We never knew Sam’s real birthdate but as he joined our family on March 31st 2005 at the age of “10 months”, as far as we were concerned, he was born on May 31st 2004. He died on August 31st 2016, aged 12 years and three months.
Sam came into our lives in March 2005. At the time, we were a household in flux – still working on converting the old barn into our new house, the three of us were living in one room in my parents’ house. Charlie was only six months old and we were several weeks away from moving in. I was spending every spare minute working on the house and one day Helen asked, out of the blue “Should we get a dog?”. I remember pleading that there would be plenty of time for that once we’d moved in but could we just wait, hoping for a bit of pragmatism. Then it turned out that it wasn’t really an idle question – you see, there was this black Labrador in Golborne that needed re-homing.
Sensing that the cards were stacked against me, I attempted to dampen down expectation by agreeing to go and have a look – “but that’s all”. Obviously, my well-intentioned caution was futile – we might as well have bought a dog bed and bowl on the way there. We’d decided to take Charlie with us to see how the two reacted to each other and things didn’t get off to a great start when we were told “he’s in the back room but you’ll have to take your hat off – it makes him nervous”.
Eventually, we coaxed the jet-black, gangly 10-month old youngster out of his cage and into a meeting, of sorts. Nervous and awkward as he was, he still showed interest in and respect to our rather more confident 6-month old. He had a tendency to bark at men he didn’t know but it was already clear that he had an affinity for children. We said we’d go home and talk about it but before we’d even got on the M6, I’d abandoned all hope of a more sensibly-timed canine addition. It was clear that this one would be the dog for us.
Within days, he’d arrived: another inhabitant in a shared house that was already accommodating upto seven people. Still clinging steadfastly to the notion of being sensible, we decided that he should sleep downstairs but it was soon apparent that Sam had other ideas. Minutes after being shut in the kitchen on his first night with us, he barked and whined at the top of his voice, unsustainable enough in any case but doubly so with a sleeping baby in the house. I was dispatched downstairs to have a word with him. It didn’t work and neither did the next few attempts. This dog was not the scared puppy we’d been told about – he was headstrong enough to know what he wanted and intelligent enough to get his own way. I knew I couldn’t give in to his demands to sleep upstairs with us but I had a disrupted household and work in the morning. I did the only thing I could do to keep the peace without giving in – I let him sleep with me on a couch in the conservatory. In doing so, it led us both to get the measure of the other and our bond was established. Needless to say, the next day, it was suggested that we let him sleep upstairs after all.
As Sam settled into the family, we moved in the converted barn and the baby became a toddler, it was clear for all to see that wherever Charlie went, he had a black shadow, watching his every move. Sam may have been ostensibly our dog but in his mind, he belonged to Charlie and he always would. The obvious attachment between the two was the reason why, for Charlie’s first birthday and on the eve of our first foreign holiday together, I bought him a soft toy in the style of a black Labrador and christened it ‘Little Sam’, lest the bigger version be missed while we were away.
One unanticipated advantage to the awkward timing of his arrival was that we were able to match the carpet to the dog, which is why our upstairs rooms are carpeted in the darkest colour possible. Sam would regularly station himself beside Charlie’s cot at bedtime but, possibly as a result of that shared first night in the conservatory, his preferred night-time spot was next to our bed, on my side. He continued to observe this nocturnal endorsement to the week he died, perhaps his only concession to ‘belonging’ to anyone other than Charlie.
In no time at all, it seemed, Charlie was older, more curious and keen to explore his surroundings. This meant taking the time to play out with him on Saturday mornings, while juggling other household chores. Later still, on his battery-powered tractor, once he was old enough to be trusted to adhere to some basic rules (stay away from the pond, don’t go past the end of the drive), I found I was able to leave him to play under Sam’s supervision. For almost ten years, if I ever needed to know where Charlie was, I had only to find Sam because I knew he would be within ten metres of him.
Over Easter 2008, we made a decision that was to test Sam’s legendary temperament: we took on another Labrador in need of a new home, Marley. Unsurprisingly, the older dog took to this new imposter with the good grace we expected of him and they soon became as close as brothers – as long as the pecking order was observed. With a few well-timed subtle growls in the early days, Sam’s dominant personality ensured that would be the case – although Marley’s compliant nature helped too.
With the newcomer came a different problem – the two would frequently goad each other into more and more troublesome antics. Many mornings were punctuated by shouts across fields, unacknowledged, before the two miscreants could be seen frolicking about, two fields away, covered in mud obtained from their interest in a boggy patch nearby. Sam was always the more sensible one – only Marley was capable of eating a whole cake of rat poison and running upto Helen with a blue tongue, so proud of his ‘achievement’ – but make no mistake, they both had a penchant for mischief, which they regularly indulged.
As Charlie grew bigger and braver, their adventures together became ever more ambitious. The most unfortunate aspect of human and dog growing up together is that the dog’s physical prime coincides with much of the child’s early development – by the time the child can reach their level of energy, the dog’s peak years will invariably have passed. For a few golden years, though, the ‘sweet spot’ of their joint activity, they were equals: Charlie’s favourite game was to suddenly slip from Sam’s view (which was easier said than done) and run away, behind trees and bushes, ducking into sheds and garages, compelling his bodyguard to hastily track him down. Its fair to say that Sam enjoyed the game far less – although he was always hugely pleased when he inevitably managed to find his fugitive friend.
An accomplished swimmer (as you’d expect from a type of dog bred to assist 17th-Century Canadian fishermen), Sam was, as you can see, a reluctant sled dog on the one occasion he was offered the job. He was, however, a keen participant in countless games of garden cricket, tennis, rugby and football. Charlie and I even had a name for the act of kicking a football between his front and hind legs – the ‘mutt-meg’. A keen retriever (as you’d also expect) in his younger day, he soon realised that when younger, more enthusiastic legs arrived on the scene that he could delegate much of the fetching duties to Marley. In many respects, that simple distinction summed Sam up perfectly: clear-thinking to the extent that he was very often much more human-like than dog-like.
His favourite days were the various barbecues and birthday parties we held on the field. Yes, there was the constant stream of freely-available food, friendly people and various ball games being played but above everything else, he loved to be around the children, watching them, guarding them, revelling in their company and refusing simply to observe their enjoyment from afar.
A few years later, with the help of technology here and there, the pendulum had begun to swing – now it was Charlie who could outpace Sam and as a consequence, we had to start to give thought to managing the welfare of an ageing dog who would willingly run himself into the ground just to keep up. Declining to chase balls was one thing but deliberately allowing his best friend to leave his side was never something that Sam would readily countenance.
Throughout his life, he would divide his time between the houses he considered his: let out for a wee in the morning, spending the daytime at my parents’ (where it was more likely there would be people present between 9am and 4pm) and then sitting outside, looking at the gate in time for the returning school run. In his younger days, he’d similarly sloped off next door on many evenings and laid out on the rug there, prompting late-night calls in which it was agreed he could have another ‘sleep-over’. He monitored the gardening by day and the bedtime-book-reading by night.
As he entered his later years, Sam mostly understood his growing physical limitations. Like many Labs, his shoulders and hips were susceptible to stiffness after overdoing things and, as a result, mealtimes often involved a number of supplements and the occasional dose of Metacam. As much as it offended his own sense of duty, he generally knew that he had to slow down but for some reason he never allowed himself to extend that thinking when it came to chasing the quad bike – that particular piece of discipline would always remain our responsibility. Whatever his age and condition, the job of looking out for Charlie at all times remained a non-negotiable constant.
And so, in the twilight of his years, with the object of his protection now eleven years old and successfully guarded to the point where he’d become ready to explore beyond the childhood horizons of home, Sam’s mission was accomplished, his retirement well and truly earned. Not that this would change anything; Labradors don’t simply ‘retire’ any more than they can be expected to stop caring. I don’t expect that Sam ever felt he had completed his assignment but I hope he in some way realised that his role became more honorary than necessary.
This is the last picture I took of Sam, on his last day, enjoying the sunshine in the field where he had compiled and contributed to so many happy memories. As tired as he was that day, he was determined to follow us onto the field. He’d stopped eating but the diuretic he was given was making him thirsty and it seemed appropriate that I secretly captured a moment where Charlie was looking after him after a lifetime of unflinching service. When the time came to say goodbye, that evening, I looked into his calm eyes and thanked him for his loyalty and dedication. He slipped away with Helen and me holding him, protecting him from fear, as he had protected us all for over eleven years.
As in any obituary, it’s important to draw a distinction between the most recent and the most relevant. In his final chapter, Sam may have become older, feebler, slower and shakier but for most of the book of his life, he was a vital force, a fearless ally and a faithful friend. He embodied fun and service in equal measure and in fulfilling these two guiding principles, he touched the lives of so many people and prompted so many fulsome tributes at the news of his passing.
I’m so proud to be able to say he was a member of our our family, even if he was, in his heart, always, always Charlie’s dog.
We loved you, Sam and we’ll always miss you.