The Wisdom of Fetch

The Coleman family’s black Lab-terrier mix Watson is getting to be more of a jalopy every day. It’s hard to believe he showed up at our house twelve years ago in the arms of a neighbor and slept peacefully and without piddles between wife Kathy and me his first night with us. Now he has fatty tumors everywhere (one the size of a Florida orange morphing into Nebraska on his flank), a gnarly-pink-jelly-beanish growth on his gums, arthritic shoulders and hips, two blown ACLs, and a metal rod in one leg.

He may also have hearing loss. He has never been tested, but he talks as though we can’t hear him. A noise outside or anybody’s arrival warrants hoops and hollers ascending in pitch and volume. His request for Senior Milk Bones is a single, soul-piercing bark. Most of the colorful language in the house is in response to Watson’s loud barking.


Watson is convinced that every sound in and out of the house is one of this guy’s cousins. (Credit: John Coleman, taken at L. L. Bean’s big store in Maine)

I ought to be more disciplined about giving the old boy treats, for three reasons: 1.) More treats lead only to more barking. 2.) He is gaining weight. And 3.) Senior Milk Bones give him gas, which he most often shares during our afternoon nap.

We have a ritual. Watson hobbles after me to the bedroom, his nails dragging across the wooden part of the steps. I set my alarm for one hour in the future, put my head on the pillow, and he plops on the floor. After five or ten minutes, he walks around to the other side of the bed and stands there as if to say, “This is going to hurt.”

I say, “Come on up, Watty. Get your spot.” Kathy and I love him so much we removed the bed frame to make it easier for him to get up. “Come on,” I usually have to nudge. “You can do it.”

He hops up, presses his nose against mine, and looks me in the eye—no kidding.

I scratch his jowls, receive a lick on my snout, and tell him, “Okay, buddy, it’s nap time. Lie down.”

He spins twice or thrice and lands in a heap, usually with his bum inches from my face. Twice a week, I’d say, the fun begins right here. I’m not sure what it was about yesterday’s treat allotment, but that mutt stung my nostrils.

For fifteen minutes afterwards, Watson’s flatus molecules clung to my cilia. His oblivion spoke like film’s Rain Man to his brother in the phone booth: “I don’t mind it.”


An old dog thing: a two-inch tuft of gray hair sprouting from Watson’s chest–a sequoia among saplings.


This coming Saturday morning, Kathy and I are taking our pal to Union City, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Erie. We hear a veterinarian there has unorthodox methods that restore broken-down pups. All Watty’s barks, infirmities, and air bagels aside, his death will knock the wind out of us. He is unconditional love in a loud, lumpy, smelly package.

A couple months ago Kathy and I closed on a house less than half the size of our current place. We want to hose the material excess and crud from our lives, but a benefit to having everything on one floor is that our gimp won’t have to climb stairs. We’ll move soon, but I looked at Watson the other day and thought, “Oh, buddy, I hope you get to spend some good time with us there.” You never know when.


A small house will be home with beautiful Kathy, son Micah, the cats, and monarchs. Please let Watson enjoy it, too.

I’ve always said that Watson is as dumb as a turnip, but as I make my way toward needing senior biscuits, I’m learning that intelligence isn’t all about brain cells. In fact, I would argue that wisdom generally has to overcome gray matter. My dog taught me this a couple days ago. Here’s the chronology:

  • I got home from work, put down my satchel, slung my coat over a dining room chair, held a couple of Senior Milk Bones out to Watson, and put little kitty treats on the counter for Shadow Cat and Baby Crash, who were trying to hypnotize me with their stare.
  • I made a quick visit to the bathroom. As is his custom, Watson heard the flush and remembered where the coldest, most refreshing water bowl in the house was. Ugh.
  • I sat down in the living room for twenty minutes of prayer-meditation. My Zen bell had just sounded when I heard Watson labor upstairs. A few seconds later he thumped back down. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his doggy presence beside me.
  • He had retrieved his biscuit ball, a heavy rubber toy with holes on each end that you stuff broken bits of Milk Bones into to occupy your dog. For once he didn’t care about treats. He wanted to play fetch.

I’m not a fetch kind of guy. I enjoy a good laugh; beyond this I’m not much fun. Occasionally I’ve explained this to Watson: “Now look, you know I don’t play. I cuddle. Your mother plays, right?”

Two brown eyes can teach a lot, even if there’s not much between them. “Hey, Dad,” my dog said, “what’s your life worth if you can’t spare enough time to throw a ball ten times? You know that’s as much as I can handle these days.” Seriously, that moment with Watson, his eyes pup-clear and that purple toy sticking out of his dopey mouth, goes into my spirit’s photo album. My brain cells are always crowding out wisdom. My old friend clarified a lot for me.

Pray or play? A whisper came from inside: “Why not both, busy, neurotic, fragile man?”

“Okay,” I said and sat at the end of the dining room table. I threw the ball all the way to the kitchen counter, fifteen feet, if that—field enough for a twelve-year-old. He rumbled to fetch it and limped back. On maybe the fourth toss, he turned the wrong way and walloped his head against the refrigerator. After recalibrating, he got the ball and sat down beside me as if to say, “What the hey? What just happened?” Thankfully, his head is mostly bone.

But he was right. After a few more trips, he was done.


Watson after fetch, catching his breath and getting his bearings

Replaying fetch in my head right now, I think, “Watson, who will remind to play when you’re gone? Who will look at me in love and help me say to myself, ‘John, stop living in compartments. Always pray. Always play’”? Maybe he’ll stick around long enough to teach me a few more times.

This morning Kathy got up before I did, so Watson took her place. For once getting out of bed wasn’t a chore, but I stayed a couple of minutes. I rested my face on his side and talked to him: “You know I love you, right? You know you’re a good boy? You know I love you?”

He stretched his head back, put his cheek against mine, and snorted—just the answer I was hoping for.

23 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Fetch

    • Thanks for the compliment, Jo. I only wish I were a good proofreader. Kathy read last night a caught a bunch of oopsies. Ah well, they’re corrected now. Glad you enjoyed. Peace, John

  1. I hope this dog whisperer cures (or eases) all that ails Watson. Saying goodbye to our beloved 15 year old golden retriever, Molly 3 years ago was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. 😥

    • Yeah, right? I’ve had three howling cries in my life, and one was when our little mutt Bandit bought the farm. Nice seeing you, Nancy. Peace, John

  2. Oh my! How we love our beloved dogs… I believe it has to do with their unconditional love for us…we reciprocate with our feeble attempt at the same. Thank you for sharing your talent.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I agree! Dogs and their unconditional love–the absolute best. I love our cats, too, but they play hard-to-get. Glad you enjoyed the post. Peace, John

  3. I think this is my very favorite of all your posts. In fact, I’m reblogging it. There is wisdom that only dogs can teach, and you have captured it wonderfully. Just like my dearly departed Po’, made me laugh and cry t the same time. Much love.

    • Hi, Kim. I agree. Our dogs are, in fact, the best thing about us, ay? I see, by the way, that you’re along for the Napper’s ride. Please know I take this as a real compliment, coming from you. Peace and best, John

    • Hi, Paul. Thanks for the visit. Labs are absolutely without guile, aren’t they. Love ’em. I’ll be sure to check out your blog. Peace and best, John

  4. That was lovely…had to stop there, because my dog suddenly woke up and started screaming at what was probably a dormouse scratching three fields away. I love the sound of your dog. You wouldn’t like to swap for a bossy terrier, would you?

    • Hi, Elaine. Thanks for the visit. “Dormouse scratching three fields away”: ha! I’m going to have to check out your blog. We took Watson to a kind of hippie vet on Saturday. As a result the old boy has put a dent in our checking account. You’re better off with your bossy terrier. 🙂 Peace and best, Johm

  5. Our dogs do us so much service. My Sheba is 8 and a half but still healthy and active, but she is greyer. I try not to worry but it is hard sometimes. I see I’m not alone in that and it’s a comfort.


    • Hi, Lily. The trip to a hippie vet on Saturday has given us hope for some healing. Fingers crossed. Here’s to Sheba’s good health. Peace, John

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  7. Hey John:

    Just got around to reading this one and, as always, it’s heartfelt and heartful… thanks for sharing and reminding…

    See you soon, brother


  8. Pingback: Belated Happy National Napping Day! | A Napper's Companion

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