Hiking Pals Forever
We all know the old saying about a dog being “man’s best friend” but some years ago I discovered a much more fitting descriptor.
My wife Bridget and I were on a long visit to Israel when we started missing our three year old Wheaten Terrier, named Guinness, who was back home in the kennel. I asked our Jewish guide, “What is the Hebrew word for dog?” The man answered, “In the ancient Hebrew the word for dog, is Ka-lev”. He then lightly patted his chest and added, “It means … from the heart.”
I assure you that nothing could better describe Guinness and when we lost him on Jan. 17 our hearts were broken. Since Wheatens are not well-known in America, please allow me to introduce a very remarkable one we raised from a pup and who became my best pal.
Known as the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, the breed only arrived here in the 1940s and ’50s from Ireland; hence our choosing the name Guinness. Wheatens were originally bred as sturdy farm dogs, just over 40 pounds and about knee high; tough enough to kill a badger while at the same time, a gentle and dependable protector. Many Wheatens are uniquely gifted with a demeanor that is more like a child than a dog and we were often reminded of that throughout Guinness’s lifetime.
While hiking in Canaan Valley one afternoon Guinness sighted a doe and young fawn just up the trail. Naturally he raced ahead for a closer look and, as he approached, the nervous deer naturally bounded off through the trees. Instead of giving chase Guinness just stopped in his tracks, standing quietly, peering into the woods. Suddenly and unexpectedly the fawn reemerged all alone and headed straight for my pal. I have never witnessed anything in nature more amazing than the two of them standing literally nose to nose, both wagging their tails.
Guinness was a great little hiker and, whether going up Bald Knob, crossing Dolly Sods, or hiking on the Appalachian Trail, Guinness seemed to be in his element. Those times we hiked with family or groups, like walking the 9 miles between Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley State Park, it was fun to watch his natural herding instinct kick in. He would run to the front of the group, scouting ahead, never letting us out of his sight. And, as soon as we caught up he would race to the back of the line making sure no one was left behind. If he didn’t already know what to do you could count on Guinness to figure it out.
Like the first time we were fishing at the neighborhood pond where Guinness watched my every move with great interest. When the bobber and tackle hit the water he just sat quietly perched on the bank; eyes fixated on the floating ball waiting to see what would happen next. You could almost feel the anticipation growing with each nibble and tug. At the big strike Guinness broke into excited barking and, as I landed the fish, the little guy gingerly nosed in; curious for a sniff of the catch.
Speaking of curiosity, the distinctive look and personality of a Wheaten rarely fails to attract attention and we got a kick out of watching the reaction of strangers. On routine walks in our neighborhood people driving down the street would smile, pull over, and stop. Rolling down the window they would ask, “What kind of dog is that? Do they shed? Can I give him a hug?” Even the joggers and bikers would stop for a minute to visit with Guinness; ignoring the guy holding the leash.
Guinness was one of those dogs whose mind you knew was always working. One day while getting ready to go out of town, I set my bag down near the door and went off to fetch my laptop. I came back to discover Guinness had laid his red toy ball on top of my bag as if to say, “Don’t forget me!” In disbelief I hurriedly snapped a photo and over the years it happened four different times; each time using a different toy. I can only guess that Guinness figured he just needed to use the right toy to earn himself a trip. And, always when I returned Guinness was there at the door greeting me with an enthusiastic welcome.
Guinness definitely liked traveling as much as the trails and over the years he logged thousands of road miles from Massachusetts to Louisiana riding in his “happy place” on the back seat. Ever since being a pup, the words “ride in the car” always generated instant excitement. Then in 2020 all that started to change.
For others with older dogs of their own, our vet initially diagnosed Guinness with arthritis in his hind legs, but the medication prescribed had no effect. Months later Guinness appeared to be showing some signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or “doggie dementia.” Through it all we consulted other vets and specialists, trying different medications, seeking an answer. My old pal was gradually slowing down and, though his enthusiasm began to wain, he was still giving it everything he had. Finally an MRI revealed that our beloved friend was battling a slow-growing brain tumor.
We will never forget Guinness’s lovable personality and the years worth of unfailing affection he gave us “from the heart.” From here on out the trails are going to feel mighty lonely without my best pal along, though I am hopeful he is in a happier place just around the bend, waiting there to welcome me home again.
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