Jake was abandoned twice before he found us. The second time, he was found wandering along a country road somewhere between Powers and Myrtle Point, Oregon. There was a note pinned to his collar which read "My name is Jake. I am 3 years old. I love children, water..." but he had found water somewhere along the way and the rest of the ink on the note was washed away. I could fill in the rest: "...sticks, tennis balls, peaches, fresh mushrooms, having my ears rubbed, and a good meaty marrow bone."
It was love at first sight. There he was in the big kennel at the corner of the Coos County animal shelter, looking so hopeful. He had been there for weeks and at 85 pounds was too big and pushy for anyone to want to take a chance on him. His days there were nearly at an end but no one wanted to euthanize such a wonderful dog. I took one look at him and that was it. It was mutual -- he looked into my eyes and slid down in the "fainting from love" gesture our old dog Clancy had done so often. He had me for life. We had the perfect set-up for him -- 4 acres of woods and wetlands on the banks of a slough. He could run right out the door and hit the water any time he liked. Chessy heaven!
He was a beautiful dog -- a gorgeous mocha color common to Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. His back was wavy and his whiskers and eyebrows were wonderfully curly. He had the best ears I ever saw -- big, soft, silky and irresistible. When we got home he decided his place was at my feet, wherever I might be.
In no time at all, we discovered how smart he was. He understood human words like no other dog I had ever met. He had a huge vocabulary, hundreds if not thousands of words. He could follow instructions precisely. "Jake, get the red ball." He would pick out the red ball from among balls of other colors and many other toys. "Get the blue chew toy." He would immediately get the blue chew toy. He figured out how to carry three tennis balls at a time. he would put one in the back of his mouth and line up two more, one above the other, on the floor. He would then quickly pick them up, one on top of the other, without dropping the first one, et voila! Three at a time. He was very proud of this trick. He could also hold two or three sticks at the back of his mouth while doing this -- they went in before the first tennis ball. He practiced for hours to get this just right.
He invented other games with sticks and tennis balls and combinations of the two. He would very slowly roll a stick or a tennis ball off the edge of the deck and try to catch it before it hit the ground. He was very careful to move the object as slowly as he could -- inching it forward a foot might take 10 minutes. He would arrange pillows at an angle and roll his tennis ball down them and catch it at the bottom. He could actually throw the ball with his mouth and worked on the angle of its bounce for hours. He would rearrange the pillows again and again to get just the right angle. Of course, he caught it on the bounce. He made a channel of his front legs and worked them into precise position so a tennis ball would roll down them very slowly. He worked on this one a lot toward the end of his life. His focus and concentration were amazing. He would catch the ball at the precise moment it fell off his paws, before it hit the ground.
His favorite foods were peaches and fresh mushrooms. After we left Oregon and settled in Nashville, his weight ballooned up to 106 pounds. I tricked him by giving him mushrooms (nearly calorie-free) as treats. He also loved "broccoli bones" -- the stems of broccoli. He lost the weight and never even knew he was dieting. Well, maybe he did. Not much got past him.
He lived to be 17 years old. The picture above was taken at the end of his life when his dear old face was totally white and most of his coat had gone gray. At the end, he had dog Alzheimer's and though we slowed it for a while with medication, the inevitable came to pass. One night we realized he no longer knew who we were, or who or where he was. It was very hard. There will always be a big hole in the world where Jake once worked his soft-eared magic. Somewhere across the Rainbow Bridge, he is inventing even more wonderful games.
photo credit: Laura Hoffman 2007