June 26, 2008 – September 25, 2017
It’s taken me a month to get to the point of being able to write something about the loss of our beloved golden retriever, Cardhu. I’ve done this fo cats and haven’t ever had this much trouble pulling something together. But this dog, the first dog I’ve ever owned, is different.
So I’ve been going back through photos, and now I’m being terribly self-indulgent in putting together this post. It’s long. Very long. It has lots of pictures. If Cardhu was your friend—and he had many—enjoy the memories.
We got him as a wee, wee puppy from a breeder in Maple Ridge. He was a fully registered golden, with the official name Goldspirit’s Essence of Gold. He never got called that, of course, or any derivative of it. We did want to name him after something golden but not too clichéd, and we had a friend whose dog was named after Bailey’s Bristol Cream because of her colour. That got us thinking about alcohol. That spring someone we were visiting had served us some lovely Cardhu single-malt, and it came to mind that it would make a great dog name. Short, snappy, way easier to shout than “LAGAVULLIN!” and as I said often, it converted easily to Doobie or Doofus depending on what was more appropriate at any given moment.
Sometimes Doofus was very appropriate.
We had asked the breeder for a pup that was laid back and easy to train, and that was exactly what we got. For some reason, we’d thought this would translate into “cuddly,” but no. He was a mouthy puppy: we got laid-back, squirmy and bitey.
He actually did like snuggles. It was just that, like most of us, he wanted them on his own terms. He was happy to get full body hugs—he’d run up and stand between our legs while we bent over and then we would hug and hug him. It was how I often greeted him when I got up in the morning.
He would shove his head at us to get pets and scritches, but he wanted them where he wanted them, making it clear that he preferred positions comfortable to him and not necessarily us. I will lie my head conveniently in your lap for a little, he said, but after that you will have to reach me while I’m sitting upright. No, don’t stop. Just reach, will you?
His happy place was standing with his head jammed between thighs. This was sometimes difficult to explain to strangers, who thought it unbecomingly personal behaviour. But he wasn’t sniffing, or interested in things he shouldn’t be from a human point of view. It was just comfortable and comforting.
Much can be forgiven when you’re as cute a puppy as he was, though.
And when you’re a handsome adult with a waggy tail. And he wasn’t just cute, he was an extraordinarily beautiful golden, something many people remarked on.
Mouthy or not, squirmy or not, he was smart and eager to learn. He was attentive and always wanted to please us.
We all went to puppy school and he learned quickly. If we could make it clear what we wanted him to do, he wanted to do it for us. Almost always, at least; he was a pretty well-behaved dog, though not perfectly so. Any fault with his training was ours. He could easily have been better, if we’d taken the time to train him more carefully. But we wanted a happy dog, not a perfect one, and he learned most of the things we thought were important exactly as well as we needed him to.
There were a few exceptions, of course. When he saw people he liked all his brains would fall out and then no recall would work no matter how loudly or firmly our commands were asserted. And his desire to eat something REALLY GOOD almost always overrode his desire to please us—unless we were holding it, of course, at which point his generally sloppy heeling became as precise as a jeweller’s weigh-scales.
Unfortunately, “really good” included poop of all kinds, the more disgusting the better—thank god he wasn’t a licky dog. We are eternally grateful that his tastes did not also run to carrion. But after a particularly delectable snack he was happy to share the joy with us a few hours later by farting and burping. Damn, he could clear a room fast. We never quite figured out how someone so beautiful and charming could have such vile habits.
He was smart—he learned his “high five” party trick incredibly quickly—but it took us almost three years to teach him to retrieve a ball. “You’re a RETRIEVER,” we would say reproachfully. But even the most special of treats could not bribe him to bring us the ball. Nope, he’d chase it, he’d pick it up, he’d bring it back—and then he’d drop it and come the last fifteen or twenty feet without it. Now what about that bacon? his waggy butt would say.
And then, one day, he figured out that he preferred to play chase to keep-away, and after that he was ball-crazed. We had to carry a chucker with us on the North Vancouver off-leash trail we walked with him, just to keep him from disappearing off into people’s yards and coming back with stolen balls. They were mostly tennis balls, which we never let him keep, but once he brought us a new softball and once a beach ball and twice an old soccer ball. His ability to sniff out balls never, ever waned.
He never learned—well, we never properly taught him—to retrieve tidily, fetching the ball and dropping it at our feet. The best he did was toss it as he arrived back. As this was always done at a run the results in terms of where it landed were somewhat erratic. But hey, exercise is good for us too.
We moved to Gabriola when he was three. He got a few good years of chucker-thrown ball-chasing on local beaches in before we took note of how sore he was getting to be afterwards, and decided that it wasn’t good for him. After that we’d still play with him and a ball, but not the long runs with the twisting turns, or at least not more than a handful of throws. Even this last summer, I took him down to the ocean and we waded in, and then I tossed a ball for him from a few feet away to catch, or threw it so it went under him and popped up under his belly; trying to find a ball thrown into water near him was a great game and one he’d always loved.
Gabriola is a great place for dogs, what with all the places you can take a dog off leash. We explored endlessly.
And apart from when he was on roads, he was almost never on leash. We’d spent quite a bit of time desensitizing him to deer, so he had no interest in chasing them, even when (as happened a few times) one would pop up more or less right under his nose.
He wasn’t a dog that chased anything, really. Feral turkeys or ducks in our yard? Only interesting until he figured out what they were, then he ignored them. Raccoons got more of his attention, but to be honest most of the time he didn’t even notice they were there. He really was the most extraordinarily laid back dog.
There are so many trails to explore here—the main ones, of course, but also all the little back trails that come and go as people use them (or don’t). We walked them through every season.
“Let’s see where this goes,” I’d say, and we’d head off on something that sometimes turned out to be a deer trail but surprisingly often turned out to be something more substantial and purposeful. I didn’t always have humans with me on these excursions, but he was always there.
It’s true that sometimes the trails were a little sketchy. But that makes them fun!
He loved going for walks, whether we were on foot or on our bikes, especially long ones that involved lots of exploring, lots of things to sniff, and lots of treats. If we took lunch he always got a bit of apple, and always clearly hoped for more.
After we moved here we got back into cycling. For several years, we would go out early in the mornings in the summer for a quick ride before my partner started work, and he was with us on our regular route. When the timing didn’t work Cardhu and I still went, though not quite as early, and often I’d take my iPad with me in a saddlebag.
There are a few good places to stop and rest on our regular route, but there is a particular log that is a little out of the way, a nice place to sit in shade and drink water and relax. He could rest and then wander around exploring stuff, and I could sit and write. (He only once wandered any distance and didn’t come back when called; but after I’d shouted for a while he did finally reappear, with a deer leg that was definitely past its best-by date, and a very happy expression. He could not understand why I was not as pleased as he was.)
As he got older we had to slow down the rides. We let him take the lead and set the pace, and had regular stops for rests and water. He had his own water bottle and knew how to drink from it, though I also carried a collapsible water dish for longer rests. (His water bottle was carefully labelled with his name. There are some things you don’t want to make mistakes about.)
This was the first year where early in the spring when we started up again, after three or four rounds I finally said No, a four-kilometer bike ride is too much for him now, even at his pace. But we still managed some shorter rides.
We have an acre and a half of fenced yard, and apart from cold wet weather he spent most of his time outside. Even on the coldest, nastiest days he wanted to be out, and sometimes it took quite a few tries to get him to obey a command to come inside. (There were a few occasions on which he looked at me thoughtfully when I called and then headed off in the opposite direction.)
He had his favourite places to lie; one outside my office door (so he could be sure he caught me if I decided to do anything interesting, I’m convinced).
Another was in the “cave” under the little Japanese maple out front. I think it was cooler in hot weather, and he could look out over his domain without being noticed.
We approved of that choice in hot weather. Other cooling retreats involved garden plots (and sometimes digging) and were not nearly so popular with us.
He was a funny fellow about some things. If he hurt himself he would come to us and ask us to make it better. Sometimes it was for something minor; a stubbed toe or a bit of a twisted foot or something like that, that would make him limp but only for a minute or two. There was a well-established ritual for such injuries. He would sit there holding his paw up, and we would say, “Oh, Cardhu, did you hurt your paw? Oh, poor, poor puppy!” And we would gently pat the paw and pat his head and rub him all over, and then he would trot off happily with not a limp in sight.
There were a few times when he did hurt himself worse—when he was a puppy he constantly seemed to be getting cut feet or torn claws or whatever, things that weren’t terribly serious but required vet treatments.* Once he got the zoomies and spread-eagled himself on the driver’s door of a passing pickup truck that he hadn’t noticed (luckily the driver had seen him and had pulled up, but Cardhu couldn’t stop his momentum). Amazingly, it seemed to do him no harm; he bounced off and ran happily over to our neighbour, who’d come out to see what made the thump. Once he came close to impaling himself on a fallen branch; he hit it hard, at a run, and it was lucky that it had a sawn-off end and not anything poky. He didn’t seem to have done himself major damage beyond being a little stiff for a day. At some point I realized that he had scar tissue on a rib, but I don’t know which accident caused it. Really, it was amazing he never killed himself, the way he threw himself around.
(*We will not speak of the two rather expensive occasions on which he got a marrow bone stuck around his lower jaw, wedged behind his canines.
Except to say that both involved trips to an animal emergency clinic, being on holidays, and one of them was on Christmas Eve and required a taxi ride from North Van to Kitsilano, and then back again. Ahem.)
A friend said that dogs had to achieve a certain level of dignity in order to be worthy of the title of “noble dog.” That’s a little more challenging for golden retrievers, but late in life I think he achieved the title.
Though I’m not sure that “noble dog” levels of dignity and gravity go with the level of expressivity that he could get into his eyebrows.
Or all that snoozing.
Cardhu didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. When he was young he was quite submissive toward other dogs; when he got older he would tell off annoyances with a growl or occasionally a snarl if he was pushed. But even then I only ever saw him snap at another dog a couple of times, and it was when he had been very, very badly provoked by one who would not stop after being warned. He never ever snapped at or bit a person. Even when the vet clipped off the half-torn off claw he didn’t whine or growl or try to bite.
(But his lip trembled.)
On the other hand, he was more than happy to play-growl. In North Van he had another golden retriever buddy named Jagger. Jagger was the one who taught him the joys of growling, and once he figured out that it was okay, not dangerous! he threw himself into it with gusto. On one memorable occasion they each took hold of one end of a ten-foot stick, pulled, and growled at each other at the top of their lungs for at least five minutes, reducing all humans in range to giggling lumps.
We’d been told by a trainer not to play tug with him ourselves, so we didn’t when he was young, but later we relaxed that rule and got him tug toys and encouraged him to pull sticks with us and taught him that it was even okay to growl at us when we said, “Growlies!” and gave him the signal. He liked that game.
He was very good with puppies and small dogs. He’d lie down and let them crawl all over him.
He was never sorry for himself—except when we wouldn’t let him do something he wanted to do, and that was fleeting. Even at the end, when we were still trying to figure out what was wrong with him and he was suffering, he wasn’t sorry for himself; it was just something to be endured until something like a friend’s visit brought him joy.
He had enormous heart. He was always looking for joy, and finding it.
The greatest gift he brought us was, as with all dogs, love. Love of us, of course, but also love of the world. He expected nothing but delight and good things from everyone and everything he encountered, and mostly got them.
What did he love?
He loved toys, especially when he was young.
He liked to travel, and go camping. (Camping is where he met his first horses, when they passed through just at dusk, and then had to valiantly warn the campsite about the MONSTERS. The horses ignored him.)
He loved blueberries. He almost never got any, because the bushes are fenced. He consoled himself with salal, but you could tell it was very much a second best.
He loved to be vacuumed. He really did.
He loved to play with us. We could play booping games and he would threaten us, but he never, ever bit (even as a puppy he just mouthed), and he was always extraordinarily gentle.
He loved playing with sticks, though he wouldn’t fetch them the way he’d fetch a ball. He’d play tug with them for a while, but really he just wanted to crunch them into pieces.
He loved chewing up sticks into miniscule bits of wood and eating the crumbs. I know, I know. It’s not a good habit. But it was better than poop.
He loved snow. The first time he encountered it he was ecstatic, and every winter when it appeared it was that joy all over again.
(He wasn’t entirely sure about ice, and for the most part stayed off it, but sometimes he thought it was pretty cool too.)
The only thing better than snow was a beach.
The only thing better than a beach was a beach and a ball.
He loved beaches so much that whenever possible he brought them home with him.
(That loving-my-environment-so-much-I-want-to-bring-it-home thing was kind of a theme, actually.)
He loved cooling down in water if he got too hot.
Really, he never needed an excuse to go into water, even in the coldest months. Some of his favourite places when hiking involved water.
He loved going and going and going until it was time to sack out.
He loved his buddies, whether human or canine. (I’m not putting recognizable pictures of his human friends up, but there were a lot of them. You know who you are.)
I’m not sure he loved Skookum-kitty. We had her when we first got him, and she certainly didn’t love him. She wasn’t scared of him, but boy did she put him in his place. I once saw her walk under his belly, hissing at him the whole time.
He loved his current kitty housemates Bird and Pipkin, though he never quite figured out how to play with them. He’d poke their butts with his nose and dodge playful swipes and then get excited and start swinging a toy, and the cats would be all, “Bye now!” It was a shame they couldn’t sort it out, because there was so much goodwill between them.
He loved attention. He could be quite insistent about it, but he knew what it meant when you said, “Enough.” (It was never REALLY enough, though. He was just politely resigned when we said it.)
He loved us, openly and without reservation or conditions, and we loved him back. He was our goofy, sunny boy. We miss him dreadfully.