Friday, January 9, 2009

Paco's Tale

Not Paco's tail. Although Paco's tail was a spectacle to behold and a danger for anything on the coffee table.

Paco was our first Chessie, and perhaps the best dog I've ever owned. I'd never had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever before, and after Sheba died I looked for another Lab. I found one, too, a beautiful 6-month-old chocolate Lab we named Packy. She was incredibly loving, sweet, and loyal. My oldest boy, Brian, was about four when we got her, and he fell head-over-heels in love with her.

The problem was, she wouldn't retrieve. I had wanted a hunting dog for quite some time, and Packy would instantly drop anything the moment she saw me or anyone else. In time I learned the story, and why she was still at the breeders at six months of age. She had been bought by some people who raised show chickens. So when she showed her breeding and picked up a chicken, they scolded and swatted her. She developed a complex about carrying anything.

I took Packy out to a man I knew who trained dogs, to see if he could do anything with her. He had a cage of live pigeons he used for training, and Packy wouldn't even pick up a tied pigeon. He felt like there was little hope for her as a hunting dog, and said, "I have some 5-week old pups that will retrieve better than that." Sure enough, he let out several of his Chessie pups, and those pups fought each other to drag a pigeon back to me. I knew right then I wanted one of those pups.
It took some persuading, but eventually we got the breeder to take Packy back, after reminding her that she hadn't bothered to disclose the dog's past. And three weeks later we brought home Paco.

About that same time we brought home Duncan, our second-born. He and Paco grew up together, although Paco put on weight faster than Duncan did. By the time he was full grown, Paco weighed 120 pounds. It took Duncan many years to reach that mark.
From the start, Paco was fascinated with water, and with retrieving. I tossed a rolled up sock for him in the hall and he never tired of pouncing on it and bringing it back to me. He was very soft-mouthed, and never fought me for the ball, or toy, or stick.

When he was seven months old, I took him out to west Texas, where Shan's parents live. I hunted pheasants there every year at Christmas, and I took Paco out into the field, expecting to start working him a bit. He immediately knew what to do. He got one whiff of those wild birds, and he was quartering in front of me, no more than 20 yards out, nose to the ground, following scent trails. When we came to a frozen over pond, he jumped in, broke the ice, and swam around as if this was something he did every day. In truth he was born to it. Water was his environment.
At the lake he made the most spectacular water entries off the dock, leaping out and splashing down with absolute abandon. We used to tie a rope to a retrieving dummy and let him pull the kids around in the water like a little tugboat. When we went out skiing we had to lock him up or he would chew through his lead and follow the boat. In the back yard he dug a nice hole under the spot where the air conditioner condensate dripped. There he could lay in the water to his heart's content. I managed to break him of that by putting out a kiddie pool in the summer.

At home, Paco was a joy and a force of nature. He minded me very well. The rest of the family were a different matter. He was pretty good about minding Shan. Duncan and Brian grew up with Paco, and managed to control him some of the time. I can still see Duncan when he was about two, standing in front of Paco with a ball. Paco's eyes never left the ball. Duncan threw it, and Paco knocked Duncan flat to get it, then brought it back to him. They both loved it.

We had a Sheltie at the time named Piper. We pretty much always had a Sheltie. When Piper came in heat, Paco quit eating. We kept them separated, but he would sit at the back door and howl, crooning to his Love Goddess. He dropped 10 or 15 pounds each time she was in season. That was the only time I had difficulty with him, because he was so consumed with lust. Thank God they never got together.

In the field, Paco never lost a bird that I shot. He would plunge into lake beds full of thumb-thick willows that would have stalled a tank, and come out the side with the bird. And he always brought every bird to me, no matter who shot it. Other hunters would call him, and he'd steadfastly ignore them, bringing it straight to me. Good Paco!

Once, we were hunting a brushy ditch next to a vineyard. The grapevines were fairly new, and you could see for half mile under the arbors. One of the men winged a pheasant, which hit the ground running, heading through the arbors. Paco took off in a dead run, inscribing a great arc. He caught the bird about two hundred yards away, and they disappeared in a cloud of dust. Then he came trotting back, holding the bird and delivering it to my hand.

At that same spot, the landowner had planted pine trees in sunken 5-gallon buckets, to eventually grow a windbreak. As he was passing the buckets, Paco suddenly stopped, cocked his head, and plunged his nose down into one, wagging his tail in circles. When I got him pulled back, I parted the needles to see a mouse who had fallen in. Paco had heard or scented him. He didn't hurt the mouse, and I think he just wanted to play with it.

When Duncan was about 18 months old, he had a bit of a cold, so I stayed home with him on Sunday while Shan and Brian went to church. After a while I heard Paco barking and went to investigate. I couldn't see him through the patio door, but did notice a rabbit hopping along the fence. Oh, no! The neighbor behind us had rabbits, and apparently one had jumped into our yard. I quickly went to get Paco before he saw it and killed it. Before I got to him, though, I saw that he had another rabbit, and was barking at the neighbor's dog over it. Too late! But Paco gently picked up the rabbit and brought it to me. It was completely unharmed, but limp with fear and wet with dog spit. Paco was immensely proud of himself. After putting him in the garage I caught the other bunny, then looked for something to carry them in to take them back to my neighbor. The only thing I could find was an ice chest, so I popped both bunnies in it and Duncan and I delivered them back safe to our neighbor. I also advised him to move his firewood away from the fence. For about a year after that, Duncan assumed that any ice chest was a rabbit hutch, and he'd run up to open them, calling, "Bunny?"

There's so much more to tell about Paco. The time he stole a plum and spit out the cleaned pit within about a second. The time he licked up a spilled drop of Nyquil, then growled and barked and shook his head at the taste. The time he belly-crawled across the back yard, stalking a grackle in the honeysuckle vines. As he aged, he got to the point that nobody but me mattered to him. He never counter-surfed when I was around, but I'd leave the room and he'd walk over and start eating off someone's plate. It didn't count if I didn't see it.

He changed in other ways, too. He began to be stiff in his hindquarters, and I had started giving him aspirin on the vet's recommendation. Paco always viewed a trip to the vet as a holidy. He was happy to see everyone, especially when they gave him tasty chewable vitamins. And he never flinched at injections. He always took his medicine happily, licking aspirin up off the floor and chewing the nasty, bitter stuff. Which was amazing because he didn't chew other food, just slurped it down as quickly as possible. He still wanted to hunt, and cried if I left him. But his age was telling on him, and he'd sometimes get hung up in heavy cover and cry for me to come help him.

The last time I took him pheasant hunting, we went to a small tract about an acre in size. We started out as usual, with him trotting happily in front of me, quartering back and forth, nose to the ground. We didn't find any birds, and before we were halfway around the place, Paco had fallen back and was following me, panting heavily. He just didn't have it anymore. And he couldn't get into the van on his own. I had to lift him in.

The end was near, I knew. And there would be no more pheasant hunting. That fall I took him with me to a friend's place on Lake Granbury to hunt some doves. Paco immediately went to the water and swam around happily. But when it came time to get out, he couldn't climb the steps. He collapsed on the edge with his back end still in the water. And it seemed as if his head was misshapen. It was. A dog's head is mostly muscle, and the muscle had atrophied in moments. Crying, I helped him up the steps and into the van. I immediately rushed him to the vet, but we both knew his end had come.

On the table, I stroked his head and told him what a good dog he was. He thumped his tail as I said his name. And then it was over.

I'll never have another dog like Paco. He was a natural hunter, a wonderful companion, sometimes a big pain, and always a delight. We invest so much of ourselves into our dogs, and they return every bit of it many times over. Paco challenged us with his constant need for care, and he tried our patience with his mess, his smell, his moonlight serenades, his sheer dogginess. He sat quietly by me when I was sick or soul-weary. He danced with me when I was happy, he always met me at the door, he loved and protected my wife and kids, he ran through brush and swam through ice to bring me a bird. I've had other dogs since, wonderful dogs. But I still miss him.