A Friend, Strong and True

By Doug Mitchell

Sean was a world class breeder of gun dogs; a guy whose business card I saved for three years for just that day. He looked at the pup I’d just purchased from him, the one our son, Ryan, named “Reveille,” after the Texas A&M Aggies’ famous mascot, and assured me he had a cool name and he was laid back and adaptable for our home.  

Rev was a beautiful British black lab. His parents were the kind of wonderful, athletic retrievers that magazines put on their covers. His siblings were bound for further training as fine finished gun dogs. Rev was destined for life as a “family companion.” Rev lacked the focus required for hard retrieves amid all the interesting distractions afield, but he was a handsome, stocky, square headed, good-natured addition to our family; ready for adventure.  

Doubt gripped me. The vote to get a dog had not been unanimous. My wife Pam cast the lone “no” vote. But her vote was really the most important one in our home. Despite our children’s promises, she knew that with my required work travel the bulk of the dog walking, hair sweeping, and mess cleaning would fall to her. We were a rambunctious family already, in a house busy with games and sleepovers. The backyard, full of trees and a zip line, was an active and occasionally dangerous place.  

Our teenagers, Ryan and Kait, were beginning to make decisions of their own, not always ones with which I agreed. I could feel my grip on paternal authority slipping. Looking back, that time was the beginning of a few tense and challenging years for all of us. I didn’t know it, but what I needed was a laid back, faithful friend who was up to the challenge of a life in transition. 

I took Ryan and Kait to visit Rev six weeks before we were to bring him home. We watched him go through his commands. Rev completed ‘heel” and “come” and was just about to “sit” when the young chukkar Sean used as a gun dog training bird broke loose from its cage. The frightened bird sprinted between the sheds and through the trees in the falling snow. We chased it, but it was quick and doubled back in flash. Rev’s nose went up, and his ears tilted forward as he watched the chase. 

“Stay” was a concept lost on Rev when there was fun to be had. With feet too big for his legs, stumbling as he accelerated, he followed his nose to the chase, ignoring every command to stop until he cornered the bird in some bushes and gently gathered it up in his mouth. He proudly took it to his trainer and deposited it, unharmed, into her hand. Rev was totally unruffled by his trainer’s frustration and obviously proud of himself. It was the last true retrieve he ever made. Rev was totally devoid of the highly charged competitive focus I saw so often in the bird dogs I met hunting pheasants in my early teens. Over time, I learned Rev was entirely engrossed in having a good time and always hoped others might join the party. 

We picked Rev up three days after Christmas, ornaments packed away early in anticipation of his potentially destructive arrival. Once home we assigned him to his crate in the basement. Rev was afraid of the stairs, but in a few days, with practice and a box of strategically placed dog biscuits, they were no longer a problem. In the interim, he loved being picked up and hugged by Kait on the way down. Not long after, he mastered the stairs and the rumble of Rev careening down the stairs became just another part of the joyful pandemonium in our home. His ability to hear an egg crack was a remarkable gift, precipitating what sounded like a small earthquake as he made his way to the kitchen, sliding into his bowl like Clemente headed for home. 

For the first year of his life no sock was safe. Our yard became a collection of colorful stockings, all in various stages of digestion. Rev slimed or ate every loose item within reach. There seemed to be nothing he would not attempt to pick up and deliver with an invitation to play carry: tree branches, balls, books, and toys were. I clipped his leash to my belt for most of his first few months and he became my shadow. Ryan and Kait gave him a human voice. He began calling me “Alpha” when he assumed a persona, creating yet another voice in our house; “Hey Alpha, if you’re not finishing that burger, I’ll take care of it” or “Sorry Alpha, I thought the birthday cake on the counter was mine.” 

Our basement eventually became the weekly Friday night encampment for four teenaged boys. Rev joined them from the beginning, and it was there I saw his heart on a Saturday morning. I found Rev on the floor asleep next to the couch, with a sleeping boy’s hand on his head. Beside Rev was a pile of his own hair, recently shed. Judging from the position of the boy, the dog, and his hair, it was obvious that hand had been on him all night. Later Ryan told me his friend had lost his dog that same day, and the usually rambunctious Rev ambled up to his new friend, and stayed by his side as the boy fell asleep petting him. It was the first time I was convinced Rev understood his role in the universe. 

Rev became the relied upon keeper of childhood secrets, alternating children’s rooms to sleep when needed, a furry reminder everything would be ok, no matter the adolescent angst. He was present in senior pictures; appropriately positioned by a “No Dogs Allowed” sign with our son; and perfectly timing a big sloppy kiss on our daughter’s face for the photographer. He seemed to know everyone’s temperament, and how to adapt accordingly.  

Rev taught us the joy of homecoming. Every greeting was a new celebration, repeated any time Rev heard the garage door open or close. The mud room door shook as the walls echoed a thumping tail. Arrivals home from college became the most joyous of occasions-a smiling lab, spinning in faster circles, pausing only to kiss the returning scholar, eventually ending on his back for the coveted two-handed belly rub. 

For weeks after each child left for college, I watched Rev awaken from his midday nap and take his place out on the lawn, waiting eagerly for Ryan and Kait to round the corner from the school bus stop. When I could, I waited with him, even though I knew better. He became my dog during those years. By then he was indeed that laid back pup I’d hoped for, with enough mischief in his heart to keep me on my toes. In my mind, he still called me ‘Alpha” just like the kids said, and with no one else around, I started speaking out loud to him on those afternoons. We traded our favorite stories about each child. He appeared to not mind hearing mine more than once. I tried to explain how he had done a great job with the kids. I think he understood eventually, but the sorrow never really left his eyes. 

Late on sleepless nights, when military training and sorority activities thousands of miles from our home kept me awake, Rev and I had a tradition. He slept by my side of the bed now, and I’d look over to see him sitting, staring at me, my restlessness having alerted him. In the silence, I imagined him whispering, 

“Alpha, don’t wake up the Lady Of The House, she’ll never make it back to sleep. I’ve only recently won her over, so don’t screw it up. C’mon with me, we can tell a story or two, and you can break open that bourbon. When you’re done, just set the glass next to me. I’ll take care of the ice.” 

I spent more than a few of those nights in silent tears, burying my doubts and fear-scratching his soft ears until it was time to return to bed. Rev became my constant companion, bounding into the driveway when I arrived home and sitting, head over my shoulder, in my truck on the way to the woods. Winters were our favorite, the colder the better as it meant we had the trails to ourselves. There was no leash on those days, for either of us. I talked out loud to the dog who had become my best friend. He kept my secrets; sharing my loneliness and heartache as our children launched. Driving home, I often caught him in the rear-view mirror singing along with Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Jason Isbell and Del McCoury. The music was grand, he never cared that I was forever out of tune. 

In the midst of 2020’s misery, he brought peace and simple joys, despite the uncertainty of a job significantly impacted by the pandemic and the pain of a family separated by thousands of miles. My workdays consisted of hours staring at screens with Rev snoring in the background and, with everything shut down, there was little relief. But I could heed the call of wild places with a happy companion and, with churches closed a weekly escape became our Sunday ritual. The trails were nearly always the same, but the joy of bounding down them never got old for Rev. His joy gave me mine. When summer arrived, our haunts filled with families seeking the same peace of mind we already knew. I missed winter’s solitude, but Rev welcomed exhausted children with feet blistered by the wrong shoes, giving them the smiles they needed to finish the trail.  

As the pandemic waned and my travel schedule resumed, he was gone. He left on Easter weekend, in pain, but sweet natured to the end, doing his best to bring joy and hope, even as he knew before the rest of us that his work was done. I haven’t been able to hike our woods since he departed and when I visited a church for the first time in more than a year, I spent my time there in silent mourning, contemplating the presence of God in the form of a Labrador Retriever.

About the Author 

Doug Mitchell is a small-town boy who learned to live in the big city, all the while hearing the call back to the Pennsylvania woods of his youth. Married to Pam for 40 years, his work often takes him to the great cities of the Northeast. Doug’s weekends are reserved for trips into the wild, where he is learning to be an outdoorsman and conservationist who crafts stories from unexpected adventures.