April, 1995. Lonelier than the Unabomber, living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a ski town with the ratio of something like seven hundred guys to every girl, I begged my trailer-lord to relent on the covenant of no dogs. A few genuine sniffles surely didn’t hurt my cause.
So I declined on two different litters of AKC-registered $300 Labs that were destined to grow up barrel-chested, 120 pounds. I wanted a training partner.
With my curmudgeon friend’s words echoing in my ear — “Well, you can forget about running in the national parks … no dogs allowed” — I had about given up on my quest when, on a rainy day, between errands, I swung by the shelter. One black Lab. We seemed to get along. We played. I asked him if he wanted to come home with me. He didn’t say no. Momentous decision looming. I was about to treat myself to lunch at Bubba’s, think it over, when local paragliding legend John Patterson walked in, said, “Are you going to take that dog?”
Pause … pause … paws … “Yes. I am.”
Some paperwork, some money, and we’re off. I have a new best friend. That day I did not know he was destined to be the Best Dog Ever. Name? Toby Tyler, after a novel and movie about a boy who ran off with the circus in search of escape and adventure … hmmm … who does that remind me of?
The next day, April 25th, to the vet’s for shots, etc. The vet said he looked to be about four months old. Four months minus April 25th = Christmas Day.
Monks of New Skete in hand for training sessions; followed by lots of play time. Toby got “stay,” “sit,” and “come” down quickly. He became good at “fetch,” was not worth a damn at “bring it.” Played a top-notch game of tag.
My child-bearing friends scolded me for not having insurance; I was no longer being included in any reindeer games. But now I had reassurance!
October 25th, 2011. After seven months of going back and forth, my girlfriend and I decided. The next day we were to put Toby down. On one side: he was almost 17 years old. Daily, nightly, he peed and pooped on himself, laid down in it. He could barely stand or walk. He was mostly deaf, partly blind. The growing lump might be cancerous. Friends said it was time, perhaps past time. On the other side: he didn’t seem to be in pain, still had a voracious appetite for canned food, seemed interested in our daily lives, and he was my best friend.
The best part was snuggling at night. Last thing, after dinner, TV, music, in silence, before sleep, was to get down and hug Toby T. Tyler, pet him, massage him, whisper in his ear. He liked that a lot. A low, comfortable moan told me so. I got kisses. I was in love.
But, soon, May and tourist season rolled around and, being a Yellowstone/Grand Teton tour meant I was working for 13-14-hour days. What to do with Toby? I bought a dog house, leashed him, left copious amounts of food and water within reach. But, coming home, I’d find him wrapped up around his house, or sitting on the roof in the sun, out of reach of water and kibbles, which were often dumped over in his quest for broader horizons.
Option two: Give him free rein. I’d leave the front door open, ask my neighbor, who ran a day care out of her trailer, to keep an eye on him. Yeah. Sure.
Home one day, gone the next. “Have him fixed,” said some I asked. “No, it will take away his spirit,” said others. Three times in a row nowhere in sight = snip snip. That slowed him down … not one bit.
Then we went camping one night. Late and dark, “Toby, stay close by.” Twenty seconds later he came back … with a snout full of quills. Porcupined. He would not let me take them out, despite my best strong-armed attempts. To the vet’s. They knocked him out. Pulled out like twenty quills. Sixty dollars. Okay then.
Into July, and something was wrong with him. He became lethargic, his appetite diminished. July 12th birthday night found me back at the vet’s. Pneumonia. The vet kept him. Over the next four days, his condition worsened. The vet speculated that one small quill might have gone through, punctured and infected his lung. Death was looming. Three options, said the vet. 1. A drive to Fort Collins, operation, open his chest, $2,400. 2. A specialist in Cody, Wyoming, perhaps $1,200. 3. Very strong antibiotics. “But I doubt he’ll make it,” said the vet. Having no money meant option three.
I had a tour that next day. A worried father was not at his best. Hurrying things along. I pulled in at 6:30 and there he was, on top of his dog house, tail wagging, sparkle in his eyes … lots of hugs and kisses. Toby was back from the dead!
His rap sheet over the next few years: Confessions of an Unruly Teenager.
Hating to see anything tied up except, perhaps, Cameron Diaz, Toby gained in-and-out access. I taught him to scratch at the door once cold weather came. But his wanderings, like my own, led him to wonderful places. He developed a penchant for getting rescued by totally hot babes. How many phone calls started with, “Yeah, I found your dog … ” “Keep him with you, I’ll be right there.” I’d knock and Princess Hottay would open the door. “He’s such a cutie!” To myself: “Good boy, Toby.”
Another summer evening, I got a call from Bubba’s, the local barbecue joint, at the busy five-way intersection. I raced down and there was the voluptuous cashier, adding up a check with one hand, the other hand outside the open window, holding up a piece of beef, keeping it just out of his leaping reach.
He made it down to Skinny Skis on another occasion, which meant, again, finding his way through busy downtown pedestrian and car traffic — sure hope he didn’t cause any wrecks.
Then how on Earth did he make it all the way to the vet’s office, across Broadway and four lanes of summer traffic, over a mile away?
Or that time in Durango, when I floated the Animas River, and was taking apart my Pack Cat, then it was 45 minutes of driving around and yelling his name before, yup, he checked himself into the local animal shelter. I got scolded by the director, who had started to process him in.
Or that night I got a call from Albertson’s. “Yeah, Cal, we have your dog down here. He keeps running back and forth between the meat section and the dog food aisle. Can you please come get him?”
It’s just not fair that we don’t age at the same rate. Isn’t there a pill?
I went for a long run the day before the vet was to show up to put him down. My emotions swung back and forth. Doubts. Arriving home, Kim was a wreck, lavishing affection on him, couldn’t stop holding him. A few minutes before the vet closed for the day, I entered seven numbers, took a deep breath, hit send. We cancelled. The receptionist said it happened all the time. Rescheduled a week later. We’d see how he’s doing.
Toby learned things, too. My Master’s degree in Sport Psychology gave me the credentials to drive a taxi in Jackson Hole in the winters. Five, six times a night I would breeze into my trailer, pee, make some tea, let Mutthead out, grab a snack. But on that seventh time, as bar rush was coming to a close, when I reached in the refrigerator for a coupla beers, Toby would stand and stretch, he knew he was coming along for the last fare or two of the night. How in hell did he pick up on that?
Or reaching for my running shoes: his cue to stretch. Oh boy, dad! Time to go running up Cache Creek?
I started dating Kim, and after a few years and some bargaining, it was decided: Toby and I were moving in. He got to chase magpies, voice his displeasure over the hot air balloons, share country life with a couple of cats and run freely.
On the mother of all road trips — Driggs, Idaho, to Cabo San Lucas, Toby figured out body surfing. He got to chase a buffalo off the 8th green at Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis. I taught him to walk on my back, give me a back massage. Toby had an amazing success rate for sitting and pawing at, “Which hand?” (held the treat?)
Most Labs live 10-12 years. At 12, Toby was still leading me in my four-mile runs/ski tours. Somewhere in there, he punctured through crusty snow and tore his ACL. Where are those pictures of him and his blue cast?
But then came that day when he didn’t seem interested in going for our daily run. He sat on his chair, staring blankly at me, and I wasn’t sure how much to coax him. “Maybe take today off, Tobes.”
Toby T. Tyler got to run through redwoods and over red slickrock. Down tropical beaches, up 10,000-foot mountains. He’s chased cows, deer, rabbits and pronghorn and never, except for one adventurous Uinta Ground Squirrel, a chiseler, never hurt a thing.
Then, at 14, the lump, growing by his throat might, said the vet, might be cancer. Four days of me worrying before the biopsy came back negative.
That next week, the days slipped past as they always do. Then came November 2nd. Could I cancel again? He was only seven weeks away from making it to Christmas Day and 17. I entered the vet’s phone number … to cancel … but I could not hit send. Kim and I were worthless that day. 1:40 p.m. was approaching. We put him on the couch, reminded him he was the Best Dog Ever … and cried like babies. Tears wetting his fur, me imbibing his smell, wiping my tears in his elegant black fur, stroking him, trying to take his essence inside me. 1:20 … can my best friend soon be gone? Besides a lucky shot at a robin with a BB gun when I was 13, and my share of cutthroat trout, I’d never killed anything, and now you’re telling me I’m gonna kill my best friend?
Ten minutes. An eerie silence in our cabin, the day too still and quiet. Toby’s still here! Can Time please Stop? Oh, please make him a puppy again!
One minute. There’s the vet, coming down the drive. No! Go back! Turn around, get an emergency!
He pulls up and parks. I lift my companion and best friend up from the couch. Kim’s losing it. I’m gone. Sobbing, carrying Toby T. Tyler in my arms.
Kim: “Doc, are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”
Vet: “I thought it should have been done a long time ago.”
Thanks for that.
Then I lie him in the front lawn … the vet pulls out a syringe … damn it … shit … stop here … sorry, guys … he was the Best Dog Ever.
Senior correspondent Cal Glover lives just over Teton Pass from Jackson. He has recently taken up golf.