By Betty Slade
It’s the time of the year when my Sweet Al cleans his gun and rummages through his hunting totes. Hunting season is here and he has his license and is chomping at the bit to go hunting.
I look back on my life with Al Slade and think our household has never been without a dog or a hunting experience. There’s always a story to tell. Al breathlessly tells his stories and I nonchalantly listen to them.
As a young boy, Al remembers his dad coming home with a baby black Lab in his front coat pocket. The pup peeked her head out and captured Al’s heart. He called her Blackie and his love for dogs began.
Blackie showed signs of a hunting dog at 3 months old. She jumped out of the pickup’s open window and retrieved a fallen duck shot by another hunter. Blackie drug the prize bird through the weeds and brought it to her master, Sweet Al.
When in trouble with the folks, Al ran to Blackie, his best friend. He hugged her until the tears were gone. The little puppy would drop a stick in the water and run downstream and retrieve it. One fateful day, the swift waters carried Blackie downstream, never to be seen again.
Al contends as a young boy, he learned about loyalty, friendship, responsibility and love from Blackie. He quotes Gene Hill, a writer for the Gun Dog Magazine, “The Labrador was put on earth to show man what he might aspire to.”
In 1998, word swept through the streets of Pagosa Springs that 26 AKC registered dogs were found abandoned in a shed in a secluded area. The authorities picked up and transferred them to the Humane Society. Several Labs were in the bunch.
Al has owned several other hunting dogs, but he’s a “Lab man” at heart. When he heard the news about the Labs, he tripped over himself to reach the shelter by phone. His shaky finger dialed the number on the old rotary phone and he asked, “Is it true?”
“Yes, you heard right.” The ownership of the animals waited litigation, but the animal shelter promised to call Al and let him know when the court decided where to place the dogs.
As promised, Betsy phoned. “The news is out and the phone is buzzing. Call after call is coming into the shelter. You need to get here as soon as possible.”
He panted like an excited schoolboy as he explained to me about the dogs, with the hopes to sell me on owning another dog, even though one already resided at our residence.
“If I don’t get down there, there won’t be any left.” He said nervously as he slipped on his boots. He acted like he was going on a first date. He didn’t know what to expect, but he anticipated great things. Maybe another Lab would be added to our family.
Not as smitten as Al by the news, “You know if you go there, you won’t be happy until you get another dog.”
“Another dog? It isn’t just another dog. Apparently, you don’t understand, it’s a Labrador.”
After much convincing, Al had me in the car; after all, it wouldn’t hurt to look. When we arrived at the shelter, everything was in total mayhem. The phone rang off the hook. One by one, each caller received the same explanation.
Al asked questions as the workers rushed back and forth. He worried them to death, so they instructed him to go back and look for himself.
Al walked into Lab Heaven. Nine Labs waited for their forever homes. He made his way through them, the chocolate, the black and the yellows. They turned away from Sweet Al, still in shock from their previous ordeal.
Then he saw her. Light broke through the clouds and the golden hair glistened in the sun. Her big brown eyes met his as she stretched the length of her chain. Her deep husky voice rang out to Al and the angels sang.
Without hesitation, he hurried over to her. “Look, she’s smiling, dancing and performing just for me.” She chased the ball, retrieved it, wagged her tail, rolled over and motioned to him to rub her belly.
As he rubbed her stomach, he asked, “Where are the puppies?”
“There are no puppies.”
“She looks a little saggy, they must be hers.”
“No one knows. These are the dogs that came in.”
“She looks like she’s had pups recently,” he questioned them again.
“We don’t know.”
I watched Al and a yellow Lab exchange affections for each other. Al said he heard music from the Hallelujah Choir when I said, “OK, I guess she belongs to you, she is begging to go home with you.”
They placed the documents in front of Al. “You can sign the papers, but she must stay here until she has her shots and is spayed.”
Al agreed with the terms. That night, Al couldn’t eat or sleep. He had a schoolboy crush all over again. When out-of-town company came, Al insisted they see his girl. He explained Missy Lynn looked matronly, but she wasn’t as old as she looked. She was only 2 and half years old.
When Al took our friends to show off his new love, Missy was gone. The shelter had taken her to the vet and a new turn of events unfolded.
The doctor opened her up to operate and found she was carrying puppies and would be giving birth soon. The doctor had mixed emotions about abortion.
The doctor reported, “We are supposed to abort, but Labs are so gentle and such good dogs for children, I sewed her up. But, we have to keep her until the puppies come.”
Every day, every hour, Al continued to worry about the unborn pups and their mama. Finally, they said, “You can pick up Missy anytime at the doctor’s office. Her papers are ready and so is she. You can keep her until the puppies are born. Do you want to do that?”
“Of course,” he said.
When Al arrived, Missy’s excitement took over the room. Her big tail swept clean the doctor’s coffee table and, yes, you guessed it, she wet on the floor. She knew she had found her forever home.
Missy Lynn didn’t leave his side. She grew and grew; her belly dragged the ground and Al helped her in and out of the pickup.
Then it happened. The morning of Oct. 6, 1998, three girls and nine boys were born. Mother and puppies did fine and little yellow Labs were everywhere — under her feet, between her legs, over her shoulder and under her tail. Twelve pink mouths noisily sucked and squealed for milk.
We kept mother and her pups for six weeks until time to be weaned. The puppies had already been promised to excited families, but the shelter allowed us to keep one for taking care of Missy.
We knew we wanted to give a puppy to our grandsons for Christmas. Al picked a little girl.
Several years later, here in Pagosa at the grocery store, our daughter saw one of Missy’s pups in back of a pickup. She thought she looked like Missy. When our daughter asked the owner, Ron the Mount-N-Man, where he got his dog, he proceeded to tell her his story about his Lab, Angel.
She told him they had one of the pups and named her Toby. They recently put her to sleep. Years later, they are all gone, but their memories remain. There’s always a good story when a dog is involved.
When I shared this story with Angel’s parents, this was their response:
“Thank you so much for the pictures of Missy and the pups. I’m not real sure which one is Angel, but I have a couple picked out just from the way they are laying. She sleeps in what appears to be the most awkward positions at times. I really enjoyed your story too, Al.
“This is our first Lab and we are both absolutely in love with her. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to say if she’s our dog or we are her people. I think the later is more like it.
“I was especially interested in the way you picked Missy from all the labs they had at the shelter. I don’t know if you were aware of it, but I was the first person on the list for a pup. When they called and said they were ready, I was so excited. My niece and her two young boys were visiting from Texas so we all went to the shelter to see and select a puppy. When they opened the door, it was like a commercial.
“All 12 pups came bounding out, seemingly stacked on top of each other. I wanted them all. As we looked at them, each as cute as the next, I wondered how I would ever choose just one. Then I felt something crawling up my leg, jumping and crying, as if to say take me, take me!
“The choice was made. Angel picked me and has been a blessing in our lives. As you can see from the pictures, K.C. the cat, and Angel get along great. Actually, I think Angel thinks she is half cat and half people. She’s not really sure what to make of dogs. Thanks again for sharing your experience with us. Sincerely, LS Pagosa Springs.”