Jansim Sam Gamgee

Remembering Sam

April 08, 1990 - May 28, 2002

Barbara Pettit

In early May, Sam was diagnosed with a probable brain tumour, and last Tuesday, before he was incapacitated in any way, we said goodbye to one of the most special dogs we have ever owned.

Sam My children called him the "researched" dog and it was true that I chose Sam through books and magazine articles and writing to breeders. Until I picked him up from Pam and Chris Dyer as a puppy in Montreal, I had never seen a Border Terrier in the flesh. He was chosen because Borders do not shed, they are wonderful with children and other dogs and they are "big dog in a small package". We got half of what we wanted. Sam romped through life, leaving a trail of doghair behind him and aggressively defending his turf (Lighthouse Park and the Seaview Walk) from all other dogs.

Sam started his life with us on our island in Northern Ontario. Word of the new puppy spread and one of our dearest friends, an animal lover of the first order, came almost immediately to see him. Sam was curled up asleep on the couch, and our friend quietly scooped him up and sat down ever so slowly with Sam still asleep in his cupped hands. But he could not resist bending his head over to inhale the wonderful smell of new puppy. In that instant, Sam uncoiled and clamped his little jaws frmly around our friend's nose. You can imagine the picture - a six-foot man with barely five pounds of tenacious puppy wriggling and growling at the end of a nose that by now was dripping blood all over the floor!

We worked daily at civilizing Sam and, by summer's end, for better and for worse, he had wormed his way into our hearts. Along the way, he tried to run across the reflective surface of our northern lake - and briefly sank. He learned that butterflies could not be caught but buttercups could. He answered the loons and barked at garter snakes, and chased sunning bullfrogs back into the reeds. He made my recently widowed mother laugh. We called him "Ever Hopeful" because he stationed himself, with mournful eyes, in front of anyone who had the smallest morsel of food.

Sam's training continued through the winter. He attended his first puppy class at Eagle Harbour School with Sue Anderson and, after the first few sessions, his little ears would prick up as we rounded the last bend in the road. By the time we wheeled into the parking lot, he would be standing with his paws on the dash, tail wagging in anticipation. He was an excellent pupil and went on to many classes with Ann Jackson, Marion Postgate and Barb Merkeley in our ongoing attempt to keep his aggressive tendencies in check. When he attended his first class with Barb Merkeley, she was so impressed that she asked Shirley McCoy who had trained him. When Shirley replied that I had, Barb Merkeley refused to believe her saying, "The dog is wonderful, but the owner is a disaster!".

Shortly into Sam's second spring, a friend phoned to go walking and asked if I could bring him along so that her eleven-year-old daughter could play with him. It was a cool but sunny March day and we decided to walk Wreck Beach because, as my friend explained, it was one of the few times her daughter could enjoy this beach so close to her home without having to encounter nudity. The walk started off innocently enough, but after ten minutes or so, we saw a man sunning himself, sheltered from the wind by the winter's accumulation of logs. My friend suggested that if we just ignored him, her daughter might not notice his state of undress. We had barely decided on this strategy when Sam, in full bark, descended on the man and his nether parts. The man jumped up, clutching his privates while the eleven-year-old watched goggle-eyed.

During Sam's second summer, he perfected his frog-chasing skills, and had his first encounter with a porcupine. We had left Sam with my son and his friend and they apparently removed a snoutful of quills by feeding him tiny balls of hamburger as they deftly removed the quills, one by one. Blooded - quite literally - by his first real encounter with wildlife, Sam became highly proficient at sniffing out and alerting us to all sorts of small creatures that dared come near the cabin. Later in the summer, we went to visit friends. We were there only a few hours when Sam gave the staccato bark that signalled wildlife and raced in a frenzy towards their cottage. With no small degree of pride, we apprised our friends that an animal of some sort was under their cottage and that Sam would flush it out. But he stood, barking madly, and pointed, retriever-fashion, at one particular spot. Intrigued, we approached the spot and saw that Sam had cornered a concrete garden frog!

We had a second, more serious, porcupine encounter the following summer. This time, he had so many quills that we had to drive him into Sudbury and have over one hundred quills removed under anaesthetic. The vet told us that dogs never learn about porcupines and we could expect more of the same. Nevertheless, we took a bunch of the quills home and put them in a glass jar. Each summer thereafter, we would unscrew the lid of the jar and pass the jar under Sam's nose, whereupon his tail would go between his legs and he would turn and run away. For ever after, he would dance around porcupines in his path, barking shrilly, but never again came close enough to be harmed.

Sam's "wisdom" regarding porcupines did not extend to bears. We encountered a mother and her twin cubs while walking at the edges of Killarney Wilderness Park. Mum sent the cubs scrambling up the nearest tree and while my husband and I were arguing (in whispers) whether we should back slowly away or run, Sam went off in full flight after the mother. This was the only time that we abdicated our responsibility for Sam. We let him give chase and ran in the opposite direction, our hearts thudding. When we were at a safe distance, we slowed our pace and looked back in sorrow. And there was little Sam, quickly gaining on us. "Run!" shouted my husband. "The bear might be following him!"

Sam's most magnificent moment came the summer he was six. My son, Tim, who had taken him off to one of the sleep cabins for the night, was wakened by frantic barks around three o'clock in the morning. Groggily, Tim crawled out of bed and opened the cabin door to let Sam out. The little dog refused to go out, but simply stood at the door barking. Tim closed the door and, as he turned to head back to bed, he saw through the window that the lake was a ruddy glow. He went to the window and there, across the bay, was our sauna bath in full blaze. It had been a dry summer and, had it not been for Sam, the whole island could have gone up in flames while we slept.

Sam adored balls. He chased them but did not retrieve, preferring that you chase him once he had caught the ball. If you tired of the game, he would drop the ball at your feet. If you ignored him, he would pick it up and drop it again. If it happened to roll under the sofa, he would whine until you retrieved it. We learned that the only way to escape Sam's determined efforts to engage us was to put the ball in the freezer where he could neither see nor smell it. Once, during a period of ball-deprivation, he saw a tennis ball caught in one of the trees in the clearing in Lighthouse Park. We watched in amazement as he scrabbled his way from limb to limb until, triumphant, he stood eight feet above our heads with the ball in his teeth.

Food was central to Sam's life. He stoutly believed that everything should be tasted at least once. Our first serious encounter was with heartworm pills which I had left on the coffee table while I slipped off to the store briefly for some last minute items before we left for the cottage. I returned to find that Sam had pushed the pills out of the cardboard slip case, popped the sturdy metal backing encasing each pill, and consumed the entire year's supply. Then there was the Microsoft computer mouse from which Sam removed both the "tail" and the rolling ball with nary a toothmark. Microsoft was so delighted with the story that they sent me a second mouse free of charge. When Sam did the same to this mouse, Microsoft sent a third mouse with regrets that they would have to charge for this one.
And not to be forgotten were the six carved loons that my husband ordered as gifts and left, in their individual cardboard cartons, on the stairs. We returned to find that each carton had been opened and each head had been tested for edibility and found wanting.

Sam, as many of you know, was a survivor. He survived a coyote encounter and, last winter, eight days in the January rains. He was very specific about how the world should run; he growled his displeasure every time he was picked up and licked your face afterwards; he marked his territory on his owner's leg if others came too close; vets would be tolerated only if they produced treats at regular intervals. But he had a loving spirit as well. There was, I recall, some disagreement about an arrowroot biscuit when our ten-year-old grandson was a baby, but in every other respect Sam was as gentle with the grandchildren as he has been feisty with dogs he did not know.

We could have kept Sam longer but we chose to let him go while he could still run in the back yard, still wolf his food down with utter delight and still tremble at the anticipation of a liver treat. We will miss him.

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