Last time I gave you the final chapter in the Story of Samantha — the repose of her ashes. Two years ago, I gave you an early chapter, the Tale of the Perfect Day (in part, a tale of a tail). This time, somewhat like a (long-delayed) wake, I’m going to share some random memories from The Life of Sam.
Actually, she was Samantha II. The first Samantha was a puppy I shared with a roommate. That Sam died very young when she lost in an attempt to take down a passing bus. My roommate, who’d left the gate open, was utterly devastated. We buried her beneath a stand of Joshua trees far out in the Mojave Desert.
The puppy, that is; not my roommate.
Both dogs bore the name, Samantha, mainly due to a childhood crush I had on the main character of the late-1960s television show Bewitched. And while I also had a crush on the show’s star, Elizabeth Montgomery, it was really Samantha that I pined over. I mean, how awesome would it be to marry a witch!
I was only slightly chagrined when I went down to the local police station to get a tag for Samantha (II), and the lady behind the bullet-proof glass mentioned that Samantha was one of the most common names for a dog.
Either she was wrong or times have changed (this was in 1994). One list ranks Samantha at #36 and another way down at #80. Of course, with a spread that great, maybe the lists are wrong, but popularity of names, for both dogs and humans, does change over time. How many young people do you know named Agnes or Ernest?
I briefly flirted with the idea of calling her Widget. Very briefly.
By the time of The Perfect Day, we’d endured many months of horrible diarrhea. Sam had something of a delicate stomach all her life. We finally found a diet that worked. All that digestive upset delayed her spaying… which nearly killed her.
That was the early Saturday morning, realizing she hadn’t moved from her pillow since the evening before, that I loaded her into the Jeep and headed for the doggy emergency room. It was a massive infection, but a shot of strong antibiotics turned her around within 24 hours.
The thing about pets — and even more about children — is those moments of panic, of thinking, “Oh, shit, this is it!” Or of waiting for the doctor when they’re in surgery. I don’t know how atheists manage at times like that. What do you do if you can’t pray? (Even if no one is listening, there is something comforting in imaging there is, and that comfort can help you through such awful times.)
Thankfully, although she died years before I expected it (she didn’t get a chance to turn the dials to 11), our life was filled with games and joy. In fact, I was surprised by her ability to understand the simple rules of games.
For instance, we played a game I called, Guard. I would defend a tree (or in the heat of summer, her little wading pool), and the goal was for her to get around me. With the tree, she just had to get between me and the tree to win. With the pool, she had to jump into the water.
Which reminds me of the irony of a dog that loved getting into bodies of water, but acted like I was abusing her when I gave her a bath. When you let a dog sleep on the bed (but never under the covers, ew), regular baths are required. She never did get used to them, and always gave me dirty, tortured looks.
(I had a Keeshond that was even worse that way, but that was understandable. Keeshonds look like drowned rats when they’re wet, and that dog was vain.)
I knew Sam would be a proper water dog (as Labs are meant to be) when she was a young pup and we came upon a huge water puddle while walking in a park. My little gal spent 20 minutes dashing at top speed back and forth through the puddle. I could tell she was having a blast!
As a puppy she could be timid. On an early walk, our path led past a yard where a man was power-mowing his lawn. The noise scared poor little Sam so much, that tiny puppy dragged me backwards out of danger. We had to turn around and retrace our steps.
In time, she became immune to loud noises. As an adult, she was never bothered by fireworks or thunder. Some dogs are (understandably!) terrified by sharp, loud noises, and there’s probably not much you can do for a grown dog once it has that fear. I did learn an effective trick for raising a dog, though.
During lightning storms (and on the Fourth of July), for every bang, I’d act excited and happy. I’d look at her and say, “Wow! That was a great one, wasn’t it!!”
Dogs and children learn from adults. She learned those noises were not threatening. As an adult, she barely even reacted to thunder.
Speaking of timid, my condo at the time had a nine-step stairway from the entryway to the main level. She could climb the stairs, but wouldn’t go down them. For a month or so, I had to carry her down every time we went out.
It was the pizza delivery guy that broke her fear. The doorway was out of sight from the top of the stairs, and her curiosity about the strange voice (and pizza smell) overcame her fear. I was quite surprised when, talking to the guy, I suddenly realized my puppy was at my feet.
Those stairs came to feature in one of our favorite games: Catch. She’d sit at the top, I’d be at the bottom, and we’d toss a ball or toy back and forth. As a young dog, she was into throwing things, and “Throw it!” was a different command than “Drop it!”
In fact, one night I was awakened by a loud bang. Moments later there was another loud bang. And then another. I went to investigate, and my pup had apparently vomited up a rock she’d eaten and was throwing it around the house.
I learned several things playing our stair catch game.
Dogs not only have a sense of humor, they can be teases. She was supposed to toss the ball towards me or at least drop it (allowing gravity to do the rest). But she’d drop the ball at the top and then put her paw on it to prevent it moving.
She’d lift her paw just enough for the ball to start moving over the edge of the step, but then grab it with her paw and pull it back. Then she’d look at me with a big grin, as if to say, “Ha! Fooled you, daddy!”
I suppose I deserved it. I’m guilty of that old trick of pretending to throw a ball while playing fetch. It only fooled her the first time, and over time I couldn’t even trick her the first time. That dog did love to run, though. We played long fetch a lot!
I also learned that, to a dog, tennis balls are all different, even if they all came from the same can and were indistinguishable to humans.
Another trick I played was, during Catch, when she wasn’t looking, I’d grab a second tennis ball and hide it behind my back. When she finally deigned to return the ball in play, I’d switch them behind my back and toss back the alternate.
When that ball was inches away she’d realize it was a completely different object and just watch it sail past. Then she’d look at me with a “Just how stupid do you think I am?” look.
She knew “ball” from (non-ball) “toy” which I also thought was pretty impressive. I could tell her to “get a ball” or “get a toy” and she always got it right. Tennis balls may all be distinct, but she knew they were balls (I’ve seen some MLB umpires lately who could learn from her).
What even impressed me more was her ability to translate a game we’d play to a new setting. The game was “Go hide!” and “Find it!” On the first command she’d go into my walk-in bedroom closet and wait to be summoned. I’d hide several treats in the living room. Then I’d call her back and tell her to “Find It!”
Watching her zero in on the scent was amazing. What was astonishing was that, years later, in a completely different home with a very different layout, I told her, “Go Hide!”
And she headed for the bedroom closet. That blew me away!
The bottom of the page draws nigh, so I will put off a couple of other important tales for another time. I taught her, but she taught me some vital lessons about myself and about life. She made me a better person in those lessons; she made me more human, too. Since her death ten years ago, I’ve felt myself slipping back away from that, and that’s regrettable.
To end on a lighter note: If you own a dog, you owe to yourself and your dog to buy some Kong toys. They are the ultimate, especially the classic Kong. They’re all but indestructible, and dogs love how they bounce. And you can amuse yourself watching them try to get a treat, or peanut butter, out of the inside!