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Remembering Old Dan

Reflections in the morning rain.

Over the past month or so I have noticed a change in my brother Old Dan. He was no longer the strong, young Alpha dog as I remembered. We were from the same litter making us the same age and I had little doubt he was slowing down. I knew there was something wrong; I didn’t understand; there was nothing I could do.

At day break I woke up to the cold and rain. It was the kind of morning that discourages hikes. When I saw Ben put on his slippers rather than his hiking shoes I know it would be an inside kind of day. Old Dan had already taken the good spot on the couch so I curled up next to him and thought about the last two-and-one-half years. I thought about when I first saw Ben.

It was a sunny, late spring day and I was outside on the grass playing and wrestling with all my litter mates. This guy walks up the driveway and starts talking to our owner. They pointed at some of us and my owner whistled for my mother. I could tell Ben was a nice guy because when he bent down and pet my mother’s head her tail wagged.

Ben walked over and picked me up. He sat on the grass and stroked my back. He picked me up and looked me all over. Kind of a funny way to say hello, but I guess that’s what humans do. One of my brothers came and sat down next to Ben.

It didn’t matter to my brother that Ben didn’t pay him any attention. He just sat there, right next to Ben. Ben held me close to him, he looked at my teeth and rubbed my belly. My brother just continued to sit where he was, wagging his tail. It was a universal “dog” hello, but sometimes humans don’t get the message right away.

Ben eventually put me down and I ran back to be with my brothers and sisters. My brother never moved a muscle. Ben saw him sitting there, picked him up and held him for a minute. I looked at my brother and could tell that he was trying to get Ben to take an interest in him, but Ben explained to my owners that he was looking for a female dog, not a male.

Several days later, Ben came back and the routine was the same. He sat on the grass and my brother sat next to him, but I was the one that Ben reached over and picked me up. He said sweet things to me and nuzzled me with his nose and chin. It made me wag my tail. I looked down and there was my brother, now he wasn’t just sitting next to Ben, he was leaning against him. Ben put me down and I ran to be with my brothers and sisters, except for this one brother who didn’t seem to want to go anywhere.

Ben reached down and picked my brother up. He hugged him and stroked his blocky head. He looked into his big, brown eyes and said “I’m sorry boy, you seem so sweet, but I just can’t afford to buy two dogs.” My brother heard these words, but they meant nothing to him, and he stayed where he was . . . right next to Ben.

The third time Ben came to my house he brought a laundry basket with towels covering the bottom. When my brother saw Ben he ran over to him. Ben picked him up and stroked his head. “You’re a good boy. I know a family is out there, waiting for you, you’ll see.” And with that he put him down again. My brother sat next to his leg, and leaned on him a little. “I’m sorry boy, I just can’t.” he said. My owner looked at my brother . . . and then Ben . . . and smiled.

They both went into the house. Ben gave my old owner money and a book. I later learned the book was about two dogs and a boy and was titled Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. My owner gave Ben some papers, a pat on the back, a firm handshake and Ben was my new owner.

I went home with Ben to his house. He named me Buckley after the family who built this house in 1845. It was big and quiet. I was the only animal there. That night I missed my brothers and sisters and cried and cried. Before long Ben came down the stairs and brought me back up with him. His bed was large and had so many blankets. I snuggled up to Ben that night and he was so warm and made me feel so safe that I realized I was home and drifted off to sleep.

Three days later, my old owner called Ben and told him that no one had bought my brother, the one that sat beside Ben whenever he came to see us. My old owners liked Ben so much they wanted to give my brother to him for free since they knew he could only afford to buy one dog.

I have never seen Ben so excited. He hummed a funny tune and picked me up and danced around and around. That night I saw Ben reading Where the Red Fern Grows. He looked like he was thinking things over. Ben saw me looking at him and smiled back at me.

Later that day Ben came home with my brother. I jumped all over him. I licked his face, I jumped on his back, I wagged my tail to hard my back half swung from one side to the other. I just couldn’t help it. Ben told me that I would have a new name, Little Ann, and my brother would be Old Dan, just like the two dogs in the book.

We were like peas in a pod. My brother and I slept together, ate together and went hiking in the morning with Ben. Old Dan would steal Ben’s socks every morning as he tried to put them on. Ben wouldn’t get angry, he’s say “Come on old boy, give me back my sock.” It was a morning ritual they both seemed to enjoy. Just watching them made me wag my tail too.

We all loved each other very much and at night we would all lay in a pile. I always made sure I was touching both Ben and Old Dan. Sometimes at night I would wake up and listen to the boys snore. It didn’t sound like much, but to me it was their song.

Over the years we hiked so many places. Trout Brook Valley, Honey Hill, Stone Bridge, Putnam State Park, , East Rock, West Rock, Hemlock Hills, Kent Falls, Pierpont State Park, Bennett’s Pond, Quarry Head, Tarywhile Park, Overlook Park, Mountain Lakes, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the sidewalks of New Jersey, the Catskills in New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

We swam in the Saugatuck River at Keane Park, followed Ben walking in the river at Devil’s Glen, swam with people at Saugatuck Falls, Mountain Lakes, and that small sliver of beach at Compo in Westport. We even swam in the Atlantic Ocean once off Fire Island in New York. Ben would throw the stick as far as he could and Old Dan was such a strong swimmer, he would always get it. In fact he liked to stay in the water and would just swim around like a little boy not wanting to get out of the water. Those were such happy times.

I remember when the tide would go way out, and Ben would walk with us in the shallow water. We would walk so far away from the shore. If Ben and my brother were not with me, there is no way I would do that alone.

I remember the first time we went camping. Ben gathered firewood and made us a fire. He set up the tent and put his mattress and sleeping bag in there. Just after he was finished setting it up, my brother Old Dan used the tent like a latrine. Ben initially did some yelling, but he ended up laughing and laughing.

We camped in the Catskills, at Topstone Park, our backyard and on top of Pine Mountain in Ridgefield. At night when it got dark we would all snuggle up together, each of us believing that the other two would protect from whatever the night might bring.

After the morning hike Ben would fill the bird feeder in the back yard and Old Dan and I would stay outside almost all day, chasing the birds, running after squirrels or napping on the porch watching the cars drive by. When the Fed Ex lady would come, we would always bark at her, and she would always give us biscuits.

On weekend nights, Ben’s friends would come over to the house. His friends would hit the ball for us to chase, they would bring over hamburgers and potato chips. I remember one time when Ben’s friend dropped two potato chips on the ground; I ran over and ate one then looked over at Old Dan and waited for him to eat the other. Old Dan was my brother, and he was so important to me that I wanted to be sure he got his share.

Things changed though. A few months after we turned two, my brother would no longer eat cheese. He didn’t like it when I jumped on him anymore. We didn’t wrestle like we used to. He started to lose weight.

Old Dan could no longer jump into the car, so Ben would pick him up and help him in. Ben bought Old Dan special food to help him put on weight, but Old Dan didn’t have much of an appetite. Before Old Dan used to stay outside almost all the time – but now he preferred to lay on the couch, sleeping the day away.

Outside the rain was letting up, but I knew there would be no hike today. Something was wrong with Old Dan, but I didn’t know how to tell Ben, or anyone for that matter. My brother was growing weaker by the day and it made me sad. Ben was in his office, sipping his coffee and clicking away on his keyboard.

I moved over to Old Dan and laid my head down next to his just so I could enjoy this time and listen to my brother sleeping and snoring his song.

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