When I came across a 100-year-old paper dining room play set in the National Museum of Play’s collections recently, the paper dog begging beside the table got me to thinking about the dogs in my life. When I was a child, there always seemed to be a dog waiting patiently every night a few steps from our dinner table, too. Dogs also played a role beyond dinnertime. Living in a small, rural hamlet, my few nearby friends weren’t always available for play, so I instinctively turned to the family dog. Other times, when I seemed to be in everyone’s way, I would be curtly told, “Go play with the dog!” Much has been written about the relationship between a boy and his dog, and I believe all of it is true. The museum’s collections include numerous dog-related artifacts, and they remind us of the bond that so many of us share with “man’s best friend.” My family’s succession of canines provided me with a steady stream of ready playmates through most of my early years and contributed considerable companionship and love to our family life back then.
Officially, Skippy, the cocker spaniel, was my first dog, but I don’t remember much about him. I was just a wee lad during his reign. Judging from the few photographs that survived of Skippy, he seems a likeable-enough pooch. When I was eight years old, Dad got us our first purebred dog, an AKC-registered black Labrador retriever. We named her Sooty. She was perfect in every detail, prompting my father to launch us into the business of raising and selling pups. They were great family dogs and, later, great pheasant hunting companions. Dad painted a roadside sign for our new venture, which he proudly placed in front of the house. Named after our hamlet, Eastone Labs was officially in business.
During all but the coldest months, momma dog and her pups lived in the safety of the pen that enclosed the two doghouses that Dad had built from scrap lumber and leftover roof shingles. Filled with straw and old blankets, the doghouses made cozy retreats for the six to eight squirming little bodies that occupied them at any given time. I fed the puppies every morning and evening, a task I loved. And the puppies were such fun to play with and observe. I watched them suckle, open their eyes for the first time, and struggle to walk, tumbling down the doghouse ramp and falling face-first into their initial taste of solid food slurry. Being pups and programmed to play, they’d wrestle constantly with each other. At every stage, they were a source of never-ending entertainment and joy.
I always hated to see the puppies grow up and be sold. They all always looked so sad to me. Every now and then though, we’d keep one of the best ones to keep the business going. When I was a bit older, I’d take Sooty 2, the original Sooty’s daughter, pheasant hunting in the fall. She was a natural bird dog. She’d freeze first, making sure I was ready, and then bolt toward the bird, forcing it to take wing. I always got a shot off, but my aim was usually affected by the fury of the moment—the pheasant still startled me when he took off. My goal then was not necessarily to bring home dinner; it was, more often than not, just to spend time in the field with my four-legged best friend. But I grew up right along with the puppies, and have remained ever thankful for the experience. Maybe you have your own happy memories of the special dogs in your life. We’d love to have you share your story about playing with your canine friends. As for me, when fall rolls around once more, I recall the days I spent with each and every Sooty and their many offspring—and long for just one more pheasant hunt.