“Children grow up too fast, and dogs don’t live long enough.”
Anyone who knows us knows that we are dog lovers of the highest order. I have always had a dog and really can’t imagine life without one. In an earlier time, we always had hunting dogs, and while many of them were not considered family pets, some were the dearest of family pets. Over the course of our marriage, Betsy and I have been lucky enough to have had 13 that were complete members of the family, loved and doted on accordingly.
Dogs create the finest kind of friendship, with unconditional love and loyalty. They don’t care if you’ve got any money or not, what you look like, or what your religion is. They will love you even if you don’t deserve it.
Long before I ever had the idea to write a book, I had wondered how to memorialize the really special dogs that we have owned. I realized that after we were gone, nobody would even know they had ever existed. Somehow, that just didn’t seem right to me, that a friend as special as Amos or Bizzy or Dottie could just be poof and gone, with nobody to ever think of them again.
When Betsy and I were first married in 1966, I had a wonderful 2-year-old Labrador retriever named Amos. He was amazingly smart, an exceptional hunting dog, and I was really proud of him. I knew from day one that he was going to be a major star. He had all of the best retriever instincts. I was doing quite a bit of duck hunting in those days, and he went right to work. Amos was the most polished retriever I ever owned.
It was heartbreaking to leave him when we reported to Army duty in El Paso, Texas, not knowing when we would see him again. After about two months, we were both having serious dog withdrawals. By then, we had figured out that we were going to be there for a while. “Let’s get a dog,” we said and agreed that we wanted a beagle puppy. It would make a great pet and could help me hunt deer when we got back to South Carolina. After studying the dog ads, we found a beautiful litter and came home with Rebel, an adorable tricolored pup with big brown eyes that stared right through you.
We flew home that year for my Christmas leave and planned to drive back to El Paso in an extra car that we had left in Columbia when we first reported to Fort Bliss. We took Amos back with us, and so with Rebel and Amos our little family was complete, at least for now. The dogs went just about everywhere with us when I was off duty.
After getting off active duty and returning to Columbia, I was devastated when Amos was struck by a car in the summer of 1969. It was my first experience losing a dog to whom I was so close. I have since come to realize why losing a dog is so hard. In our society, you don’t get the time to grieve properly the loss of a pet. You are expected to get on with your life with a big hole in your heart. My mother, Nilla, gave me some sound advice at this time when she knew I was hurting. “The best way to get over the loss of a dog that you love is to get another dog.”
Rebel was as broken up as Betsy and I were. He just moped around and would barely eat for several weeks. As luck would have it, we learned of a litter of Labs with the same bloodlines as Amos that winter and were able to secure a male puppy we named Judge. Life was whole again.
Our first Jack Russell terrier, Izzy, came along in 1991. JRs are kind of a “horse thing” and are very popular around riding facilities, which my wife and daughters frequented. Elizabeth was taking it quite seriously and riding regularly with Ron Danta, a trainer in Camden. He had a litter of Jack Russell puppies and started working on Betsy to take one. Of course, the girls were working on her too. She convinced me that we could handle another dog; Izzy was an instant hit and won me over quickly. She was mostly a house dog and was very easy to keep. In fact, she was such an easy keeper that when she was about 2, Ron suggested that we breed her to his favorite male dog, Gadget.
Izzy’s litter was born just after New Year’s 1993. The birth was 10 days early, which is extremely early for a dog. Betsy realized quickly that something was wrong. She bundled up Izzy and the puppies and went to town to the veterinarian, where they spent the rest of the day while the vet operated and delivered the rest of the puppies. In total, two were born dead, and six very immature pups survived that were badly in need of their mother.
Izzy and the pups came home that night, and Izzy was doing her best in her condition to take care of them. Well, the next day on Sunday afternoon, something was clearly wrong with Izzy. She was listless and appeared to be going into shock. Betsy rushed her to the emergency vet, where it was determined she had a severe infection. The doctor recommended an emergency hysterectomy, stating that was her only chance to survive, but that she might not. She didn’t. We were heartbroken but quickly realized that we didn’t have time to be because we had six tiny, less than 2-day-old premature pups in our kitchen that were going to need a lot of help to have any chance of survival. By the end of the second day, we were down to one.
Elizabeth was still in high school, and she, Betsy, and I made a commitment to save that puppy. You have to realize what we were dealing with — we had a 4-day-old puppy that had been born 10 days premature and now had no mother. He was not as big as a very small mouse.
The first step was for Betsy to have a serious conversation with the vet about what steps we should take if we were to have a chance at success. He said that since the puppy had been able to nurse for several hours that first day, he should have received enough of his mother’s colostrum to give him the necessary antibodies to have a decent chance at surviving. He gave us a very strict regimen to follow for several weeks, with the first two being the most critical. Elizabeth, Betsy, and I agreed to divide shifts in taking care of him.
By then we had decided to name him Bizzy, in honor of Izzy. Bizzy was living in a box in the kitchen with a light on him to keep him warm. Every three hours around the clock he had to be given formula with an eyedropper. We used warm, damp cotton to wipe his little bottom to emulate his mother licking him to stimulate a bowel movement.
Betsy started getting little stuffed animals about his size to put in the box with him to help him feel like he had siblings nearby. As he started to grow, Betsy increased the size of the animals with Bizzy’s size. He never saw another dog until he was about 8 weeks old. For the rest of his 17 and a half years, Bizzy would have an affinity for stuffed animals and always had several to carry around and with which to snuggle.
He developed a very unusual character trait that I am convinced came from the way he came into the world. We called it “trancing.” He would take one of his favorite animals, hold it in his mouth, wrap his front legs around it, lie down on his belly, and zone out with his eyes open, truly going into a trance. You could wave your hands in front of his face and get no effect. It might last as long as five to 10 minutes, and he was truly someplace else while in his trance. I never saw him levitate, but we always expected him to.
Bizzy became a constant companion and made a lot of friends with his highly unusual personality. As a bonus, he was a great hunting dog. He had a superior nose and was highly praised for his ability to trail a wounded deer. Bizzy was such a complete success as a family dog that after a couple of years, Betsy and I thought that we would like to perpetuate his family line. Of course, the first step was to find him a wife. Betsy did the research and found Blossom in Aiken, a 6 or 7-week-old tricolor female.
Blossom quickly adapted to life on the farm. Like Bizzy, she lived in the house, but outside she was a born hunter. She was extremely fast and agile and could jump amazingly high. She would chase anything, but her favorites were squirrels and moles. If she smelled a mole in the ground, she would start digging. She was not to be denied. She might dig a 50-foot trench across the yard until she came up with the mole, which she would kill and immediately abandon. Good riddance on the mole, but very hard on the lawn.
We saw the results of her efforts numerous times when she would deliver her squirrel trophies to the back steps. Her hunting technique was that she would park herself under a tree with a squirrel in it and just sit motionless, sometimes for several hours. Sometimes she could entice the squirrel into working its way down the tree a bit at a time, trying to tease Blossom. She would remain motionless as the squirrel worked its way closer and closer.
The fatal mistake would come when the squirrel didn’t realize how high Blossom could jump. She would spring off the ground with an incredible leap, take several steps up the side of the tree before the squirrel could react, and then she would bank off the tree with the surprised squirrel in her teeth, shaking her head violently on the way down. The squirrel would be stone dead by the time she landed.
Bizzy and Blossom had two litters together. The second one only had two puppies. We gave the female to Johnny Johnson, our farm manager, and we kept the male, naming him Weston. Weston was a great dog with a wonderful disposition, but unfortunately, he spent most of his life in the shadow of his amazing parents. We kept telling him, “One day, Weston, you are going to get to be the No. 1 dog!”
In early 2010 Betsy and I went to Aiken and acquired a 12-week-old Jack Russell whom we named Dottie. We selected her from a huge selection of puppies because of her good looks and particularly for her quiet and affectionate disposition, which is what we always looked for in our dogs. Dottie immediately became my constant companion. She and Bizzy were so much alike in looks and manner that I frequently called her Bizzy by mistake.
She went just about everywhere with me. I was working in a “dog friendly” office at the time and discovered what a stress reliever it was in the middle of a very hectic day to just go outside with your dog and walk around the neighborhood. I wish I had known that trick when I was a young guy and looking for girls. It is amazing how many pretty girls will stop you in Five Points to visit with your dog!
Dottie had a very endearing trait that kind of reminds me of Bizzy’s “trancing.” She loved to watch television, especially animal shows. She could be sound asleep, and I would say, “Dottie, you better come look!” She would jump up, run to the TV, and watch intently until something else came on.
We have had a lot of great, wonderful dogs and have loved them all dearly. I am frequently asked, “Do you have a favorite?” I have thought about that a lot over the years, and I do have a group of favorites. At the time that I had each of them, I would have said, “This is the best dog I have ever owned.” Amos, Bizzy, and Dottie are the best of the best.
Our lifelong friend Cal McMeekin once said, “Damn, Cate, when I come back in my next life, I want to come back as Billy Cate’s dog.” I replied, “Hell, Slick, when I come back in my next life, I want to come back as Billy Cate’s dog!” There is no question; they’ve had it good.
Editor’s note: Adapted from The Farm: A Family’s Relationship with Its Land by Billy Cate.