© Naomi Gaede-Penner
March 6, 1990 to June 10, 2006
I'd always had German shepherds, but now my husband wanted a hunting dog. I knew I'd be the one to teach the unruly dog to be a respectable part of the family, and I'd be the one to groom his fluffy mess of fur. But, my husband insisted. After much protesting, I located a breeder and brought home Copperfield. At six weeks the little guy was dragging around a pheasant wing twice his size. He was destined to be a hunter. Much to my surprise, my husband spent hours outdoors training this energetic ball of blonde fur. By seven months, the pup was enthusiastically leaping into lakes and crashing through ice to retrieve ducks. My son included, these three were the perfect combination.
Copperfield annoyed me to no end. He retrieved baby snakes, stole my daughter's stash of Halloween candy, tracked a bird that had accidentally flown into the house - and hidden, and mischievously ran about with everyone's slippers. I hated to admit it, he was cute, and especially when he ran as fast as his short puppy-legs could go, his ears flopping. He quickly acquired the nick-name, "Copper-Bopper."
When his legs grew, he went through a gangly stage, which confirmed to me that this pup had been a mistake. He stood on his hind legs and picked cherries from a neighbor's bush, and chewed open a box of gun shells delivered to the doorstep. The underground electric fence meant nothing to him. He'd close his eyes, squeeze his head to his neck, and yelp as he ran through the current, possessed by some scent - or curiosity.
One of his escapades took him to an unknown neighbor's decorative pond. He merrily splashed around, then darted through an open door, and shook himself in their living room. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he always wore his dog tags. They dialed my number. They weren't unknown neighbors any more.
My husband died before Copperfield was a year old and I was left with this nuisance of a dog. Before long, I moved, and then found the most magnificent German shepherd puppy I'd ever seen. I knew Blitz was the dog I'd always dreamed of.
Copperfield grew into a stocky, flaxen-coat field dog with a broad head. Overtime, and to my surprise, I learned to love that dog. He connected me to my husband, and I couldn't resist his thick, wavy hair, or his ever-present grin. By the time he reached age four, I found myself grieving that his life was probably half over; after all, I'd never had a dog that made it past age eight.
When he was seven, I moved to prairie land. I could measure the pond by how high it came on him when he waded, or if he buoyantly floated. By this time, Blitz had grown to 110 pounds. He disliked water, but herded anything around him: cats, people, and Copperfield. Copperfield was no dummy. He figured out that he could get away from Blitz's harassing affection by swimming in the stock tank. Like an alligator, he paddled about, only his eyes showed - and his tail. Blitz also tried to herd the three fuzzy black bull calves in the field. I knew he'd be fast enough to stay out of danger, but not short-legged Copperfield. Nevertheless, the ornery blondie would just grin when I called him, turn around, and go tease them.
Copperfield, Blitz, and I drove up the Alaska-Canada highway in my Tahoe. They traveled well. We spent the summer and winter in an 18-by-18-foot garage room on the Gaede-80 homestead. In the winter, Copperfield - and I - missed the sunshine. We drove back down the highway.
It was time for me to move again, this time into an apartment. I couldn't manage two big dogs in such a situation. I had to make a choice between Blitz, the most gentle and social German shepherd I'd ever had, a dog who would try to snuggle his huge body against me and bury his head in my lap, and Copperfield, the dog I hadn't wanted. As excruciating and heart-rending as it was, I found a home for Blitz. By age eight, Blitz had been put down because of cancer.
At age 11 1/2, I discovered a gray mass beneath Copperfield's tongue. Cancer. I debated what to do with this older dog. Was it worth the risk and expense to have surgery? I decided to take the bet that he had some more years in him, so took him to CSU where he had part of his lower jaw remove. After a rough recovery, he re-learned how to eat, carry toys, and chew on bones. There was a 70 percent chance of the cancer metastasizing to his lungs within the first year. I didn't want X-rays taken. I didn't want to know. Three years later, I learned his lungs were clear.
He was always a happy dog, walking and running twice a day, playing in the creek, now adapting to his sixth home, sneaking under the barbwire fence to explore and to seek out the range cattle, delighting little children with his calm nature and putting up with their pokes and pulls of his softness. He kept me laughing with his silly antics and "play-with-me" bark.
As is typical, by age 13, he'd lost most of his hearing and part of his sight. I worried that he'd get hit by a car or attacked by a coyote. Sometimes when we walked, he'd put his nose to the ground and trot confidently after some scent. His nose still compelled him to explore and he'd often hold his head in the air, catch a scent, and take off. Then, after he'd run a distance, and satisfied his curiosity, he'd look for me. Unable to distinguish objects at a distance, he'd panic, and start running as hard as his stiff, arthritic, legs could take him, often in the opposite direction. I'd chase after him, knowing he couldn't hear me call, feeling his same panic.
Until this time, he'd listen for the garage door to open and would greet me when I came home. Now, I was sad not to see his head poke out the doggie door. Over time, he learned to compensate by lying in front of the sliding glass door and watching for the red Tahoe. With faded eyesight, he could see large movements and he learned a kind of sign language for "come," "feed-the-dog," "no" and other daily living communication.
By age 14, he had trouble breathing. Surgery on his constricted larynx would alleviate the problem, but would he make it through the surgery? Would it really extend his life - and at what expense? What would be the quality? A tough decision. I consulted a second veterinarian. "Evaluate the three A's," he said. "Activity, Attitude, Appetite." Copperfield was a candidate! His recovery was quick. The increased oxygen dramatically increased his zest and he frolicked like a pup again. One vocal cord was removed, but since he'd already lost his hearing, he couldn't tell that he really wasn't barking!
Copperfield was a one-dog-show, but he loved Dover, and she loved him. Dover was a yellow lab, much younger than he, who could have bowled him over without any effort. Surprisingly, as rough as she played with other dogs, she seemed to know his frailness, and never jumped on his hips, or caused him to lose his balance. They were a picture of endearment as they licked each other's faces through the fence, and then when together, followed each other around like the best of pals.
Wearing the signs of age, the graying dog still woke up every morning ready to tease me. His olfactory senses never diminished and he learned to keep track of me in the house, even thought he couldn't hear. Although he lay beside me in the breakfast room, softly snoring with eyes pressed shut, when I quietly got up, he'd pull himself up, too. Either he'd opened one eye and saw my reflection in the sliding glass door, or he felt the vibrations on the floor. Somehow he sensed I was leaving.
At age 15, he still begged for two walks a day and would fall nearly headfirst as he slid down the creek bank. I wearied of hosing him off daily so trimmed his fur and feathers until he looked like a teddy bear. "What kind of dog is that?" I'd be asked. In winter, he squirmed on his back and made doggie-angels. Other times he'd run with his nose like a scoop until he had a snow cupcake on top it!
Somewhere during his middle years he'd picked up another nick-name, that of "Cute Boy." It fit.
We celebrated his 16th birthday at the veterinarian's office. The office staff and doctors gathered around in celebration of the oldest Golden Retriever they'd ever treated. He briskly ran up the stairs, always eager to be the center of attention. Just like the rest of us, he ate ice cream - his plate was on the floor, and he pushed it around with his nose. We all laughed.
Every night when I went to bed, I buried my face in his thick, wooly fur and whispered that I loved him. I knew he was living on borrowed time.
One morning he stayed asleep much longer than usual. He didn't want to go on his much anticipated walk. He didn't want to eat. He tried to be happy, but he was struggling. I took him to the vet. She X-rayed him. Cancer filled his lungs. I sat on the cold examining room floor, holding him close, feeling his warmth, and cried. I'd dreaded this day, yet I couldn't watch his pain, and how stoic he tried to be. He'd been my good friend, now I needed to be his. I knew he'd want to go with dignity.
I called my children and the veterinarians. Solemnly we carried him out beside his frequently enjoyed dog pond. In the shady quietness of a summer day, he labored to breathe, his eyes shut. We stroked him gently, as we said our good-byes. Suddenly, he opened his eyes, raised his head, and looked around at all of us. Seeming content that all his special people were there, he then relaxed and went to sleep.
The pup I hadn't wanted had fulfilled his earthly mission. He'd brought joy and amusement to many people. He'd given me comfort and companionship, made me laugh during hard times, and licked my tears away. My son sighed, "I knew him longer than I knew my Dad." My daughter added, "I hope he tells Dad all about us." My hope and consolation was, and is, to imagine him bounding into heaven, his ears flopping, fluffy tail wagging, and with a big grin and "play-with-me bark", greeting his Maker and original master.
Copperfield: 16 years, 3 months, 4 days. Oh how I miss you.
Feeling at ease in the new Alaska accommodations.
Ha! Can't hide anything from that dog's nose — certainly not fresh caribou bones tossed into the homestead burn pile.
Nothing like Alaska's Cook Inlet salt and sand!
Standing on top of three feet of snow in front of the garage's one window in Soldotna, AK.
Dogs and moose should never tangle. Better to be inside, looking out!
It's nice to wear a coat when it's below zero!
Chilling out on the Gaede-80 Homestead.
Isabella loves Copperfield!