This is a story about a good dog. A lake dog, to be specific.
His name was Cooper. I introduced the world to him back in 2016 after a family trip to Great Bear Lake in Michigan. We rented a place on the lake and soon met a friendly, wet, muddy golden-Labrador-ish canine who was, to put it mildly, a real presence.
He would show up unannounced, indulge a quick scratch behind the ear or pat on the head then swiftly run into the lake and launch what can best be described as a frontal assault on the water. Paws slapping, mouth chomping and barking—it was a mix of glee and outrage, like he was delighted to see the water while also seeking revenge because the water had killed his family.
The aquatic display was initially jarring, but after a couple of times, it was just Cooper. We looked forward to it, and laughed hysterically each time.
One day we took a canoe out and Cooper swam behind us more than halfway across the lake. We worried he was going to get exhausted and drown, leaving us responsible for the death of a beloved Great Bear Lake celebrity. But he just paddled off to a different shore to chase some birds. He came back by the house later that day to check in and commit unspeakable acts of violence on the water near our dock.
I never figured out who Cooper belonged to—it’s possible “who belonged to Cooper” is more appropriate phrasing—but I came back to Chicago and wrote a workplace-advice column about him, holding the dog’s lake life up as the pinnacle of “enjoying your work.”
That was almost five years ago, and Cooper’s name still comes up regularly around our house. Like all good dogs, he comes back, if not physically then at least in memories.
Earlier this week I got an email from Chris Loher, the son of Cooper’s owner. Turns out the column I wrote found its way to Chris’s dad, Terry Loher, shortly after it published. A neighbor had it framed and Terry hung it on a wall in his house next to a picture of Cooper.
If you caught the past tense I used earlier in this piece, you probably know where this is all heading. Chris wrote: “I received a call last week from Dad that Cooper wasn’t doing so good and had been to the vet a few times because he had lost his drive to even chase a ball. If you know Cooper, you know it’s serious if he’s not chasing a ball. Unfortunately, this morning I received another call from Dad again and he had to put Cooper down on Saturday.”
I forgot to mention Cooper would chase anything you threw into the lake and get it and then, using his eyes, plead desperately for you to throw the thing into the lake approximately 543,000 more times.
The thought of that dog not chasing a ball gutted me. And I felt the loss five years and about 130 miles away.
I called Terry to express my condolences and learn about the man behind the dog. Turns out he grew up in Chicago, studied at what’s now the College of DuPage and eventually took up residence at the Michigan lake house his dad had bought in the 1930s. He had planned to return to Illinois, but soon realized something about life around the lake: “I might not make a lot of money, but people up here live a lot longer.”
Living where he does, Terry doesn’t believe in keeping a dog fenced in or tied up.
“For a Lab, a place on the lake is like he died and went to heaven,” he said. “It seems cruel to keep him away from that.”
That also would’ve kept Cooper away from visitors like us and from neighbors around the lake. That hardly seems fair.
When I asked Terry to sum up Cooper, he was appropriately matter-of-fact: “He got along with kids and all the adults and other dogs. Didn’t care for cats. Couldn’t catch squirrels.”
Then he shared this story: “Two or three years ago, in the spring, a swan decided it was going to nest on the shoreline. Cooper figured that’s his shoreline, so he goes trotting down there to run that swan out. Well, it doesn’t work quite that way with swans. Swans will attack people who are on Jet Skis. So he got an education. I guess that was his lesson in ornithology.”
That sounds about right.
Dogs, if we care to pay attention, make excellent teachers. Cooper taught me, as I mentioned earlier, that all good dogs come back.
When they’re with us on this earthly plain, they come back in the literal sense, returning to the pack that loves and provides for them. They burrow deep into our memories, so that when they’re gone -- when their days of chasing balls and romping along a lake’s muddy shore are done -- they can still show up and visit from time to time.
My family will not see Cooper again, face to water-soaked snout. But we will see him over and over, as we have done so many times since meeting him years ago.
I don’t expect this to temper the pain Terry and his family are feeling over the loss of such a noble dog. But as they move on, and as another lake dog moves into their lives, I hope they’re comforted by the memories of Cooper.
Because all good dogs do us one final favor. They come back.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.