I once had a client tell me that he believes that everybody only really gets one “best dog” in their lifetime. Not only do I desperately hope that’s untrue, but I think my life has been proof of it. I’ve had the privilege of knowing, owning, and loving many amazing dogs. But this is a remembrance of my first dog (at least the first dog I was old enough to really remember). His name was King Rex the Black, and he was the kind of dog that inspires children’s movies.
My little brother and I were four and six when we brought our new black lab puppy home. We named him after a television and electronics store because we saw the sign from our dad’s truck, not realizing that Rex was one of the most common names for dogs. Our dad added the much more creative title, King Rex the Black, and the name just suited the squishy, wobbly, square-headed puppy in the most ironic way. He grew into it, though, gaining nobility and dignity with maturity.
Rex was a river dog, through and through. Our dad had a small house on stilts next to a little tributary of the Alabama River, and Rex took to it like…well… like a labrador retriever to water. He would “rescue” my brother and me from the river by biting our life jackets and trying to drag us to shore. My dad once took him out fishing in his little red canoe, and Rex got excited by something in the water and flipped the whole thing over. I used to love listening to Dad telling that story! I think he made up for it by learning to retrieve tools dropped from the back deck when Dad was working.
I remember him riding in the back of the pick up truck, tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth, when we all went to get sod for the front yard. I didn’t realize that picking up sod could be so fun, but a goofy lab puppy makes everything fun. He didn’t know what to think about the squares of grass in the bed of the truck! We also got so tickled at him when we got home from school. He would hear the truck coming, then when he saw us round the corner, he would take off into the woods as if he were chasing a squirrel. We never saw the prey and laughed that he just wanted us to think he was doing something besides laying around waiting for us to get home.
As he grew older, Rex really stepped into his role as protector. He once spotted a snake from the shore as my brother and I were swimming in the river, and he swam out and got between us and the snake, swimming back and forth, until we could get safely to shore. And when I was about ten, my brother and I were riding our bikes down the road, Dad walking behind us, to take apples to our neighbor’s horses when we came across a pack of wild dogs. We immediately jumped off our bikes to put them between us and the pack. Rex, who was always just a few steps behind us, slowly stepped in front of us, hackles raised, and let a deep growl rumble from his belly. I had never heard him growl before. It was six dogs to one, but I honestly believe that Rex would’ve died protecting us that day. Thankfully, that growl and his hard stare were enough. The dogs slowly turned away, and once they were out of sight, Rex turned to us and completely relaxed back into his goofy self, almost as if proudly saying “did you see that?!”
In addition to “protector,” maturity comes with other bonuses too, particularly in the cute girl next door, Patches. My dad loves to tell the story about how he realized Rex was the father of the cutest little litter of half-lab puppies. Apparently Rex had been missing for a few hours, and when Dad went to look for him, he saw him standing proudly on the edge of the ditch in the nearby woods. When Dad called to him, he wiggled a little in excitement, but immediately resumed his proud stance above the ditch. When Dad went down to investigate, he found Patches, the new mama, and the litter of puppies. He said Rex never looked so proud! Dad said, “Rex! Are those your puppies?” and Rex just immediately started prancing around.
Rex was the epitome of a country dog, roaming free and chasing squirrels and making neighborhood friends. This is not necessarily considered responsible dog ownership in this day and age, and I keep a much more helicopter-mom approach to my current dogs, but I know Rex was a happy dog. He worked his way into the house and home over the years, no longer strictly an “outside dog”, and he found a favorite sleeping spot under my dad’s piano. He started to move more slowly, arthritis taking over his joints, and his little muzzle started to turn white. When he could no longer run behind our bikes, we built him a little seat on the back of the fourwheeler, and he loved those outings with his humans. He was a companion to the end of his long, happy life, quietly passing away just as we were about to move closer to the city, as if he knew his days on the river were ending and he wanted to do it his way.
He was the first dog I loved and the first dog I lost. I have since loved and lost many more. The heartache is unbearable, but so worth it to have such a loving, loyal, and fun best friend. And every kid deserves to have a good dog. I am still so thankful to have had mine.