January 17, 2009
Lessons from Boru: How to Fetch, Live, and LoveBy Larrey Anderson
Béar Croi Boru. That's his official AKC name. It's Gaelic. It means "Boru with the heart of a bear." It fits him perfectly.
Boru is the oldest of our three Irish Water Spaniels. My father-in-law bought him, thirteen years ago, as a gift for my wife -- to keep her company. I was undergoing extensive rehabilitation for chronic pain in Texas when Boru came to live at our home in Idaho.
My wife called me in Texas. She was eager to tell me about our new nine-week-old puppy. "What's he like?" I asked her.
"He is sitting right here on the kitchen floor," she began. (I could hear Boru yipping in the background.) "What's he like? He's a lot like you. Really. He has curly brown hair -- just like yours," my wife answered. "He has golden brown, almost hazel, eyes -- just like yours." She hesitated for a second. Boru had stopped yipping. "And now he is humping my leg."
Boru has always loved the water. I started teaching him the fine art of retrieving at an early age. (Our house is just a few steps away from two ponds. I can just about hit the mighty Snake River with a rock thrown from our porch.) When he was about four months old I took Boru to one of the ponds. He was finally big enough to hold the bumper (a retrieving dummy) in his mouth.
The books I had read on retrieving all said the same thing: the puppy in training must always retrieve the bumper. No excuses. No failure. Even if the trainer has to guide the dog to the bumper.
Our first lesson occurred on a cold December day. As per the training manuals' instructions, I had tied the bumper to a rope. I tossed it five feet out from the shoreline. No problem. Boru brought it back. Ten feet. Same result. Fifteen feet. Ditto. We had reached the end of the rope.
I untied the bumper, looked down at my four-month-old puppy and said, "You ready for the big leagues?" Boru sat in strict attention on the bank and shook in the cold winter air. "Okay then. Boru, stay." I let the bumper fly.
The retrieving dummy bobbed up and down in the water, fifty feet from the bank. "Boru, mark!" I gave the verbal command and the hand signal for Boru to fetch the bumper.
He looked up at me as if to say, "It's cold enough right here -- and that bumper is way out there."
"Boru, mark!" I hollered and pointed. Boru just shook.
Rules are rules. Boru was going to retrieve that bumper. I took off my coat and shoes. I dove into the ice-cold water. "Come on Boru, mark." I looked back over my shoulder at the bank. Boru was nowhere to be seen. This is just great, I thought.
I heard water splashing next to me. I turned. Boru was in the pond and headed for the bumper. He looked back at me as if to say, "Why didn't you tell me fetching is a team sport?"
Retrieving was downhill from there. Boru is the smartest dog I have ever known. By the time he was nine-months-old he was doing a double blind retrieve.[i]
As Boru's retrieving abilities skyrocketed, my health deteriorated. About the time of Boru's first birthday, I underwent a series of extensive back surgeries. Boru's days as a retriever were over.
Boru was now a fetcher of books and slippers -- not ducks and bumpers. Following surgery I spent many excruciation hours lying on the floor. Boru would sometimes serve as my pillow. I could hear his big bear heart beating in his chest.
Boru was fated to become my trainer. Rehabilitation from my surgeries was long and painful. Now I was the one in the water. The first phase of rehab took place in a small outdoor swimming pool. I would try to walk from one end of the pool to the other. Boru followed along poolside. He waited for me on the deck. He would lie down as I approached my goal: getting across the pool.
Boru seemed to understand how hard it was to take those last few steps. He would whine and paw at the water as if to say, "Just a little more. Come on. I am right here." When I made it to the edge, he would lower his head. I would bury my face in his coat and weep.
But Boru would have none of that. Rules are rules. I had more laps to go. After a minute or two he would jump up, trot to the other end of the pool, and look back at me. "That wasn't so bad," he seemed to say. "You can do it one more time." And because he was waiting for me ... I did.
Boru never did become a world-class retriever -- but he did become a star. When the local children's theatre produced the musical Annie, my young niece won the leading (human) role of Annie. Because he was so well trained, Boru was chosen to play the dog lead. Boru played "Sandy."
Before I tell you about his stage career, I should probably let you know that Boru loves children. He has always been observant and protective of them. He once dove into a swimming pool and pulled out a thrashing child. He gently gripped the child's arm in his mouth and pulled her to the side of the pool.
Boru is especially fond of my niece. When the two of them took the stage, he stuck next to my niece as if glued to her leg. When the nasty Miss Hannigan delivered her threatening lines to Annie, Sandy (Boru) stiffened, raised his tail, and growled a low, deep warning.
His stage presence and timing were perfect. He not only got a standing ovation at the end of the play -- he got a big write up and his picture in the local newspaper.
For the last thirteen years, whenever I can, I take Boru swimming. Late this summer I took him down for his swim. Usually Boru can't wait for me to give the "Boru, mark" command so that he can do what he was born to do. But one day, this last August, Boru stood on the shore and shook. Something was wrong. He wouldn't get in the water. I cried. I brought him home. My wife took him to the vet.
The vet told us that Boru would not be with us much longer. Boru's bear heart is dying. I can hear it. I can feel it. His heart no longer beats like a steady bass drum. It skips. Then stops. Then struggles to beat again.
Boru and I still go down to the river. My wife bought Boru a dog-style life jacket. I gently dress him in his life jacket. I strip down to my swimsuit. I throw his bumper a few feet into the river. "Boru, mark," I quietly give the command.
Then I slip into the water and guide Boru out to the bumper. For Boru has taught me, for thirteen unforgettable years, that fetching, like life and love, is a team sport.
Update: A picture of Boru:
Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. His latest award-winning novel is The Order of the Beloved. His memoir, Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market, has just been released.
[i] In a double blind retrieve the dog does not see where the two bumpers are placed in the field. He is guided to each bumper, and must fetch them in the correct order, by following signals, directing the dog to the bumper, from the handler. Boru could perform double blind retrieves both on land and in water at nine months of age.