95: A Familiar Face

95: A Familiar Face

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

A Familiar Face

Not-so-fun fact: Theobromine an ingredient in chocolate, can be toxic to dogs, causing liver failure or death. It’s best not to give your dog chocolate, especially if it’s small.

When my husband Ron brought home the gregarious, six-week-old yellow Lab pup, I was dismayed. Although I’m as avid a dog fancier as he is, I had two children, ages one and two, and was expecting a third. The idea of a big, full-of-vim-and-vigor puppy thrown into the mix, with Ron frequently away from home taking university courses, was overwhelming. I wanted to tell my spouse to take that toasty-warm, sweet-smelling bundle of buff-colored fur right back to the breeder. I couldn’t manage any more responsibilities. Then I saw the look on his face, and the thought melted like ice in a microwave.

This was his dream dog, the one he’d longed for all his life. Okay, I sighed inwardly. I’d give it a try.

“What are you going to name him?” I asked resignedly as the puppy snuggled into my arms and heart.

He shrugged. Then he glanced past me at the television screen where the children were watching cartoons. A forestry commercial had just flashed on featuring Smokey, the big, amiable fire-prevention bear.

“Smokey,” he said. “I’m going to call him Smokey.”

So Smokey joined the family that cold April afternoon. He loved the big hayfield that was the back yard of our rural home. He housebroke easily and was amazingly gentle with the children. Small hands in his fur or on his ears or tail didn’t deter him, although I tried to keep such unfair treatment to a minimum. In fact, he reveled in being with the two little ones, Joan and Carol. Carol learned to walk by pulling herself upright on Smokey’s hindquarters.

And that first autumn, as a green pup, Smokey further distinguished himself by proving to be an excellent retriever in the marsh that was only a couple of miles from our back door. Ron was delighted.

But Ron was frequently away from home, and I didn’t have the time or stamina to train a pup and work him into a well-socialized companion. As a result, he sometimes left our property and used the neighbor’s lawn as a bathroom. This, of course, brought immediate complaints.

In November, our third child, Steven, was born. Three babies and a big, largely untrained puppy were more than I could handle. At Christmas, in a fit of good-natured exuberance, Smokey knocked over the tree and ate an entire box of candy.

When spring arrived, I was rapidly becoming exhausted by the care of three babies and one large, high-spirited yellow Lab. Something had to give.

And it did. Fate stepped in and gave us a shove into the decision we were so reluctant to take.

In May, shortly after Smokey had celebrated his first birthday, Ron’s friend Dan and his wife Mary came to visit. They immediately fell in love with the gregarious yellow Lab. A young, childless couple who lived on a farm about fifty miles away, they’d been looking for a dog, a Labrador Retriever, in fact. When they saw our situation, they cautiously suggested that they’d be willing to take Smokey to live with them.

At first, neither Ron nor I was willing to consider the idea. In spite of our problems with children and a young dog, we loved the Lab with the good-natured grin and constantly wagging tail. We’d adopted him as surely as if we’d adopted a child. He was family.

The following week, our minds were changed when Smokey wandered out of the yard and was nearly struck by a car. Lacking supervision and attention, he’d begun to roam.

His brush with death startled us into facing reality. Smokey needed more time and care than we could give him. If we truly loved him, we’d let him go to a place where he’d get just that.

For most people who give up a dog for adoption, the story ends there. But Smokey was to prove to be an exceptional dog when fate once again stepped in.

The rural school where Ron was principal was suddenly slated for permanent closure in June. We’d have to move. Ron looked over the available teaching jobs for which he was qualified. Finally, he decided to accept a position as a chemistry teacher in a city ten miles from the farm that was now Smokey’s home. We didn’t foresee this proximity as being a problem. We’d never let the Lab know where we were.

September saw us ensconced in our new urban home, a basement apartment in a residential subdivision. After living in the wide-open spaces with an entire house and several acres of farm land at our disposal, it took a good deal of adjusting physically as well as mentally to become accustomed to the restrictions of a small flat and a postage-stamp-sized back yard. Left each day with three preschoolers in a totally foreign environment, I was more than a bit lonely. I knew no one in the community. Sometimes, after the children were asleep and I was alone, tears came. I longed for a familiar face.

Early one October evening, I got my wish. I was watching television alone in our sunken living room (Ron was at a school meeting, the children safely tucked into bed) when I glanced up to see a pair of glowing eyes peering in at me.

My first instinct was to swish the drapes shut and rush to check the locks on the door. Then I recognized the lolling tongue and good-natured canine grin.

“Smokey!” I couldn’t believe it.

Hearing his name, sent Smokey’s tail into a wild whirl. A welcoming “woof” erupted from his throat.

By the time I got to the door, he was already there and burst in, all his typical joie de vivre fully intact.

“Smokey!” I knelt to take him into my arms, tears of happiness blinding me. Here, at last, was a familiar face — a happy, lovingly reassuring face. I buried my face in his soft, strong neck and cried.

Later, I took him into the kitchen and, even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do, gave him a slice of roast beef from the refrigerator. Then I sat down at the table and tried to decide what to do.

Call Dan and Mary, of course. They must be frantic with worry. Reluctantly, I picked up the phone.

“Smokey!” Three-year-old Carol toddled into the kitchen. She’d been dragging her favorite teddy bear, but the minute she saw her old friend, she dropped it and rushed to hug him. Smokey set to lavishing wet-tongue kisses over her little face as she laughed and pressed herself against him. “Smokey, I lub you!”

I found a Kleenex, blew my nose, and told myself not to let my emotions overcome common sense. I remembered Dan and Mary telling us in telephone conversations that Smokey never left their fenced farmyard even though they knew he could easily have cleared the rail fence if he’d made a decent effort. They’d taken his lack of interest in running away to mean he was completely content.

What, then, had aroused him to action that beautiful October night? Had he somehow sensed our relative nearness? And how had he managed to find us? We’d conscientiously avoided visiting him, and Dan and Mary hadn’t been to our apartment since we’d moved.

While I was waiting for Smokey’s new family to arrive, Ron came home. I’ll never forget the look of utter joy on his face when he saw his hunting buddy.

He must have been feeling the same happiness I felt when I’d first seen Smokey’s irresistible, lop-sided grin peering in at me from the window. I knew then and there that we had to find a way to have the Lab back in our lives once more.

“We have to talk to Dan and Mary,” I said.

“I know.” Ron was down on one knee, ruffling Smokey’s neck.

“But how did he ever find us?” I sat down on a chair at the table again. “I can’t imagine…”

“I went to see him yesterday.” Ron’s confession caught me totally off-guard.

“You what? But I thought we agreed…”

“I know, I know.” He avoided my eyes and concentrated on straightening Smokey’s collar. “But I wanted to see him, just for a few minutes. I never thought he’d try to find me… us.”

He looked up at me, and his expression told me what we had to do.

Dan and Mary arrived a few minutes later. And we talked… into the wee hours of the morning, with Smokey lying between his two families, sleeping at times, watching our faces furtively as if he knew it was his future we were discussing.

We knew we couldn’t take him back from Dan and Mary. They loved him; he was their baby. We also knew our landlord had a strict no-pets rule. Final conclusion: We’d have visiting rights, and Smokey would be kept under closer supervision at the farm.

When he died, no one mourned his passing more than I did. The dog that had come unwanted into my life had become an integral part of it. I will most certainly never forget that October night when, with a crooked grin and flapping tail, he drove away the loneliness in my heart simply by being a loving, familiar face.

~Gail MacMillan

More stories from our partners