Almost anywhere Castle Rock resident Don Caulfield goes, someone asks how Bear Dog’s doing.
For years, the big, gentle black Lab mix has been a fixture at the town’s riverfront, greeting visitors, attending ball games, joining fishermen and walking kids home from school. Bear Dog’s name is even on signs the city posted after the North County Recreation Sports Complex was developed near Caulfield’s mobile home.
“No pets allowed inside baseball complex or on soccer fields, except Bear Dog,” the signs say.
Now 18 — an age few small dogs reach, let alone big breeds like Labs — Bear Dog is arthritic and losing his hearing, and he has congestive heart failure. His muzzle and eyebrows have turned white. His eyes are tired, but at the softest pat, his tail wags. Toss him a treat and he snags it mid-air before easing himself to the living room rug for a snooze with his sidekick Tommy, a Dachshund/ yellow Lab mix.
Since Bear Dog’s heart attack while running across a field last year, Caulfield, 62, no longer lets him venture to the baseball fields a few hundred yards away from their home facing the Cowlitz River on Mosier Road. Once upon a time, Caulfield could set his watch by the time Bear Dog would depart for 4 p.m. ball games and return home at 7:05 p.m.
“I can tell him he can’t go, and I catch him sneaking out,” said Caulfield, who retired from trucking after he broke his back. “He hears them kids, he’s gotta go. ... Them kids love him. They love him by the dozens.”
Bear Dog, who has been the sports complex’s unofficial mascot, is “quite the legend out there,” Mayor Paul Helenberg said last week. He recalled how when construction began about 10 years ago, the young dog would hunt for rabbits and mice in the Scotch broom that covered the riverfront acreage. The complex’s board of directors decided to put Bear Dog’s name on the signs, which has caused trouble with other dog owners who don’t understand why Bear Dog gets special privileges, Helenberg said.
“He was just one of the guys who helped build it. He’s just been there all the time,” he said. “He wanders through, he doesn’t bother anybody, he doesn’t beg. If they throw something out there, he’ll eat it. He’s just a nice, lovable dog.”
When Bear Dog passes away, “It’s going to be real sad. ... We’ll do something special,” Helenberg said. “We’ll probably put something up there on the hill, a monument.”
'Special to everybody'
Bear Dog began nosing his way into the hearts of visitors and locals in 1996, when Caulfield got the 6-month-old puppy from his nephew. Bear Dog’s sociable nature soon became evident when the city installed a water line by Caulfield’s property. To keep Bear Dog out of the ditch they were digging, workers tossed him sticks to fetch. According to Caulfield, they ended up hiring a day laborer whose main task was to throw sticks for Bear.
“I told them I’d tie him up,” Caulfield said. “They said, ‘Nope, he’s part of the crew.’ ”
When anyone would walk by the house with a fishing pole, Bear Dog wanted to go fishing, too. (Caulfield got him his own fishing pole, but it was stolen a year ago). If a fish was hooked, Bear would bark and bite at the fish in the water and run it up the bank. He also enjoyed swimming out to fishing boats. The anglers would reel in their lines, haul Bear aboard and bring him ashore.
He would spend all day at the ball fields during sports tournaments. Janice Vinton, the cook/concession stand manager for the sports complex, said Bear Dog used to meet her in the parking lot, walk her to the concession stand and then sit by the back door, patiently waiting for a hot dog. She would set the hot dog on the end of his nose, and he’d balance it there until she said “OK.” (After Bear’s heart attack, Vinton cut off his hot dog supply and told others not to feed him.)
When Vinton would close the concession stand at night, she was the last person at the park. The loyal Bear would wait for her and walk her to her car.
He was also protective of children. Bear Dog regularly would escort groups of students walking home from school, go back and walk with another group of kids.
“Bear’s special to everybody,” said Vinton, 63. “Kids can maul all over him, and he just sits there and eats up every bit of the attention.”
When someone brought a black dog to games and told people it was Bear Dog, Bear’s fans flocked to Caulfield’s house to demand he set the imposter straight.
“It makes people furious. These people get hostile,” Caulfield said.
Bear Dog’s admirers include out-of-towners who stop by the mobile home and call his name so he’ll come walk the trails with him. Bear Dog recognizes them all. Some people bring him Christmas presents. Others bring their elderly mothers by. One Seattle man would park in the cul de sac by Caulfield’s driveway every weekend and feed Bear Dog short ribs.
“Nothing amazes me anymore. When people show up and I don’t know them, I just know they’re probably there to see Bear,” Caulfield said. “How he got so popular, I don’t know. He done that himself.”
People looked out for Bear Dog. One day, Bear followed Caulfield into town. When Caulfield got home, there were 36 messages on his answering machine telling him where Bear Dog was. Someone used shoelaces to tie him up at the post office, and then someone else brought the wandering dog home.
About five years ago, Bear even made friends with a deer. Bear and the deer, which Caulfield called Maggie, would swim together in the river and sleep on the porch. Caulfield once found Maggie, Bear Dog and Tommy curled up together on his living room floor. And nobody messed with the deer on Bear’s watch. As Caulfield tells it, when he pointed a BB gun at the deer as a joke, Bear knocked him down, snatched the gun away and bit him.
Still on the hunt
Age catches up with all of us, and so it was with Bear Dog. About two months ago, his back legs stopped working. Caulfield and his daughter Karen, 28, began using a towel sling to lug him in and out of the house. When the Seattle man showed up as usual with his spare ribs and Bear couldn’t walk to his car, the man “just about cried,” Caulfield said.
So Caulfield and his daughter carried Bear out to the man, knowing Bear would have crawled if left to his own devices.
“When Bear’s got a friend, no way he’s not going to see him,” Caulfield said.
According to Bear’s veterinarian, the old dog’s back had given out and it was time to put him down. But Caulfield couldn’t afford the $150 euthanasia fee. He went home and bawled. Having lived on a farm, “I knew what had to be done,” he said. He started digging a hole in the yard.
Caulfield couldn’t bring himself to shoot Bear, so he made some phone calls. As it turned out, no one else was willing to put Bear down, either.
Unable to walk, Bear Dog would cry and try to crawl across the yard. Listless, he seemed ready to die. Karen Caulfield asked her dad to bring out his rifle — Bear had always loved going hunting, and she thought the sight of the gun might perk him up.
It worked. When Don Caulfield cocked the gun, Bear’s eyes lit up — hunting time! Suddenly, the dog was on a mission. He dragged himself outside and promptly fell down the porch steps.
Hearing a pop and a crack, Caulfield thought Bear’s back was broken.
Instead, Bear crawled across the grass. Amazingly, he stood up and began to walk. He even tried to chase a rabbit.
Caulfield couldn’t believe it.
“Every time I think it’s time, he bounces back somehow,” Caulfield said. “I don’t know how he does it.”