably as he used to. And he’s made new friends among our Icelandic sheep! Fiona the ewe and Stump the ram are the most gentle among our small flock. Stump seems fascinated by Gilly, and every time he sticks his head partway through the fencing Gilly is right there to cover him with kisses!
Mid December 2016: Shot o’ Glenlivet is now five and a half months old. He still gets hiccups and still makes little puppy grunts when being cuddled. But he has outgrown the awkwardness of puppydom (mostly) and while not yet as fast as the grownups he now runs with the fluid grace of a young dog. This past weekend poor Tulliver was clearly outraged when Gilly ran down a ball and snagged it mid-bounce while running at full speed. Me? I’m simply enchanted by this little guy, thrilled at watching him mature and form bonds with those around him. Especially with me…
Tulliver and Gilly both sleep with me. Kazoo sleeps with Tamara. When I sleep with Tamara all three dogs join us on the double bed…which probably explains why my bride keeps banishing me to the guest room. Generally Tully sleeps with his rump against my hip and his head draped over my ankles. Gilly sleeps with his rump against Tulliver’s and his head at the edge of the bed. But several minutes before the alarm goes off he sits up and watches me in the early light of dawn. The moment I look his way he taps my chest with one paw, then crawls forward to nibble my earlobe and cuddle in close. It’s a great way to start the day!
Winter appears to have settled in. Given Glenlivet’s love of the woodstove, I was a little concerned that he wouldn’t do well in cold weather. Not to worry. Like all goldens, he counts snow among the best things on earth. And he is discovering that just because he can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s gone; there is this thing called a nose to help him find things hidden from sight.
Watching him emulate Kazoo brings a smile to my face. The first thing Kazoo does every morning when I let him out is to trot to a spot in the front yard, sit down, and calmly survey the lower pasture. Deer or joggers on the distant road get deep voiced warning barks. And behind him a few feet is his Mini Me, Glenlivet, attentively copying those behaviors. Little Gilly has also finally broken through Tulliver’s reserve. The two of them often play together, often cuddle together. The pack, tossed into disarray by Barley’s passing a year ago and then by the arrival of a puppy this summer, has finally coalesced into a trio of brothers.
And Barley was right. I would never have another soul dog only if I closed my heart to the possibility…
6 January 2017 – Six months ago today Sunshine Golden’s Shot o’ Glenlivet was born. I expected our bonding to be a slow and steady process as it had been with previous dogs, but thanks to the things Barley taught me on our cross-country adventures my relationship with Gilly got a huge jump start. From that first private cuddle in the airport waiting for our flight home, I knew this pairing felt right, that it would only grow from that moment.
Gilly shares many of Barley’s personality quirks, but has put his unique stamp on each. He is, in every respect, his own dog…but one with a furry angel always nearby. Watching him mature both physically and mentally has given me hours of joy. Seeing how quickly he learns and adopts the behaviors he’ll need as a long distance sidecar dog, I know we’ll share many wonderful adventures in the years ahead!
March 2017 – Eight Months Old!
Shot o’ Glenlivet isn’t so little anymore! He has physically matured into a beautiful young dog so full of grace, speed and agility that watching him run takes my breath away! Several dogs have shared my life, but only one, Glenfiddich, was as fluid in motion as this one. The irony of them both being named after fine Scotch does not escape me…
Kazoo, with those long legs, can stretch out and cover ground in a blur, but he’s not particularly nimble. Tulliver is fast, and his reactions are incredibly quick, but he is hesitant when faced with obstructions like downed trees or a stream running across his path. Not so Glenlivet! He makes speed seem effortless, and his leaps across streams and over other obstructions reflect the confidence he has in his physical abilities.
He is also confident in his dealings with other dogs. As a pup he would twist and turn, desperately trying to maintain possession of the coveted ball as the older dogs chased him. Now he simply growls, lowers his shoulder, and knocks the other dogs out of his way. He is a natural retriever with the gentlest mouth of any dog I’ve had.
And he is glued to me.
If I log into work remotely on my laptop, he lays down atop my foot. If I watch TV he is alongside me, often watching as well. I can’t work on the sidecar without him being in physical contact with me. If I slide under the rig to check something out he is right there with me, his magnificent tail knocking tools and parts all over the shop. He no longer sleeps in bed with me, but in the morning jumps up to stretch full length on top of me, waking me up with enthusiastic kisses.
May 2017: Ten Months Old
I love all my dogs, but it’s a fact that some of them live in the shadow of others. Barley, as great a dog as he turned out to be, lived in the shadow of Tadcaster for four years, and only blossomed when that magnificent red dog passed away. Tulliver was brought up in the shadow of Barley, but given his extreme lack of early socialization he has always been rather timid. Now he finds himself being eclipsed by Glenlivet, a far more assertive and outgoing young dog.
One must, in multiple dog households, share the love. Maybe not in equal doses, but for a breed as sensitive as golden retrievers each must have quality time in which they as individuals are my focus. Glenlivet will cheerfully push the older dogs out of the way for treats, water, dish cleaning…or affection. I find myself reminding him that it’s not his turn. To wait. It comforts them to know that when their turn comes they will be my focus. That there are no favorites.
But this one so tugs at my heart!
Glenlivet is an exceptionally easy dog to love. His is the confidence born of a dog who has always been cherished, and recognizes that he always will be. He accepts love without reservation, and reflects it in a hundred different ways. He hugs and kisses enthusiastically. He nibbles my ear lobes in greeting. He’s a leaner, and rather than sitting next to me, he often sits on me. He uses his paws extensively, turning objects over to study them, or holding something overhead to play with as he rolls belly up. He no longer sleeps with me, preferring for some odd reason the hardwood floor in the hallway where we can trip over him. And he rarely licks the water off my legs anymore as I step out of the shower. Those two quirks I miss a bit, but the incredibly loud THUMP-THUMP of his tail on the hardwood floor at my approach reminds me of another dog who gave me all his love…and insisted I regift it upon his passing.
I delight in the way Glenlivet reflects his inner Barley – the selfless sharing of joy and love – the similarities and the differences that tell me he is of the same caliber…yet at the same time an individual in his own right. The trust he has in me, the trust that lets him do things beyond his comfort level because he knows I’ll never allow harm to touch him. The love he expresses each morning by stretching out full-length on top of me, his tongue covering my face with kisses while his incredible tail hammers out a rapid-fire beat upon my toes. The way he follows me everywhere and rears up to meet my touch.
Gone is the tiny puppy I brought home months ago. He still curls up with me, sometimes on the couch and sometimes on the living room carpet. At ten months of age he is a splendid example of all the breed should be: agile, fast, loving, intelligent and playful. His coat is resplendent and his tail simply stunning! The diminutive, Gilly, no longer seems to fit this young dog with so much grace, so much promise.
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.
June 2021: After a long life full of love and adventure, my big red dog crossed the Rainbow Bridge while I was out west with Glenlivet in the sidecar. He had multiple issues associated with his early neutering (a shelter had him neutered at only four months of age), including multiple myeloma, a cancer rare in dogs. The typical progression of that disease is repeated infections, usually pneumonia, coupled with osteoporosis eventually resulting in fractures. I knew before setting out on our latest adventure that Tulliver’s days were numbered, but thought he had months remaining. Sadly, it turns out he also had hemangiosarcoma, a much more aggressive form of cancer. On the day Glenlivet and I reached Lake Tahoe, the tumor on his spleen ruptured and he began bleeding internally. My wife held her phone to his ear in the vet’s office so my tearful words of love would be the last thing he heard before crossing over.
He would watch me for hours, my gift of devotion. I still feel his gaze and regret that I wasn’t there to hold him in the end. Tulliver was the first of my dogs to pass without feeling my caress…
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!
2021 The loss of an old friend
There is a special bond that develops between old dogs. Kazoo and Tulliver were old friends. They often slept near each other, sometimes bookmarking back to back. The loss of Tulliver hit Kazoo hard, and there was just too much of an age gap for Glenlivet to fill.
2023: A magnificent life winding down
The average life expectancy of a male golden is around ten years. Kazoo had beaten those odds but by thirteen had slowed down significantly. He was going lame in his left rear leg, had arthritis, was mostly deaf, and over the winter began showing signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, similar to dementia in humans. He’d be fine in daylight, but would pace and pant at night, often preferring to sit outside in the snow staring into the darkness till we went out to fetch him.
He spent most of the day sleeping, getting up for meals or treats, pee breaks or just to sit outside for a while. He loved being cuddled and groomed, adored the UPS driver who always brought treats, and tolerated one year old Talisker as long as he behaved.
He rarely failed to join us at dinnertime. Tamara swore he wasn’t begging at the table since he looked you in the eye instead of staring longingly at your plate. We rarely failed to cave.
Working with our vet we eventually found a cocktail of meds that lessened his night anxiety and gave him a few more months of quality life.
As Kazoo continued to fade one year old Talisker became his constant companion, playing with him, guiding him back to the house through deep snow, and napping with him. It was touching watching the younger dog allowing Kazoo to win their wrestling matches.
But there came a point when we realized the old dog was in constant pain, that the meds were only reducing it to barely tolerable. One more trip to the vet confirmed what we had expected; Kazoo’s left rear lameness was caused by osteosarcoma – cancer that had settled into his pelvis.
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.
To say I trained Barley to ride would be a gross exaggeration. He took to it from the start, and tolerated my ignorance of the art of setting up a sidecar in a manner befitting the sort of travel he envisioned for himself. Sort of.
I understood the basics. The Look meant it was time for a break. The Look with a paw on my thigh meant it was REALLY time for a break! The Look coupled with walking in place while barking meant, “If you don’t pull over right this instant I’ll pee on your sleeping bag!”
I also understood from the start that he is a hunter. His prey drive was highly developed even as a puppy. He stalked birds and frogs and mice. At the age of ten weeks he attacked a duck sitting on her nest near the edge of our pond. Two weeks later he went after a full-grown bull moose crossing our meadow; he survived only because the moose was completely unimpressed by the snarls of one so tiny.
So he was initially tethered when he began riding with me at the age of three. It turned out to be a sound idea, as he lunged after small animals several times. Because his lunges affected the balance of the sidecar, I became a very conservative driver. No flying the sidecar, for I was worried that an ill-timed lunge after a squirrel might flip us. That’s not to say I was a sedate sidecarist, just that I made it a point to keep all three tires on the ground.
To give Barley more room for longer trips I removed the sidecar’s seat, replacing it with a thick slab of foam topped by a dog bed. That pleased him no end, but also marked the portion of the hack he considered his turf. Sacrosanct, no less. Anything impinging upon his turf was fair game. I lost a couple of flashlights and a nice camp stove – he just picked them up, gave me the evil eye, and pitched them over the side – before I learned to redistribute the load properly.
Because much of our riding is on gravel roads, poor Barley was often bounced around like the ball in the bottom of a can of spray paint. I eventually replaced the dog bed with a memory foam version from Orvis.com, which was a huge improvement. I also stopped tethering him while we were in motion after he promised to stop lunging after small animals. With no tether to tangle his legs he was able to stretch out and sleep more.
We were traveling in upstate New York late in his first riding season when the large coffee I had that morning required release. I pulled over at a gas station. Like many modern gas stations, however, it was coupled with a convenience store. The restrooms were inside. There was also food inside, which meant dogs were not allowed. Barley at that time had been trained to remain with me, always. There was no leaving him behind as he would struggle to free himself, then come looking for me. Desperate as only a middle aged man can be in that circumstance, I returned to the rig, emptied a large internal frame backpack, stuffed Barley into the main compartment, and wore that seventy-five pound dog into the restroom.
The likelihood of finding myself in a similar situation during a future ride was fairly high, so that biological need drove an urgent training goal.
The sidecar became his crate, his place of safety. Nothing bad ever happened in the tub. He was never scolded or punished in the sidecar. He was fed and watered in or near the rig. There were always a couple of toys inside. The goal was to make it the place he ran to, his haven when frightened or uncertain.
It worked, and I can now relieve myself with dignity.
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.