By Gary Koehler

If there are downsides to owning a retriever, the most painful occurs on the day when one has to say goodbye for the last time. This is never easy, regardless of the circumstance.

I experienced such a loss last November, a week before the opening of the Mid-South waterfowl season. Kayla, my Chesapeake Bay retriever, was not yet seven years old when she succumbed to bone cancer. She was much too young for such a fate.

Weakened by this insidious affliction, Kayla had a hard time walking that final day. I had to help her into her crate for her last ride to the vet's office. But it was that last hug, that last look into her soulful eyes that broke my heart.

And yes, I cried. While Chessies are one-person dogs, and she was clearly mine and mine alone, everyone in our household cried. Besides a hunting partner, we had lost a family member, a confidante, and protector.

In top shape, Kayla was 95 pounds of mischief and muscle, but mostly heart. To my knowledge, she had never growled at anyone, let alone been physically aggressive. That may come as a surprise to those who picture all Chessies as wild-eyed monsters of the marsh. They are perhaps the most misunderstood breed in the hunting world. At least that was my experience.

Rather than snarl or snap after having her tail pulled, eyes poked, and ears tugged by my preschool granddaughter, Kayla would simply retreat to her crate when she had had enough. She was a lady, and behaved accordingly.

Kayla slept just outside of our bedroom door. For a full week after her passing, I'd look for her whenever I opened that door. Habit, I guess, part of our daily routine. I still miss that.

Just as much, I miss having her greet me every evening upon my return from work. She was always there, waiting, tail thumping, sometimes jumping high in the air. Where else can one get that type of welcome?

Our mutual bond went much deeper. On days when it seemed that everyone was upset with me, or days when everything seemed to go wrong, or days that I was simply bummed out about something. Kayla always provided a reassuring calm.

She could read my moods as well or better than I could read hers. And she could tell when things were not going well for me. On those days, she'd make an extra effort to offer her ears for scratching. And perhaps put her head on my knee.

Her dedication was unconditional. Her understanding was therapy. It's curious how stress evaporates while petting a dog.

Kayla loved to hunt ducks. Before last season, we made an annual trip to the Illinois River Valley, our native home. We stayed at our humble cabin, just Kayla and me and a resident mouse or two. She loved it there, particularly the part where she could crawl up on an old couch to nap. I wasn't about to tell her no.

During these visits, we hunted with longtime friends at the Greenwing Gun Club. We usually shot some ducks. And Kayla, while not perfectly trained due to my imperfect instruction, retrieved them. It was not uncommon for me to send her in one direction only to have her find the bird after going the opposite way. She had a nose for such things.

Perhaps Kayla's finest hour came about five years ago. She accompanied me on a trip to Oklahoma. Four of us shot 41 ducks during a two-day span in 20-degree weather. Kayla retrieved 35 of those birds. It was a season's worth of ducks for many dogs. She grew up during that stay.

Dog owners share a common sadness when it's time to say goodbye for the final time. So hug your retriever today. Offer some kind words. Reflect on the good times you shared. The good days do not last forever.

What makes me smile now is the picture in my mind's eye of Kayla sharing a duck blind somewhere with my late father, who hunted Illinois River backwaters for more than 50 years. He never owned a Chessie. But they'll get along well. I just know it.