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The Incredible Bond She Formed with an Unexpected Pet

At almost 70, she thought she was too old for a puppy. Someone had other ideas.

Lou Dean and her dogs, Tuck and Dell

‘‘I’m too old for a puppy,” I told my friend Julie. Her beautiful border collie–miniature Australian shepherd was pregnant and she’d offered me one of the pups. But I wasn’t going there. No way.

She looked at me, surprised. “I just thought that with you losing your old dog…and you said Tuck is lonely.”

I opened the door to my 4Runner, signaling my border collie, Tuck, to load. “I might consider an older dog sometime in the future. But no puppy. I’m serious.”

Julie waved goodbye as I drove down the dusty road that led from her place. The truth was, Tuck wasn’t the only one in need of company. In the northwest Colorado high desert where I live, there are more elk and deer than people. My family lived hundreds of miles away. Sometimes the days felt monotonous and I worried about growing older out here alone. When Julie and her husband rented a place nearby, it felt like an answered prayer.

Like me, Julie was a hiker, and soon we were bumping down dirt trails into the foothills. We brought our dogs with us and became fast friends. One day we’d come across a shed elk antler. Julie was thrilled.

“How many of these are around?” she asked.

“This time of the year you can find a bunch of them if you have the time to look,” I said, explaining that elk shed their antlers every spring. “There are people who will pay good money for them too.” Soon we were going out every day with our dogs, talking while we searched for sheds. I’d told her about losing my older dog, Keeper, and how much she’d meant to me. That’s when Julie told me she was “expecting” puppies and wanted me to have one.

I knew the joy of owning a puppy. I’d been around dogs all my life. My childhood dog, Shorty, had been the runt of his litter, and I’d loved him beyond words. The two of us were inseparable. But at almost 70, I wasn’t looking for an untrained pup who needed constant attention. All that jumping about? No thank you.

That was my steadfast answer every time Julie mentioned giving me one of her puppies. One day my phone rang first thing in the morning. “There’s three of them!” Julie said. “You have to come see!”

I drove over within the hour. Julie was grinning like a proud grandma. She reached for a puppy and laid a tiny black beauty in my hands. “He’s the size of a stick of butter,” she said.

“You didn’t tell me one of them was a runt,” I said.

“The vet said there’s a chance that he won’t make it,” Julie said, “but he seems pretty determined to eat. He could be yours.…”

Because of Shorty, I had a soft spot for runts. “I’m too old for a puppy,” I said, settling the little guy back with his mama. But the words didn’t come out above a whisper.

Watching the pups grow over the next few weeks and seeing that runt hold his own with his two bigger brothers, I knew there was something special about him. Still, I struggled daily with the idea of taking him, reminding myself I would soon be 70 years old. Lord, I finally prayed, help me make the right decision.

That night I dreamed of a little tri-colored puppy snuggled up close to my neck. His smell was sweet and his breath warm. I awoke with a yearning and called Julie. “His name will be Dell,” I said. “And he will be my last puppy.”

Julie moved away by the following spring. I missed our hikes and antler hunting so much that I cried when shed-hunting season opened. But the energetic new member of my family wouldn’t let me stay home and mope. He loved to hike. At six months old, Dell learned his basic commands after only two sessions. He was extremely attentive and eager to learn. I taught him to play fetch, and I could tell he was ready for a bigger challenge, like finding elk antlers.

I began by dropping smaller deer antlers around the yard, telling him, “Find the horns.” He caught on quickly. I taught him to “talk” each time he found one. I’d put him in the house, go outside and hide a few horns, then open the door.

“Find the horns,” I’d tell him. He’d give a low growl, his stubby tail flashing with excitement.

I knew that finding something on my acre wasn’t the same as finding it out on the vast acreage of public land where we hiked. But just a few weeks after I began the antler training, Tuck, Dell and I were hiking north of my place up on Blue Mountain when Dell began to bark. He’d found his first deer antler with no prompting from me! In that moment, I knew he was exceptional.

This year, at three years old, Dell helped me find six hundred dollars’ worth of elk and deer antlers. Now, when I put on my backpack, he quivers with anticipation. He loves the challenge. I’ve had several folks offer to buy him. I just smile. “He’s not for sale,” I say.

The days are far from dull with Dell around. He makes sure Tuck and I stay active and have fun. Too old for a puppy? It’s a good thing that the Lord—and my determined friend Julie—knew better.

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