When I moved to Annapolis some 16 odd years ago, I immediately started to notice some area trends. For one, I was pretty sure there was a law that said you had to buy a Labrador retriever, throw it in the back of a Jeep Cherokee, and drive around with boating equipment on your roof rack — more than likely on your way to get an cocktail and shake Old Bay seasoning on everything that didn’t move. Dogs, cocktails, bay, food — this, I thought, was the place for me.
Blending like Russian spies in New Jersey, my husband and I actually did get the Cherokee and a little center console boat; but I couldn’t bring myself to get the Labrador. I’ve always been a sucker for fluffier dogs, so when the time came we adopted a chocolate Labradoodle instead. Labradoodles have all the goofy sidekick traits of a Lab, mixed with all the devious genius of a poodle. My husband named him Gordon because as a child he had a cat named Flash and always wanted a dog named Gordon. I kid you not. If you think Labs are goofy, you should meet my husband.
People tend to think more of circuses than water sports when they think of poodles, but they actually are water dogs. We had high hopes Gordon would be an avid swimmer. To get him started, we took him to Quiet Water Park’s doggy beach and tossed a favorite toy just a few feet into the water. He ran after it, waded carefully up to it, and then tried to pick it up. Unfortunately, with all the bobbing, the toy he handled so nicely on land would not hold still long enough for him to get a good grip on it. He looked more like an ostrich with his head in the sand than a mighty water dog. We watched, dismayed, as our little genius dog repeatedly tried to drown himself over a rubber hot dog.
We tried again with a common, every day stick. Again, the bobbing confounded him for a bit, but after a while he was plowing into the water, swimming, grabbing the stick and returning with it. Success! That is, until we threw the stick and another larger dog (one of those ubiquitous Labs) retrieved it before poor Gordon could get to it. Unaware someone else had fetched his toy, Gordon proceeded to try and paddle across the South River, neck craning in every direction like a jheri-curled Loch Ness Monster, determined to find the ball or die trying. I had my shoes off and was about to start swimming after him before he finally heeded our calls and came back to shore.
Maybe boating would be safer, we thought. He could even be useful on a boat. Labradoodles are so smart and so eager for jobs to keep their minds occupied that we figured we could teach Gordon to mix us the occasional a Mount Gay and Coke on ice. With lime. Picture Stephen Hawking’s mind in five year old child’s hyperactive body. Then teach it to make cocktails. Genius.
Almost immediately, our idealized version of our brilliant dog took a crippling blow. Gordon spent his first several boat rides staring at the wake off the bow of the boat like each foamy ripple was personally calling him out. Had we not held him back he would have jumped in and taught that uppity wake a well-deserved lesson. It was something a… well…. like something a dog would do. Not our furry little person.
We shook off the disappointment and tried again by taking him on my father’s much larger boat. Since many dogs like to act like a hood ornament at the bow of their Master’s boat, and all dogs are built like coffee tables, we assumed Gordon had a solid sense of balance. Then, on this very steady, docked boat, Gordon managed to fall off the transom. Once in, he made a beeline for a young girl swimming in the bay, as if she were a mermaid he had to claim as his own. The poor screaming girl kept trying to stroke away, while my well-meaning Labradoodle came after her like the Aquatic Mummy, slowly and relentlessly paddling along. Jaws would have been a much less suspenseful movie with Gordon in the title roll. Not to mention less scary, because he looks like a Muppet. The Jim Henson version of Jaws is just not going to have the impact of the original, but for the girl in the water the idea of being bear-hugged midstream by a 60lb wet ball of Muppet was scary enough. Foamy wake, toy or mermaid – if it is in the water, our dog thinks it is his duty to get it out of the water.
The first two boat experiments had not gone well, but we were determined to try again. We spent a weekend on a 28ft cabin cruiser with another couple and our dogs. That’s four people, one 60lb Labradoodle and one 110lb Rhodesian Ridgeback. Gordon actually loved being in the cave-like mid-berth, and pretended to make room for us as we were falling asleep. But strangely, every morning when I woke up, I found myself balled up in my pillowcase and the Labradoodle stretched out like a Playboy centerfold in the center of the bed. Dogs are like Hitler when it comes to mattress space – they’ve got most of Europe but they’re still going to make a play for Russia.
Nala the Ridgeback, on the other hand, settled herself politely on the floor so Mom and Dad could stretch out in the forward berth. Hm. Score one for Nala as a boat dog of the year.
While docked at the Cambridge Hyatt, Gordon nearly fell twice jumping from dock to boat or boat to dock. Big tall Nala gracefully stepped out of the boat like a visiting queen. Score two for boat dog Nala. Did I mention that Rhodesian Ridgebacks hail from Africa and generally live in the desert?
Finally, I spotted Gordon’s chance to shine. The hotel/marina had a little beach, and I knew Nala didn’t like to swim. We could go over to the beach and throw the stick in the water for Gordon. After all, our furry little Rainman was an excellent fetcher. Excellent. Excellent fetcher.
We all went to the beach. I found a stick and tossed it in. Gordon bolted into the water, gracefully paddled to the stick and brought it back to the shallow water. That’s when Nala walked up to him, took the stick from his mouth without the slightest resistance, and delivered it to me. Gordon did all the work and Nala received all the glory.
Score three for Nala.
We admitted defeat. Gordon would never be the ultimate water dog; the consummate boating buddy. We gave up and bought Gordon a little pool for the backyard.
He’s never been happier.