Earlier this month, my wife and I drove to Caribou Gun Club in Le Sueur, Minn., and I asked them to put four pheasants in a field. I opened the door let out our 10-year-old Lab, Albert, and for the next 45 minutes, he hunted hard, nose to the ground, quartering in front of me. Almost like he didn’t have cancer.
One by one, he flushed the roosters, I shot them, and he retrieved them. He climbed back into the truck, exhausted, and slept the entire way home.
It was Albert’s final hunt — we knew that. He died in my arms eight days later.
You can’t swing a dead pheasant without hitting a hunter who says that his or her dog is the Greatest of All Time. But, truly, Albert was.
When I left a troubled marriage in August 2008, my 12-year-old yellow Lab, Beaumont, followed me out the door and arthritically climbed into my truck. He was already struggling to breathe because of laryngeal paralysis, and within a couple of months, I could see the end was nigh.
I took him to the Minnesota Horse & Hunt Club in Prior Lake and let him chase a couple pheasants. The next day, I drove him to the veterinarian. He was euthanized in my lap. On the drive back to my parents’ house, where I was staying, I pulled my car over, called my brother in Oregon and wept uncontrollably. Beaumont’s death signified the demise of much in my life.
I was dogless for over a year. The year 2010 dawned with me broke, foreclosed upon, and up to my eyeballs in lawyers’ bills. But I knew a breeder and family friend in Menominee, Wis., who had a dog for sale — Albert — who had been returned and was a year old. I’d begun dating Courtney Perry, who lived in Dallas. She mailed me a check for $400 along with a note: “Go buy Albert.”
Albert’s frame was lean, but his thick head and oversized paws portended a dog of considerable size. He quickly developed into a specimen of rippling muscle and exhibited the couplet of traits that make Labs the most popular species in America: calm and easygoing at home but a fierce and indefatigable hunter.
Of course, my kids fell in love with him. At our family cabin in Crow Wing County, Albert launched off the dock and into the lake with abandon, chasing anything that a human would throw for him. And when we tired of the game, he’d get a stick from shore, nose it into the lake and jump in after it — playing fetch with himself.
While he loved everyone, Albert’s greatest loyalty was always to me. I don’t know if it’s because he spent his first year in a kennel, but he never had any interest in playing with — or even sniffing — other dogs. On a hunt, he ignored his peers and locked in on me, obsessed with my every move, waiting for a release command so that he could chase birds.
Albert and I stalked ducks and pheasants in South and North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Oregon. His résumé is littered with miraculous retrieves, like the pheasant he found after dark and under a snowbank when all the hunters had retreated to our trucks. Or the very-much-alive Canada goose he fished out of cattails and swam across a lake to me as it squawked and pecked at him.
Once while pheasant hunting, he emerged from a field with a half-moon flap of skin hanging off his chest, the result of running into barbed wire at full speed. I hoisted him onto a pickup tailgate and used a surgical stapler I keep in my canine first aid kit to close the wound. He didn’t even flinch. Then I put him in a crate in the back of the truck — his hunting concluded for that trip — and I set out into the next field. Ten minutes later, he ran up alongside me. He’d busted out of the kennel, intent on hunting at all costs.
He’s sat sentinel in a canoe as I’ve paddled in the Boundary Waters. He’s slept in Sunday school classrooms as I’ve preached across the Dakotas. And he’s graciously welcomed a puppy, Crosby, into our home.
I survived the divorce and ensuing custody fight and the loss of my career as an author and speaker. The kids have grown; two are now in college. Albert has been by my side the whole time, through the most challenging decade of life. He’s faithfully attended to me as my life hit its nadir, and as I’ve rebuilt it.
A couple weeks ago, Albert struggled to eat. He’d swallow some food, cough, gasp for breath, and then eat some more. We took him to the vet, and an X-ray showed cloudy lungs and swollen lymph glands that were constricting his airway. After ruling out other possible afflictions, Dr. Jessy at Lake Harriet Veterinary gave us the diagnosis: lymphoma.
She started him on a steroid to shrink his swollen glands, which provided immediate relief, but nevertheless Albert’s prognosis was dire.
We loved Albert in the last days, inviting him onto the bed, giving him extra treats. But a week after that final hunt, he stopped eating and his breathing was unsustainably rapid. We laid a dog bed in the backyard, and Dr. Melinda from MN Pets, an at-home euthanasia service, met us there. In a small consolation of the coronavirus, the college kids are home, so we could all gather around Albert as he took his final breaths.
I’d always hoped that he and I would have 12 or 13 years together, but I’m forever grateful for the time we had, the hunts we shared, the walks in the woods, the nights in a tent alongside a lake.
And as sure as I know anything, I know that Albert was the Greatest Dog of All Time.
Tony Jones is the host of the Reverend Hunter Podcast, which you can find at ReverendHunter.com.