Ode to a half-breed canine companion, the sweetest dog alive
W henever I hear people speak of designer dogs I have to smile. Pete, our nearly 12-year-old half-breed mix of a Golden Retriever and a Newfoundland, is the ultimate designer dog. But Pete wasn’t designed. He was a love child.
A farmer in Cortland County had a Golden breeding dog. A neighboring farmer had a Newfoundland stud. What neither of the farmers had was secure fencing. So along came Pete. The farmers had too much going on to handle such an enthusiastic puppy, and we came across their plea for an adoptive family posted on an Internet pet forum.
When Pete bounded into our lives on a snowy February day 11 years ago he was 7 months old and already weighed 85 pounds. My son Dan had wanted a dog for so long that he had even come up with a name for him: Bilbo, after his favorite character from The Hobbit. But Pete, named, like his brother Mack, after a truck, had learned one moniker and he was not about to adopt another. Bilbo didn’t stick. Pete was Pete, and that was that. In most other matters, he can be very accommodating.
Pete lives for his people. He hates when we leave the house, and explodes with unbridled delight when we return. He wants to be as close to you as he possibly can be, leaning on you when you stand, putting his head on your lap when you sit in a chair, and trying to climb up on you when you sit on the sofa. If you will be so kind as to throw a stick, Pete will chase it and return it perhaps a hundred times, or until your arm tires. At least he used to; at his age he prefers shorter workouts and lots of petting.
Weighing in at a sturdy 120 pounds with a thick coat of deep black hair, Pete is still the center of attention in any room he enters. He is indisputably the heart of our home life and will greet any visitor with a lowered head, uplifted eyes and a wagging tail. Everyone who meets him is amazed that a creature so large can be so sweet and gentle. His secret trick is that he has absolutely no idea how large he is.
When our three kids were younger, they liked to play in the creek that runs by the edge of our property. Pete was the perfect lifeguard. Newfoundland retrievers are bred to rescue sailors who have suffered the misfortune of slipping off fishing vessels into the North Atlantic. Their instinct is to pull anyone who is in the water up onto the shore, and they’ve got the muscle to haul you as well as the double coat of hair to keep warm. (If you’ve seen the movie The Perfect Storm, those are Newfoundlands getting tossed out of helicopters to find sailors swept into the sea.)
Whenever the kids went swimming, Pete would circle them anxiously, swimming round and round, never taking his eyes off them. Luckily none of them ever needed to be pulled from the drink, but one day, on a walk up the road, Pete spotted a beagle who had gotten over his head in a small pond. Something deep in his ancestral roots summoned Pete into action, and he charged across a field (he could still, back in those days, outrun any of us), leapt in and nudged the tiring little hound all the way to the shore.
If you had to design a big dog, you could not ask for a sweeter result than Pete. It turns out that the voracious energy Goldens are famous for is nicely moderated by the calm tranquility of the massive black Newfoundland. To an extent.
In his youth, Pete could occasionally defy our commands and take off into the hills (we live beyond the reach of leash laws). One drizzly cold spring day he was gone for nearly an hour. When he came back he was proudly carrying the entire vertebral column and skull of a deer. Not dragging it, but holding it up in the air for all to see.
The deer had apparently been killed and field dressed the previous autumn, left in the woods, and had just begun to thaw. It was a foul-smelling, oozing mess. Pete couldn’t understand why coming home with this trophy was not appropriately rewarded. To make things worse, Pete had rolled in the remains of the dead deer before hauling its bones home, and he had a smell in his thick black coat that words cannot describe. The kids watched as I spent an hour in the cold water of the creek unsuccessfully trying to rinse that odor from the multiple layers of his thick black coat. He spent the night outdoors, on the porch, inconsolable. All he wanted to do was to feed his people.
Each summer Pete and the rest of us spend a week in a little cabin on the shore of Otisco Lake. In the mornings I like to swim out to the middle of the lake and back. Before Pete, I had to wait until someone woke up who was willing to take the rowboat out so I could swim alongside. Once Pete came along he became my swimming companion and lifeguard all in one. Pete was (still is, for short stretches) a swimming machine. He motored alongside me, and when I turned my head I could see his massive paws and his webbed feet churning through the water.
In our early days of swimming together he was forever grasping at my arm, trying to grab me and tow me back to shore. He would turn his head toward me, anxious and nervous that we were heading into deeper water, trying to find an opening so he could grab my wrist. When we reached the middle of the lake and I was ready to head back, I gave in to him, stopped swimming and wrapped my arms around his neck. This was his reward.
Pete heaved a giant sigh of relief, and turned to shore, with his powerful strokes contentedly pulling me along in his wake. Like the noble dog he is, Pete understands that it is his calling to get his people to dry land.