Willy joined the family in November at the ripe old age of ten weeks. A bit old for a puppy you planned to teach many, many things and especially old for a male. Advice is given to take a dog from the litter at exactly seven weeks. Forty-nine days. There are reasons for this and they seem to make sense, but I'm not sure I agree with them.
First of all, and both Willy and JD were living proof of this, dogs are individuals just like people. Each has their own specific personality. What applies to one person, does not necessarily apply to another. And so it is with dogs.
At seven weeks, most puppies are weaned and they have had enough time to learn they are...dogs. The pack is their life and their life is the pack. When they come to you, you become their pack and preferably, the alpha dog in their life. Someone's gotta be the boss, and that someone is you.
I chose Willy from the litter because there was no doubt he was the leader. He was the biggest, the strongest and the most curious. The rest of the litter followed him like a tail on a comet. I wanted a strong, confident dog, and I thought Willy would become exactly that.
Sometime in February or March, I don't recall exactly when, we took Willy to a local park where there were a couple of ponds. It had been warm the previous week or so and the ice on the ponds was melting. There was a big iceberg in the middle of one pond that moved when the wind blew and it traveled from one end to the other.
Except for one sort-of-accidental dipping, Willy had yet to venture fully into the water. It was cold and I didn't want to push him too hard, too fast. A dog must learn to love the water, and not fear it. Willy already liked the water. He loved to splash in it, run in it, bite at it and put his face in it to grab slimly green sticks off the bottom and bring them to Mama, who was suitably and humorously grossed out.
We were playing fetch by the pond. Marg or I would throw the dummy and Willy would chase it, through the water, grab it and bring it back. He'd shake a little and be ready to go for the next one. There's no doubt, when they named Labradors as retrievers, it was the love of the chase and return that they were thinking about.
But Willy was not swimming. He sometimes ventured into the water as far as possible without his feet leaving the bottom, but he went no further. We were not pushing him for that either, he would learn that on his own and of that I had no doubt. Still, we did encourage if the opportunity arose, but somehow, Willy always found a way to go without actually swimming.
Willy brought the dummy out of the water and dropped it to shake off. Marg picked it up and threw it again, and it went too far. Past the shallow water, halfway to the middle and almost to the iceberg floating in the middle of the pond. Willy ran after it and plunged into the water right up to his hips and stopped. For a moment, he looked at the dummy, then back at Marg.
"Mama? It's too far."
"Fetch Willy. Fetch it up!"
"But Mama! It's over my head and the water is deep and I never did that before and there's that big thing floating out there and Mama I want my toy back!"
We encouraged. We cajoled. We begged. Willy wasn't going in any deeper.
For his part. Willy whined and fretted and cried and looked to us for help, but there wasn't much we could do. He ran back and forth. He went around the pond and tried from a different angle. But it was all no use, the dummy was floating in water that was too deep to walk in.
I was about to give up, and even told Marg that we'd have to buy a new dummy because we weren't getting that one back. That was okay. He was still a puppy, the water was cold and he hadn't had any real experience with swimming. All dogs can swim, as he had once demonstrated when he made a nearly fateful mistake at just eleven weeks, but doing so by accident and wanting to are entirely different stories.
"Willy Fetch! Fetch it Up! You can do it. Go on boy. Fetch!"
Willy looked back at us. "How? Mama? Mike? What do I do? I don't want to go in that water I'm scared of it and I don't know if I can swim or I might drown or there might be..."
"Fetch Willy. Go get it. Go on you can do it!"
"Ohhhh! But... But... I can't I know I can't and I'm scared and oh but I want my toy back please we can't leave without my toy you have to get my toy back!"
I was getting worried that he'd been standing in the water for too long; at least fifteen minutes while we encouraged and talked and hoped he'd go after that dummy, but he wasn't going in deeper than halfway up his chest.
Willy turned around. "Mike? What about my toy? Mike get my toy for me so we can go home and I'll chase it some more there and this water is so deep and Mike will you get my toy?"
I was actually a little irritated he didn't come when I called him. He knew that well enough.
"Willy Fetch!" Marg told him.
Willy looked at her and I was about to say something to Marg about confusing him with conflicting instructions. And then I saw something change in his expression. Something. Willy turned and bounced a few more feet towards the dummy and backed up.
"Fetch Willy! Fetch! Go Get It! Fetch!" We both started encouraging at the same time.
Have you ever talked yourself into doing something? Have you ever said, "Well here now I'm just gonna do it and get it done and here I go," and then you do it? Has that ever happened to you?
Suddenly, Willy reared up on his hind legs. "A Rawr rawr arrrr rar rar rar rar rar!"
Translation for those of you who don't speak black lab: "I'm going I'm gonna do it Here I go! Go! Go! Go! Go!"
And he went. Willy plunged into the water, paddling furiously and black lab tail rudder working just as hard as his legs. He closed in on the dummy and lunged again, grabbed it and turned for shore. We we calling and cheering and his eyes were wide and almost wild.
Most of the time, you don't see the whites of a lab's eyes, they are dark and wise and all iris and pupil. The whites of Willy's eyes were plainly visible as he reached the safety of shallower water and he lunged his way through it to the bank and onto the shore.
We were praising and hugging him. A wet lab, they just have to hug you and share that love of the water and being wet.
Willy was so proud of himself. "I did it I did it I did it Mama! I did it Mike! I did I did I did!"
I was no less proud of him than he was of himself.
I picked up the dummy and he was all business again. I tossed it, not so far, but just far enough he had to swim. There was no hesitation. No pause. Willy ran into the water and lunged through the shallows into the deep and swam after the dummy.
"Like" to changed to "Love" and for the rest of his life, Willy loved the water. He would plunge into a pond covered with skim ice for the sheer joy of a swim, or take a fifteen pound log and drop it off the dock just so he could bark at it a moment, then jump in after it and repeat the process all afternoon.
At a marina once, a kid threw a stick into the water off the end of the pier. Willy ran full out and leaped off the end of the pier, fully eight feet off the water, and fetched the stick.
"Throw it again. Throw it again. Pulllleeeese throw it again."
On his AKC registration papers I named him: Willy the Wonderful Water Dog and that foresight was amazing in it's appropriateness.
A true story by MJ Logan
All photos by Mike and Margaret Williams. ©All Rights Reserved
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