Schuckman: Man's best friend helps ease the pain

Posted: Oct. 12, 2013 3:01 am Updated: Nov. 2, 2013 4:15 am

Louis Jefferson wasn't sure how long he had been sitting on the park bench.

An hour or so. Maybe two.

Truthfully, time had escaped him.

Jefferson knew he had been sitting there, overlooking the lake in Quincy's Moorman Park, long enough for more than a dozen dogs and their owners to pass by. Most walked at a brisk pace and never broke stride. A few of the dogs took time to sniff around and play.

One approached Jefferson, seeking some attention.

"He was a golden retriever, just a beautiful dog," Jefferson said. "Came right up to me and wanted me to scratch behind his ears. His name was Sunshine, and his owner, a nice woman named Peg, said he was a people dog. You could tell, too. He loved the attention."

Jefferson did, too.

It had been four months since his black labrador retriever named Gus had died. Jefferson buried Gus at a friend's farm near where they dove hunted for so many years, but he couldn't bring himself to hunt that land when dove season opened this year.

"Without Gus with me, it didn't seem right," Jefferson said.

Jefferson picked Gus from a litter of eight pups 14 years ago and trained him to be a hunting dog. They started small, retrieving tennis balls and such and built up to where Gus would track down a rubber duck and bring it back on command.

By the time he was 2 years old, Gus was a fixture in the field and the duck blind.

"He got everything," Jefferson said. "He loved it, too. He was a heck of a swimmer and tracked down every bird we killed. Nothing escaped him."

Including old age.

A year ago, Jefferson noticed Gus getting slower and slower in the water. He didn't have the same fervor chasing rabbits either.

"I think he got tired," Jefferson said. "I think he wore himself out finally."

Each spring, Jefferson and Gus would walk the trails in Moorman Park and chase whatever Gus sniffed out. Often it meant scaring the squirrels up the trees.

"Poor squirrels," Jefferon said. "Gus would nearly catch them. Their hearts had to be racing out of fear."

Last spring, Gus acted different. Actually, he acted indifferent. He didn't want to chase the squirrels. He didn't drag Jefferson around the park. And he refused to go in the water to chase a tennis ball.

That had been the old standby. If they were going to play a game or retrieve something in the park, it was always a tennis ball. Jefferson always kept a couple in his truck and would put one in his pocket when they'd start their walks.

"Gus knew it was there," Jefferson said. "If he got bored, he'd use his nose to try to poke it out of my pocket. He always thought he'd win."

In a sense, Gus did. When Jefferson buried Gus, he threw a tennis ball into the grave.

"It felt right," Jefferson said. "It just did."

He also kept a tennis ball in his truck. Each time he visits Moorman Park and takes a walk, Jefferson tucks that tennis ball in his pocket in memory of Gus.

He did that just the other day, moreso out of habit than anything. He had forgotten it was even there until Sunshine started nosing around.

When Jefferson pulled the ball from his pocket, Sunshine started wagging his tail and jumping around. He wanted to play.

"It was exactly how Gus always acted," Jefferson said. "So playful, so full of life."

Curious to see what would happen -- with a nod of approval from the dog's owner, too -- Jefferson gave the ball a toss. Sunshine ran it down, batted it with his paw and gingerly picked it up with his teeth.

As he came trotting back, Sunshine ran past his owner and straight to Jefferson.

The dog dropped the ball at Jefferson's feet.

"I just smiled," Jefferson said. "And I thought to myself, ‘Gus taught him to do that.'"

Better yet. it was Gus telling him it's OK to move on.

"It's time," Jefferson said. "Maybe it's time for Gus Jr., too."




Today's Edition