Introducing the puppy who saved Christmas


PUPPY LOVE: The Sparano family welcome Oakley, a 10 week old Labrador Retriever. (Photo courtesy of Vin Sparano)

Christmas has always been a joyful and memorable holiday for me and my family. In recent years, however, we have experienced a terrible pandemic. For many families like ours, it certainly ruined our vacation, especially Christmas.

This Christmas will be different because we will be celebrating it with Oakley, a 10 week old Labrador Retriever. He may not recognize his importance this Christmas as he explores the sights and smells of his new home and the compulsive puppy trait of chewing everything he sees.

Why is this puppy so important in our family’s life? This is an easy question to answer. We only have to look at the world of therapy dogs and how they have literally saved the lives of so many and brought almost miraculous comfort and hope to millions who need help.

I know the dogs and the grief when they leave us. I have spent many decades as a game bird hunter and have owned a few bird dogs, a Breton spaniel named Sandy and a German shorthair named Patch. Sandy was a brave little dog, but little to find pheasants and quails for me. Sandy, however, was my constant companion at home and in the field.

In an attempt to train Sandy in the field as a puppy, I pretended to have a heart attack and lay down in a cornfield. I hoped Sandy would turn out to be a heroic dog and immediately go for help and save my life. No! Sandy lay down next to me and fell asleep. But Sandy’s loyalty grew over the years. If she did something wrong I just had to point my finger at her and she would fall on her stomach. Almost always, I felt worse than Sandy. We have had Sandy for 16 years. Unless you’ve owned dogs, you can never understand the heartache of losing your dog.

Then came Patch, my German shorthair. Patch was different. He loved hunting and I could always count on him to find me birds. He was also tough. I remember Patch pointing a ring-necked pheasant across a frozen drainage ditch. The bird blushed and I dropped it. I watched in amazement as Patch jumped into the ditch, breaking the thin layer of ice to get to the other side. Patch brought this bird back to me and dropped it at my feet. That day, I liked Patch even more than usual, and shared my baloney sandwich with him. I never realized it back then, but Patch was a better hunter than I was. I also admit that sometimes I preferred to hunt with Patch than with some of my friends. I will always miss the hunt with Patch.

I think God gave us dogs because he knew there would be times when we needed help getting through tough times. I know this was especially true when my son was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Bailey, his dark lab, was lying next to him with my son’s hand resting on Bailey’s head. Bailey never moved until he felt my son’s hand. Bailey is still with us, and I know he and Oakley will be buddies.

We love our dogs. Several decades ago, when my grandfather passed away, funeral cars drove past our house, which has always been an old Italian tradition. Her beagle, watching from our porch, began to moan and cry as the funeral cars drove past our house. I’m sure he knew Grandpa was coming by for the last time. You do not believe in it ? I don’t care because I know it’s true.

Dogs also seem to become our protectors and especially aggressive guardians of young children. Max, another Labrador who was part of our family, was a classic example. Max always remained perfectly still when my young granddaughter fell asleep on top of him. It wasn’t moving until my granddaughter woke up. When Max was very ill, my granddaughter took a mold from Max’s paw. Losing Max broke our hearts.

We also have Beau, a Shih Tzu, and Mia, a Yorkie. They are the non-hunting dogs of our family. I would love to see them at least chase a rabbit or two, but that will never happen. Either way, Beau and Mia still get by with moral support when needed. Beau, with incredible human traits, should receive special recognition for the loyal support he gave to my daughter when she suffered a tragic loss.

We love our dogs with good reason. Their unlimited loyalty and love for their owners is often beyond comprehension. Even badly treated, they will lick the abuser’s hand. There are times when I love dogs more than some people. This is especially true in today’s very different and divided world. It is safe to say that you can still judge a man by the way he treats his dog.

So, Oakley, you have your work cut out for you. We can never forget the grief of losing our dogs. Your job will be to fill in the gaps for all those great dogs before you do. You can start going to work on Christmas morning, the perfect time for such a perfect gift. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find me a pheasant when you grow up.

I often remember the classic outdoor story called “The Road to Tinkhamtown”. When Corey Ford wrote this story for Field and flow many years ago he left instructions for his editor that it was to be published when he died. Frank, the main character in this story, had a longtime hunting companion, Shad, a bird dog. Frank and Shad were inseparable hunting partners. Terminally ill and in and out of consciousness, Frank began to hear Shad’s bell. It just got stronger and stronger. “Silent, Shad, I’m coming. “

When my time comes, I’ll listen to Patch’s bell.

Merry Christmas!

Vin Sparano of Port Monmouth, New Jersey, has lived year round in High Bar Harbor for over 20 years. Its LBI roots go back decades.


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