It was the first Friday after the first of November, 1996. That morning I picked up a newspaper on my way to work and immediately turned to pets in the classified section.
Willy's first Christmas Tree at 16 Weeks.
Photo by Margaret
I scanned quickly down the list of ads. Free kittens by the dozen. Your usual free-to-a-good-home pets. A rabbit or two. And there it was—Black Lab Puppies for Sale. The phone number was someplace close. That day at work, the minutes were like days.
I didn't say a word to anyone because they might go buy "MY" puppy. That night after dinner I casually said to my wife, "So there's some puppies in the paper, wanna go take a look?"
Now, she knew I wanted a dog, but I don't think she really knew what kind of dog I had in mind. I wanted a water dog. A dog that would jump into water that was 33 degrees and swim around just for the pure joy of it.
We'd been married a few years and I kept saying, "Soon as we get a house, I'm getting a dog." Well, we got ourselves a house and I was getting myself a dog, come hell or frozen water.
"A dog?" Sigh. "Okay sure, I'll come. What kind of dog?"
"They are black labs. They're good dogs."
I could barely contain my excitement. I called the number and talked to the guy. He seemed to have most of the right answers and a couple of the answers I could live with. He owned the mother, she was a member of the family. No he didn't own the father, it belonged to a friend of his. The mating was not an accident, it was planned. A good experience for his kids. He said the mother was smart and the father was smart too.
Then he asked me some questions. Good questions. Questions that said he understood what he was doing. I had a good feeling about getting a dog from him.
Then he dropped his big question. "Are you looking for a male or a female?"
"I want a male," I told him and held my breath. Females are usually the first to go. But sometimes there are only one or two males in a litter and if two people happen to want them, then they are gone. The same is true of females of course and it is much more common for all the females to go before the males.
He gave me directions to his house. I grabbed my coat. It took Mrs. Goodwife darn near forever to be ready to leave. I've always wondered what she was thinking at that point.
I took a duck call, a recently fired shotgun shell, and a glove I often wore when handling poultry. We left and it really was just a short drive, about ten minutes away. I rang the bell and when the door opened, we were greeted by a pretty female black lab and the guy who owned the dog. He showed us in, introduced us to his daughter and his dog, and talked to us for a few minutes. You see, he wasn't going to sell to just anyone and it was that kind of responsibility that impressed me more than anything else.
Finally the moment I'd been waiting all day arrived. He showed us the puppies.
At first he just showed us the two males. One was clearly the leader, the other followed. We watched them play in the garage. I picked the leader up and examined it. Everything seemed fine, right down to the wide webbing between his toes. I looked at the other one too, but my mind was almost made up.
He brought the other puppies in when I asked. The pack ran around the garage, tails wagging and sniffing every corner eleven times and once more just for good measure. That pudgy black male was always at the head of the pack and where he went, the others followed. His tail, at just 10 weeks old, was curled tightly over his back.
I blew on the duck call. Just a quick quack. He stopped and the others bowled him over. He was up in an instant looking at me. My heart was going ninety. I blew the call again and he came running over. For a moment, the others hesitated and then followed. They only stayed a moment though. They had no interest in the duck call.
I repeated the test and this time I showed them all the smelly glove. The big male was all over it and tried to take it from me. I laughed and kept hold of it. The others sniffed it and quickly ran off to explore the garage again. After a minute or so, I picked him up and petted him. He licked my face. I showed him the shotgun shell (It was just something to show him, to see if he was interested in new things and new smells, in case you were wondering.)
He was interested. He sniffed it, tail rigid over his back. Eyes wide open. Curiosity quelled his urge to struggle out of my arms. One more thing to cinch the deal. If the relationship was going to work, the puppy had to win over my wife in a big way, because a puppy means accidents, mushy dog food, vet visits, and licked faces.
"Here. You hold him a minute." I put the puppy in her arms and watched. She looked looked dubious, but willing. The puppy licked her face.
"ICK!" she exclaimed but didn't put him down. "This is the one you want?" she asked me.
"Yep I think so, what do you think?"
"Take him back so I can get the checkbook out."
I don't think my grin could have gotten any wider. Nope, that would been darn near close to disappearing like the Cheshire cat.
The owner asked me all the questions all over again. He extolled on the virtues of the puppies' mother and showed me her, and the sire's, pedigreed. He gave me about a five day supply of puppy food too. We finally managed to leave. I had the puppy under my arm and opened the truck door for my wife. She got in and I plopped the puppy in her lap.
"You want me to hold him?" she didn't sound very happy.
I didn't answer, I just got in the truck and drove straight to the pet store.
The puppy went straight to work making friends with her. He licked her face.
I bought a leash, a collar, a couple of chew toys, a ton of treats and a throwing dummy made for puppies. When I returned to the truck, the door was open and my wife was standing there, blocking the door with her body.
"He peed on the floor!"
"Really?" I pretended astonishment that a puppy would do such a thing. I got some paper towels and wet wipes from the back seat and wiped it up. He rode on the floor the rest of the way home.
Inside the house, I put the newly acquired puppy items on the table and set the puppy on the carpeted floor.
Suddenly, all was not well. Gone was the security of the pack and the familiar surroundings. The security of being held. His legs became shaky, the little tail went between his legs and he cowered. The poor thing let out the saddest whimper and that I think, was the moment he won my wife.
"Awe. He's scared. Pick him up."
I didn't pick him up. After a minute or two, he began to sniff around without moving. Another minute and he did move, and suddenly, there was the bold, curious puppy again, checking out his new digs, although a bit cautiously.
I don't remember if it was right then, or the next day. I was going to name him Sam. No she told me, you can't name him Sam. Sam is the name of our brother-in-law. I hadn't thought of that. Ironically, a number of years later they got a dog and what did they name him? Sammy, after Sam, who everyone calls Sammy.
Willy. That was it. Willy. Willy the Wonderful Water Dog! Later, I put it on his AKC registration papers and sent them in. Willy it was.
That night, he kept trying to get out of the cardboard box. Eventually, I put him next to my side of the bed on the floor. I didn't sleep much that night. Plans for the morning included a trip to the marsh and Willy was going with me.
The next morning, my wife announced she was coming with us. I was amazed. She had never gone out to he marsh with me before. She wanted to bring the camera and get some pictures of me with my new dog. That was fine, but I could already see that he was going to be our dog, and not just mine.
It was beautiful day. The fall colors were just past their peak with a beautiful blue sky. Absolutely gorgeous. I rowed the boat in the channel. My wife snapped pictures. The new puppy climbed all over the boat and looked over the sides. We really had a great time.
At home, I started to teach Willy right away. His name, to go outside. We played every night and every morning. He grew fast. My wife says he always looked bigger in the morning than he did the night before.
Willy was smart too, just as I had known he was. He learned his name, to come, and to sit down very quickly. And I took him out to the marsh every weekend.
Willy's First Adventure
Throughout the week after we brought Willy home, I played with him every morning before work and every evening after work. By play I mean teaching him by playing with him. Four days after he came home with us, he was starting to figure out that Willy was his name. We also played with balls and together, we were having a ball. We also started going on some short walks and he had begun exploring our yard.
On Saturday, a week after he came home with us, I took Willy out to the marsh again. It turned out to be another bluebird day, with temperatures in the 40s. We arrived shortly after sun up and put the boat in the water, made sure I had everything and put Willy in too. He got busy exploring the boat, while I started rowing.
We had only gone a short ways when I noticed that large numbers of coots had arrived for a rest during their fall migration. There were literally hundreds of them, maybe even thousands. These birds are rather odd and don't like to fly except to migrate or move from one body of water to another.
I decided to row closer and check them out. We went about 200 yards or so when I heard little paws scrabbling on the bow. I turned around just in time to see Willy standing on the little triangle that joined the two sides of the boat into the bow.
With a leap that did my heart proud, Willy jumped into the water straight at the coots. Although I was amazed he did it at that early age (just 11 weeks old then) I also panicked. The water was only about 35 degrees and far too cold for an 11 week old puppy. I pulled hard on the oars twice and tried to keep an eye on Willy.
Willy hit water with a splash and immediately realized he'd made a big mistake jumping into that water. He turned around and came paddling along side the boat with eyes wide and full of fear. I reached over the side, grabbed him by the nape of the neck and hauled him in. He was already shivering violently and I was knew he was in trouble.
I had an extra sweater along and used it to towel him off as best I could. Then I tucked him inside my coat, zipped it up and started rowing back to the truck as fast as I could. The whole way, I could feel him shivering. I opened my coat again, got a hold of him and pushed him up inside my shirt against my bare skin. He was cold. There was no doubt about that. I zipped up again and started rowing.
About the time we got to the truck, his shivering had subsided a bit. He was still cold and would shiver a moment, then stop. Shiver, stop. I jumped out of the boat, pulled it up on shore and headed for the truck. I started it, turned the heat on high and put him on the floor next to the heater duct.
By the time I had the boat out of the water, Willy was a lot warmer. I had a couple of donuts for a snack later and fed him one. Not the best puppy fare, but loaded with sugar and fat—quick energy for a puppy. I drank some coffee while Willy soaked up the heat.
Soon, he was his old self. Curious, happy, tail curled over his back and investigating everything. We played "walk on the leash" for 10 minutes and decided to head for home. Willy slept curled up on my sweater on the floor all the way home.
Willy the Wonderful Water Dog had his first swim and first adventure. He learned some things and we went on.
Learning Fast at 12 Weeks
By the end of Willy's first week with us, he was learning his name and was having a lot of fun playing with us. I would roll the ball and he would chase it. Sometimes he'd pick it up and chew on it. To keep his interest high, I kept him chasing the ball and calling his name and praising him for everything he did except for leaving a puddle or pile on the carpet. Then it was up and outside and hopefully, I saw what was coming before there was an accident.
By the time he was 12 weeks old, he definitely knew his name and was just beginning to understand that bringing me the ball instead of running with it was infinitely more fun than keeping it to himself.
You could easily tell Willy's mood by his tail and his ears. Happy, his tail was tightly curled and the tip almost touched his back. It would wag back and forth fast. When he was very excited his tail would almost straighten out and wag hard. Chastised for chewing something he wasn't supposed to chew, he would let it droop just enough to look absolutely pathetic and make you feel bad. He was growing so fast that you could see a difference in his size every day.
I started teaching him the basics. Come, Sit, Stay. We worked on them constantly and I kept it fun. He loved to play and he loved the games we invented to teach him. I could see how smart he was, but I still kept it simple enough for him to grasp, and yet challenge him at the same time.
Let me digress a moment. Researchers have proven that environment at a young age is a key variable for future problem solving and intelligence. Genes are important too, but environment is very important. My mother used to say "talk to that dog in sentences, he's smart enough to understand." I did it with my first dog, and she was pretty smart. I did it more with Willy and many people who knew him would tell you he was the smartest dog they ever knew.
So many things I wish I had a chance to video. A moment and it was over and done with and no chance to get it. I would not trade those moments away for anything.
I had this little puppy sized throwing dummy and we'd play with it in the yard. Willy loved it and loved chasing it. When I'd take it from him, he'd jump on me, trying to get me to throw it again. If I had a dime for every time I threw that dummy or other dummies...
Weekdays I had to work and we had a place made for him downstairs. I'd come home and clean up his space and take him outside. We'd eat dinner and then I'd take him for a walk after he was fed. Weekends we often spent at the marsh, the family cabin on the lake, or walks in the woods.
I build a crate for him. A place to call his own and feel safe and sleep at night instead of finding something to chew on that he wasn't supposed to chew.
Sure, I know I could have bought one. But I'm not the kind of guy who goes out and buys something just because it's easier to do that. I do things for myself, and that means building things and teaching a puppy to become part of the family.
And that is what dogs and any other pet should be—a part of the family. They are so much smarter than people think they are. I won't argue that they think like people. They don't. They think like dogs. And if you understand that and try to understand how a dog thinks, you will gain a much deeper understanding of your best friend.
At 12 weeks, Willy was already finding his place as a part of our family. He had figured out how to win the heart of my wife, that his name was Willy, and to come when he was called. Playtime was a very important part of his life, and so were our adventures in the outdoors. As winter came upon us, the games and the learning continued.
Willy Becomes a Water Dog
Willy was six months old in February and it seemed almost crazy how fast he had grown. He still had a lot of filling out to do, but he was already a big, strong dog. I was so proud of him for all that we had accomplished in the previous months. He had quite a ways to go, but he was getting there.
On our nightly walks, we'd pass a beach and he'd play in the water, never going much more than knee deep. It was cold of course. This is northern Illinois and February means ice and snow and frozen or partly frozen lakes, ponds, and rivers. I started bringing a dummy along on our walks and down by the beach, I'd throw it out a little ways and he'd get it. Never getting very wet but having a great time splashing in the dog-knee-deep water.
One Saturday at the end of February, Marg and I drove Willy to a different park. It had a couple of ponds and one had partially thawed. There was a big hunk of ice in the middle, but the outer edges were clear for about 30 to 40 feet. We were throwing the dummy in the shallow water and Willy was going to get it. He had gotten pretty wet and as of yet wasn't showing signs of being too cold. In fact, he was steaming in the thirty-plus degree air.
Willy came out of the water and tried to dry himself on Marg's pant leg. She grabbed the dummy and he was ready to go. She threw it and it went just a little too far and landed in deep water.
Willy chased the dummy and stopped, shoulder deep in the water and turned around to look at me.
"Fetch!" I said. "Go get it!" Willy turned around, moved slightly forward and backed up. He looked back at me as if to plead for help.
For several minutes, we tried to coax him into fetching the dummy, but it seemed like he wasn't going to go. I was ready to give up and write the throwing dummy off.
Then one of those "Wish I had it on Video" moments occurred.
I called him back and for an instant, he looked so disappointed. His tail drooped and you could almost feel his feeling of failure. But then Marg said, "Go get it Willy! Fetch! Fetch it up!"
Willy turned around, reared up on his hind legs and went "A RowR RowW Rowr Ror Err Gror," and lunged straight after the dummy. He got about a foot away and lunged again, grabbed it and turned around to come straight back to shore.
Well. We praised and hugged and loved him up. Just for good measure, I threw the dummy one more time, not quite as far, but far enough he had to swim. He didn't even hesitate and went straight after it. I think I was so proud my shirt buttons popped. We dried Willy off with a big towel and took him home.
I've seen people talk themselves into doing something. I've seen people encourage themselves. I do it myself on occasion. "Come on Mike, get it on already you can do this." But I never saw a dog do it before and probably never will again. I just think there was no way Willy was going to leave his favorite toy behind and he said to himself "Well bud, you better go get it or you'll never see it again and never come back here with Mike and Mama." And then he went.
After that, there was no turning back. Willy had become Willy the Wonderful Water Dog and would love the water for the rest of his life.