The Duchess of My Heart

cats dog dog wisdom dogs wisdom of animals Feb 22, 2022
Dog with butterfly on nose

I’ve admitted it - I’m a cat person. I looooove the keekee’s. Given the choice among a dog, cat, or horse - at this point in my life I’m choosing the cat, hands down, mostly because I don’t bounce like I did when I was younger. However, if the horse was ”bomb proof” (nobody is bomb proof, but some are more laid back than others) and I could actually take it on trail rides, I might throw over the cat for a horse like that, since we have room for a horse.

However, this post is not about cats, or horses. It’s about a very special dog named Duchess. When I was maybe 11 or 12, I saw Big Red, the 1962 version, and I fell in love with Irish Setters. Well, Irish Setters, the purebred variety, were very expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money, so we cast around for a dog that might approximate an Irish Setter. My big dream was to have a girl dog that would have puppies, and I would raise them and sell them and save up money for (at that time) a horse. Or something. I don’t really recall what was going through my 12-year old mind, except ”girl dog” ”puppies” “sell them”, ”make money”.

My mom heard about some puppies, and told me they were maybe half Irish Setter and maybe Golden Retriever. So we went to look, and there she was! The cutest puppy on the planet. She didn’t look at all like either an Irish Setter or a Golden Retriever, but it didn’t matter. We brought her home.

As Duchess grew up, she began to look more like a curly coated retriever, although her fur was that pretty brown that Golden Retrievers sport, so there might have been some Golden in there somewhere. She was sweet and obedient, and came when she was called.

I was a fairly solitary 12-year old, so Duchess became my new best friend. We went everywhere together. She loved to ride in the car, and always took a lot of interest in what was going on outside the windows. She loved to swim (I did not), so when we went to my grandfather’s cottage on the Fox River, she tended to have more fun than me, but that was okay. There was a lot of open land around our house and we would go for long walks. She slept in my room. As I got older and started to drive, I almost always took her with me, so long as it wasn’t too hot. She spent a lot of time sleeping on the back seat of the car.

She’s the only dog I’ve ever had in my life that would bark on command. We were going for a walk and I had some dog treats in my pocket. I stopped and she sat down. ”Speak!” I said. She looked at me as though I had lost my senses. So I tried again. ”Speak!” And I barked. Now she was sure I was nuts. But, I was speaking her language, plus I had a treat in my hand. She barked back. The treat went from my hand to her mouth. Wow, look at this, I bark and get a treat! So I said ”Speak!” , she barked, and was rewarded with another treat. Never had a dog before or since that figured out ”Speak”.

On the rare occasions that the family would go out for a while and she was not invited, she ”guarded the house.” This consisted of sleeping on the front step until she heard our car pull in the driveway. Then she would leap to her feet, gaze off into the distance in her best guard dog pose, and do a lap around the house, making sure no one had come in through the back door while she was snoozing. We always told her what a good job she did. In reality, if someone had come a calling she probably would have invited them in, made them a cup of tea, and showed them the family silver.

Now, about that puppy money-making scheme. It didn’t really work too well, as the puppies were considered mutts and we were hard pressed to make any money at it. Duchess popped out 8-10 puppies every six months, though, and we always found homes for them. Remember, this was back in the days when pets were seldom neutered or spayed, so this was normal. However, when she was four or five, she really struggled having her litter, and we decided the time had come to end her breeding days. We had her spayed, and I’m sure she was a lot happier. She was a good mom, but all that baby-making was hard on her body. Now she could just enjoy being a sweet dog, riding in the car, sleeping in my room, and barking on command.

When Duchess was 8, my grandpa died, and my grandma went through a really tough time. She had always liked Duchess, so we asked grandma if she’d like to have a dog. She said yes. Duchess went to live with her. Grandma lived maybe 25 miles from our house, and my mom went to visit her every week, so we got to see Duchess regularly. Unfortunately, no one asked Duchess if that was what SHE wanted. She slipped out of grandma’s house one morning and took off. We never saw her again.

When I reflect on this, it was a perfect lesson in asking permission. If we had asked Duchess, she may have said yes, and she may have requested that it be temporary. She loved her family. I’m sure she was really confused at being placed in a home that wasn’t hers, even though she knew grandma. We think she may have tried to come back to us, and the story I tell myself is that she was such a nice dog that some family found her and took her home, and she lived out her life happily. I’ve never asked. I don’t really want to know. 

I do know she taught me a lot about paying attention to all the parties involved, and making sure everyone buys into the plan. It took me years to get there, but I know she knows she made a difference in my life. I hope we meet again some day.

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