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The Lab Who Ate the House

A story of gleeful mayhem, unbridled destruction … and a bodacious love that knows no bounds

In O. Henry’s short story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two hapless crooks pay dearly for kidnapping the 10-year-old, redheaded boy who brings terror to their hideout cave.

Proclaiming he’s never had so much fun, the self-anointed “Red Chief” announces that kidnapper Sam will be burned at the stake at dawn. That threat doesn’t pan out, but another almost does when kidnapper Bill awakens at daybreak with the boy earnestly trying to take his scalp.

As described, the kidnappers’ scheme came “during a moment of temporary mental apparition.” Which brings me to the unpredictable redhead in my life, a 10-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever named Remy capable of holding the whole house hostage. I suspect some of my longtime acquaintances who know all about my first two Labs, Cody and Carson, think I’m crazy for now raising a third.

I’m not doing so alone. At our South Austin home, my partner and I wrangle a herd of two cats, Shadow and Malachi; and two dogs, Dashiell and Remy, a gift from friends who have her brother Harry, a handsome blond.

Remy, at first blush, looks like the angel that she often is. Her caramel-colored eyes accentuate the frizzy, strawberry-blond hair on her head and ears that practically appeared overnight, as if she’d stolen away to a beauty salon for highlights and a perm. Her chocolate-brown coat, soft as cashmere, ripples in waves across her back.

And she wears a perpetual, devilish grin, bringing me to three key facts about Labs: 1) If it’s not bolted down, they’ll triumphantly gallop away with it; 2) regardless of what it is, they’ll eat it; and 3) everything is hilariously fun.

Remy’s favorite game is carrying objects (rocks, snails, sticks, Dashiell’s food bowl) in and out of the house, through the doggie door. Occasionally, she gets a long, forked tree branch stuck in the door, bringing all four-legged traffic to a halt.

But that’s the calm before the storm. A Labrador puppy is like a tropical depression in the Gulf, gaining strength before slamming ashore as a full-blown hurricane. To wit, Remy: chewed through my laptop computer’s power cord ($43 to replace); destroyed our telephone landline power jack ($99 to repair); and got into a bottle of Carson’s arthritis pain-relief tablets, earning her a 21/2-day emergency hospital stay ($1,300).

Cody, my first Lab, entered my life in 1997 as a shy, jet-black, 9-week-old puppy. By the age of 18 months, he had eaten dozens of socks, a windowsill and a love seat.

One afternoon, I left him alone in the house, outside his crate. I returned home to a scene resembling a ticker-tape parade: white paper fluttering in the air and covering the living room floor and Cody dancing in the hundreds of pages he had ripped from books yanked off shelves.

One morning, I was jolted awake by a horrific wrenching sound. Groggy from working my night-shift newspaper job, I stumbled outside to see Cody, all four feet dug into the ground and a siding board clamped in his jaws, tugging mightily as the nails ripped free from the house. Dog tired, I went back to bed. Hey, with Labs, you choose your battles.

But with the same intensity that Cody ate the house came his appetite for life. Our favorite destination was Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park in far South Austin, where Cody discovered trails and I followed. One day, Cody appeared on a canyon cliff above me, determined to leap into my arms. “STAY!!!” I screamed, successfully, understanding at that moment, with every painful thump of my heart, that a Labrador’s love knows no bounds.

When Cody was 2, and not yet neutered, I met a couple seeking a stud dog for their female black Lab. Cody met everyone’s approval, and I got the pick of the litter: Carson, a rock ’em, sock ’em blond who treated his dad like a football tackling dummy.

But Cody never growled when Carson played too rough. Instead, he’d wrap his front legs around Carson, wrestling him down rope-a-dope style. I’d often see Cody lying regally in the backyard, his sleeping son snuggled against his chest. And Carson followed Cody everywhere at the park. Then came the day he outran Cody for the first time, abruptly wheeling around as if to ask, “Is this the right way?”

Old age hits like a hammer. In 2011, the weekend before Thanksgiving, Cody, a frail 14-year-old, fell gravely ill. We set up ICU camp in the living room, holding vigil. Carson, afraid, kept his distance. Unable to find a mobile veterinarian, we scheduled an appointment for Tuesday and waited for the end.

On Monday, with Cody too weak to sit up and not eating or drinking, Carson suddenly walked over to his dad, laid down inches from his muzzle and stared straight into his eyes. They locked gazes for maybe a full minute. Blinded by tears, I felt sure Carson was saying goodbye. But then I saw a light in Cody’s eyes. He wolfed down a plate of food. He gulped water. I canceled the vet appointment, and two days later he was walking.

It was a precious gift of time. On May 3, 2012, Cody’s body had given out. Moments before our mobile vet administered the sedatives to put Cody to sleep, Carson carefully cleaned his dad’s face. After Cody had passed, Carson kissed him one last time.

In O. Henry’s story, the kidnappers pay $250 to the boy’s father to take him back. When Remy’s got us all scrambling for cover, barking at the cats because they refuse to roughhouse, I question my sanity. But then Dashiell, a 12-pound dynamo, takes charge, biting Remy’s cheeks and pinning her down (to her great delight). Order is restored.

Yet there’s an emptiness in the house. Our beloved, big-hearted Carson passed away on March 30. He would have turned 14 on September 13, the same day, coincidentally, that Remy and Harry will turn 1. The youngsters can have their birthday cake and eat it, too, in honor of the bodacious Labs who have gone before.

Camille Wheeler is an Austin-based writer.