The Ascent of Blue

Like many great love stories, this one begins on Craigslist

And like many young couples in San Francisco, after our first child was born we felt a magnetic pull to the suburbs. While my wife was researching neighborhoods and more practical things, I’d been scouring the internet to find a dog. And not just any dog. I needed a male chocolate lab, and I needed to name him Blue. The make and model of my dog-to-be was one of those requirements that can’t be explained. My mind was set.

I looked at professional breeders with online booking forms and waiting lists. I looked at rescue dogs and local pound listings. I didn’t want a professional hunting dog, and I didn’t feel comfortable bringing a pound puppy home to our young daughter. I kept looking, getting particularly interested in home-based, amateur breeders on Craigslist. It seemed like a dog in that environment would have the right temperament for us.

Then I found it. There was a breeder in Oakley with a litter of American Kennel Club-approved labrador pups expected to be born around Halloween. We were scheduled to get the keys to our house in Walnut Creek about a month later, and we planned to actually move in about a month after that. Puppies can’t go home for 8–9 weeks after birth, so that timing was perfect, if moving into a new house with a one-year-old girl and a 9-week-old puppy is indeed perfect (spoiler alert: it’s not).

The morning of the day that we picked up the keys to our house I drove out to the breeder’s house in Oakley with my wife and daughter to choose my puppy. I’d never done this before and didn’t have a clue what to look for. I was hoping for a sign or an omen. I wanted my daughter to choose the puppy for me, or for one of them to come galavanting out to greet us, like in the movies. It didn’t happen that way.

The breeder and her family greeted us, friendly as could be, and she showed me the two remaining male chocolate labs in the litter. She brought them out of the cage in her living room and let me hold them. They both were tiny pups, but one was noticeably bigger than the other. I figured larger size at this point meant more milk and better health, so I chose the bigger guy. I remember looking at his pudgy nose, wondering why it was so flat and if there was something wrong with it. The breeder didn’t say anything so I didn’t either. His nose turned out fine, of course. Here’s a picture of that day.

My baby boy and my baby girl.

I chose my dog and then we drove to our new home to officially get the keys from our broker. Some neighbors were out in the court to greet us and a second relief passed over me. They were really friendly people and they also had dogs. Blue would have some friends in the neighborhood too.

My second trip to Oakley two months later was on another busy day. My family flew up from Los Angeles earlier that morning after visiting my in-laws for Christmas. We drove home to Walnut Creek from the airport. After we cleared the car I immediately jumped back in for the half-hour drive back to Oakley to take our Blue Boy home.

An ominous start

This was late December 2015 and the east bay was in a bitter cold snap. Before we left for our weeklong trip to Southern California I’d been playing with the wireless thermostat for our new air conditioner and in trying to connect it to our wifi, I messed up the heating settings. The furnace blew only cold air, so my wife couldn’t heat the house when we got home. I wanted to fix it before picking up Blue but it was getting late. The breeder made a point of telling me that Blue was the last of his siblings to be picked up. I needed to go get him.

When I arrived the breeder told me that she was secretly hoping I’d never show up. Her family spent Christmas with Blue and she said it was wonderful, that he’s a special dog. They were becoming attached. She also told me that he was always the first dog in the litter to smell his mom when she approached. She said that’s an early sign of love and loyalty.

I thanked and paid the breeder, picked up the vaccination and AKC paperwork, and made two stops on the way home. The first was to Petco to pick up Blue’s dog food and his first chew toys, where he got many compliments as we explored the aisles in my shopping cart. The next stop was to Ace to get a heater for the house, on urgent text message request from my wife.

Blue, master of the house.

The sun was setting when I finally got home and was greeted by my frazzled, cold wife and runny-nosed daughter. She had already made plans to stay at a hotel that night, leaving Blue Boy at home with me. I put on some music and found the setting I messed up on that blasted thermostat while Blue Boy watched in confused amusement. The house was warm again and I was home alone with my dog. In that moment I was relieved and happy.

Our first night together. He fell asleep to Beatles music.
Lily greeting her new furry bro the next morning. Lots of runny noses that winter.

The following months would be challenging. We needed a new deck in the backyard and new windows throughout the house. My wife was contracting for her employer back then and my daughter was at home with her full-time. I commuted to San Francisco and had a lot going on at Scripted as we continued to deal with typical startup challenges. I couldn’t help with the puppy, leaving my wife with what must have felt like two kids as workers came in and out and Blue whined and yelped with excitement. Mix in a cold and rainy winter with a smattering of my evening work events, and you wind up with a few text messages like this.

Having a puppy and a toddler at the same time is hard. Our timing was off, but I didn’t know any better. We should have waited until she was older so her toys wouldn’t look so much like puppy toys. He chewed more plastic baby gifts than I can count, including her first potty, her first swing, and one of our two grey couch pillows. Even my Eames lounge chair ottoman has puppy teeth marks on it. He also liked to tear up his own beds.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. He and Lily became fast friends.

They bonded and as they both grew they figured out how to play well together. She forgave him when his puppy energy knocked her over, and no one could get her to laugh more than Blue Boy.

Still, I admit to getting annoyed with him when I’d give something to Lily and he would bolt over, ears perked, expecting something too. If we brought a bunch of Lily’s toys out, he’d start playing with whatever she wasn’t playing with. And by playing, I really mean chewing. We’d have to limit the number of toys out and pick them up as soon as she was done playing with them. It was more work for us, and when my wife became pregnant again, that extra work became increasingly difficult.

As we got to know him better, we found out more about what makes him special. First of all, he had very few accidents in the house. One or two solids and maybe five total wet ones. Within a couple of weeks of being in our house he was using the doggy door regularly. He’d go in and out, all day and all night, as he pleased. He was a quick study in the bathroom department.

He also had one huge surprise for us. He never barked. If he was a barker we wouldn’t have been able to keep the doggy door available to him all the time. Plus, with sleeping babies in the house, this is huge. UPS and DoorDash people would come to our door and Blue wouldn’t make a peep. He could sense that it was okay. The few times that we had people come to our house at night and I wasn’t in the room with him, only then would he bark. His guard dog instincts kick when it matters. I didn’t teach him that.

The only sounds he makes are whines and “Hey, what about me?” cries when we’re in the front yard and he’s left in the backyard. Those get annoying too, but he’s toned them down a lot in the last few months. He recently turned a corner with all of us, but most especially with my wife.

As we’ve grown to know him, I think he has also grown to know and love us. In the mornings before my older daughter wakes up he lays down by her door and waits for her. It’s really sweet.

Blue waiting for Lily to wake up.

I take him running anywhere. We go to parks, into the hills, and to Peet’s to get coffee and muffins. When it’s not too hot, we jog over to my daughter’s preschool to pick her up. She loves seeing him there.

On summer evenings when the kids are in bed, he and I will sit out on the lounge chairs on our back deck and watch evening turn to dusk. The only lab I’ve known as well as Blue was my grandpa’s yellow lab, Bowie, but she wasn’t the lap dog that Blue is. He’ll put his huge head down on my lap and close his eyes, letting my hands brush across his forehead and velvety ears. Those quiet times are my favorite moments with Blue.

Beauty and the Beast

Clocking in at 100 pounds, he’s able to do some accidental damage to my oldest and youngest family members, but so far, seven months along with my second daughter, he’s never caused tears. Not once. She crawls over to him now and pulls herself up onto his shiny brown torso. He’ll look surprised at first and then plop his big head down, let out a sigh, and allow her to do whatever she wants with him. When my older daughter does the same, he treats it more like a game and gives her little kisses. He seems to know that the baby is vulnerable and when she’s near him he can’t roll over or nuzzle her. He’s stuck at this point and knows he’s not allowed to move.

People who get to know Blue tell me he’s the best labrador they’ve ever met. My mother-in-law is a dog trainer and tells me this too. It’s not that he’s particularly well-trained. He knows no tricks but he’ll come and sit and lie down on command. I think Blue’s real gifts are not in what he does, but in what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t growl, and he doesn’t get angry or frustrated. He’s happiest when he’s around us and when we’re happy.

I read somewhere that the bond between humans and dogs has been evolving for millennia now. The first wolves were tamed a long, long time ago and the friendliest offspring were mated for hundreds of generations. What I now have loafing around my house these days is the pinnacle of that evolution.

You’re my boy, Blue.

You’re my boy, Blue.

9 thoughts on “The Ascent of Blue”

  1. […] This family cuddle lasts for only a few minutes before one of them, usually Norah, heads for the edge and with an emphatic “Woowoom,” (Translation: “Blue’s Room,”) and pitter patters to the living room we named after our dog, Blue.  […]

  2. […] Blue Boy was in my car, patiently waiting for me. Since I was not supposed to spend more than 2 hours in close quarters with anybody, even pets, I drove him about 40 minutes to Dublin, where I met my dad. Blue would drive up to the mountains with him and I would go the rest of the way alone with my radioactive isotopes. […]

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