Good Dog

A Lab Who Never Strayed Far

From California campouts
to Mississippi swims, a loyal dog was always within reach

Illustration: John Cuneo

Many young adults long for a mortgage, marriage, or a BMW because they think these things will make them grown-ups, and that grown-ups have everything figured out. I was no different in the decade after college, except what I wanted was a dog. I lived in Northern California in my twenties, a period marked by bad jobs, graduate school, and a string of expensive little apartments where pets were always forbidden. Even so, I daydreamed not of a studio-friendly Pomeranian, but of an enormous Labrador retriever, the kind landlords imagine gnawing through their drywall or excavating gardens. The weekly farmers’ market near my home hosted a Lab rescue group, and I often spent Saturday mornings in their tent, petting the canines up for adoption until my husband dragged me away to buy tomatoes. If I could have one of those dogs, I figured, it would mean I was responsible, and everything else—a career, work-life balance, the meaning of life—would fall neatly into place. 

Eventually, my husband neared the end of his dissertation research, and I got a job as a newspaper reporter in California’s Central Valley, in the uncool but affordable city of Bakersfield. We rented a house with a yard and a lease that allowed dogs—even giant ones. I went to the rescue’s website and fixated immediately on a yellow female pictured relaxing on her dog bed. But when I called, the dog’s foster mother discouraged me: The dog was extremely timid. We wanted a companion who would go on camping and rock-climbing trips; this dog was scared of the world. But would I like to hear about another one? A chocolate male named Ben that volunteers had freed from the Stockton pound? He had been, she said, a shelter favorite who howled in loneliness when left in his kennel.     

Despite my dog lust, I didn’t know anything about big breeds. As a child, I’d had a tiny Yorkshire terrier named Mayzie that I dressed in doll clothes. Consequently, my first glimpse of Ben proved terrifying. We walked into his foster mother’s kitchen and saw him standing in the backyard, barking exuberantly behind a set of sliding glass doors. Periodically, he reared up and let his huge front paws slam into the glass, which then started shaking. I didn’t know the difference between canine aggression and excitement, and I didn’t want to go near this eighty-five-pound monster. 

Ben’s foster mom, Nancy, gave us a leash, and we took him for a walk. Ben pulled so powerfully that I couldn’t control him. I surrendered the lead to my husband and felt increasingly uncertain about my plan. When we returned, Nancy gave the dog a raw knucklebone from the local butcher shop, then promptly stuck her hand into his jaws and pulled the bone back out. I was so naive that I didn’t realize this indicated an exceptionally good animal. Face-to-face with exactly the dog I’d asked for, I balked. But my husband liked Ben, and so we adopted him.  

My fears turned out to be ridiculous. Ben was absurdly easy: loyal, affectionate, and already housebroken. In our first weeks together, he feared abandonment. He howled when I went to work. When I showered, I’d look down to see his blocky head shoving the curtain aside, checking to make sure I hadn’t left. He soon settled, although he always had a little separation anxiety away from home and once destroyed a friend’s doorjamb in a nervous fit. His only other fault was a fondness for the kitchen counter. He devoured raw steaks, cornbread, more than one pizza, and a bag of chocolate-dipped macaroons (he was fine). 

Newspaper work wore me down, but I always woke up early so that I could watch Ben sniff his way around the neighborhood on his morning walk. He never growled at a human, patiently endured puppies chewing his ears, and seemed to enjoy sleeping in on Saturdays as much as I did. His fear of separation, a sometime annoyance, was more often an advantage. When we hiked, he followed so closely that my heels would bump against his chin. On weekends when we camped, Ben curled in the tent’s vestibule and leaned heavily against our feet; we knew he’d never wander in the night. When it got cold, we gave the dog my husband’s old fleece, and he looked quite dashing beside the campfire: a broad-chested brown Lab clad in a bright yellow mountaineering vest. On one trip, I got sick and called Ben in from the vestibule. As I sniffled in my sleeping bag, he snored in the crook of my arm.

Ben moved with us to Oxford, Mississippi, when my husband accepted a job as a professor at the University of Mississippi. We bought our first house and threw ourselves into careers and community life. We became increasingly busy, driven by the rhythm of daily responsibilities: meal planning, grocery shopping, lawn tending, car upkeep, and housecleaning. Ben did not make us adults, but he was the dog who watched us grow up. 

In Oxford, we camped less but made sure Ben got weekly swims in Sardis Lake or the pond in Pat Lamar Park, water being his favorite venue for fetch. Few things beat the sight of a retriever in water, the handsome head cutting a V in the surface, homing toward a stick or a neon toy, then paddling back to shore to bark frantically in anticipation of the next throw. I learned on those outings that a dog is less a guarantee of adulthood than an antidote to it, a being whose unchanging needs—the daily walks and feedings and fetch sessions—provide a current of joy that illuminates the wonder and pleasure in our routines. 

Eighteen months after we moved to Oxford, Ben got sick. He had cancer; the locations of his tumors rendered chemotherapy pointless. His back leg went bad first, and we bought him a life vest so he could keep swimming safely. We hosed him down when his breathing became labored in summer. When he ignored dog food, I cooked him chicken breasts and rice, and fed him by hand. One day he refused to get on the couch when invited; the next day he got violently ill, the vet came to the house with her needles, and Ben died in my arms.

That night I sobbed for hours before falling asleep. Sometime later, I woke and sat up in bed. I poked my husband and said, “Ben is in the house.” He looked at me—quite reasonably—as if I’d gone mad. I stood up and followed my odd feeling to the back of the house, where I used to sit on the futon with Ben and watch television. And then I lay down on the futon and felt peace. The next morning, the room was empty again. It’s embarrassing to believe your dog’s ghost came back to haunt a futon, and foolish to insist that a Lab with separation anxiety refused, at the very end, to leave. A sensible person would say that’s only grief talking, that Ben’s spirit did not linger to rest one last time in a place where we had both been so content. But here is the best thing about finally being a grown-up: You get to believe what you want to believe.