12/12/2013 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Protect Her 'Till I Get There

Every time before I travel I give my 10-year-old instructions on how to be a gentleman, to take care of his mother and the girls. Then I put my hand on top of the girls and pray "please protect them while I'm gone." Lola is too young to understand, but Stella is nearly 16. She has lost a lot of her weight, and I've started making her wear her camo-vest outside during the colder autumn days. She's always hated wearing it. I've never been sure if it was uncomfortable or if she didn't like the color, but she's never cooperative. I'd get her between my legs, put one paw in the sleeve, and she'd take the other out. She'd smile. I think she was smiling. Stella was never much for misbehaving, but I think she did enjoy pulling my strings.

Remember those LL Bean half rubber, half leather duck boots? When she was a puppy, brought back probably too young from her mother in Chico, she chewed the back of my left boot. That was it. She never chewed up anything else. About that same time she tried to take over Boaz's dish of senior-dog dog food, and he grabbed her by her extra puppy skin on the nape of her neck and shook her against the deck. That was the only time that happened either.

Truth be told, I nearly picked her sister from the litter. It was decided one puppy was coming home, and I had it narrowed down to two. Both pups on their backs, I held my palm against their chest and pressed ever so slightly. The sister was compliant and just laid there. Stella, on the other hand, let me do it for while but her ears perked up and she watched me. Then, after exceeding a 6-week-old's patient level, she wanted out. I took them away from their mother, sat them in a field and talked to each of them separately. Then I walked about 10 feet away. The sister sat and cried for her mother. Stella looked for her mom and decided she'd follow me. I believe the good dogs choose their masters, and I'm a better man for that little yellow ball for fur choosing me.

I read somewhere the reason men like me fall so hard for dogs is because dogs can only do one emotion at a time. We know, the moment we first call their name, if they are happy, sad, preoccupied, or would rather not get up from their warm beds. Dog's never say "whatever" or the worn-out sarcasm of the word "really." Dogs will never say they are "fine" and let something boil under the surface. God made the good ones patient, but without the ability to fake it.

She trained fast but sure was different than Boaz. Where he was tough and ornery sometimes, she was soft, feminine and had something I wasn't used to -- "feelings." I made mistakes with Stella and almost broke her once. We both learned, and as she started to trust me, she knew I was weak for dogs, lost without them really, and would take her everywhere, which I did. Stella traveled to more Western states than most people I know. She stood on heel, on my left, in most of the great trout and steelhead water from Montana to Oregon, from California to the Canadian border. She was not as tall as Boaz, so often when I waded deep, she'd sit on the bank, moving every few steps to stay on my left. At first I wondered if she could swim at all. She was afraid of the water as a pup and pounded at it like a washing machine. I would hold her in a swimming hole and wait for her front paws to slow down and her back legs to start working. It's not that she wasn't born with the ability to swim, it's just she needed me to hold her while she got everything coordinated. Which she did, and became a very, very strong swimmer.

She was the bratty little sister who kept Boaz going a few extra years, and Lola is hers. Framed is Lola's first duck retrieval and Stella's last duck, both coming out of southeastern Oregon's dark mud, the master and the apprentice.

Stella's reputation was for being kind, yet all business. I've never had a dog with the work ethic of Stella. I taught her to be left-handed. A piece of prime-rib in my right hand, and something far less enjoyable like celery in my left, I'd pronounce before audiences of men she is the smartest dog in the world and ask if you were her what would you eat, then I'd make a gentle wager. Stella won me everything from first choice in duck blinds to steelhead pools, a few boxes of double coronas, always a lot of laughs and would get up the next morning and hunt every other dog under the table. Whistle trained, hand-signals, she would not stop if she thought there was a bird there. Often I'd walk past her and have to wait because she was working over sagebrush she believed held a bird. More often than not, she was right. I learned to trust her.

That night I put her in my sleeping bag because it was only eight degrees inside the tent. We kept each other warm before the next morning's march to the duck blind with Jim. That pheasant that was so large it covered her face on the retrieve and she ran off the embankment on the John Day river because she could not see. I thought I lost her that day. Now just memories as the day came when I could not longer take her out in the cold. Summer days in the boat fine, but crispy mornings and retrieves in ice water I had to make the hard call.

Ball obsessed? Yes. She could bring it back, put the ball in my hand, palm up or palm down. Just another throw.

A lady? Yes. Every dog has their quirk, their thing. For Stella is was crossing her right paw over her left when she lay down. Very ladylike. I trained her to take cookies gently from my hand, like a lady, not a hoover vacuum like her big brother Boaz or her sorority party-girl sister Lola.

Yes, she was a purebred yellow lab -- even though her petite size made the lesser man, who doesn't know dogs, wonder. She was more American field trail in her looks than the pure English strand of lab. Smaller triangle ears, narrower face, and yet so light, Stella's speed and grace always won her favor.

She didn't shed much, especially in the last few years, but she still shed. Whenever I wear a dark fleece or black dress pants, its obvious what type of girls live at my house.

Last night before my feet hit the floor, rolling out of bed, I knew. I lay with her on the hard wood floor in the hall, stroking her forehead. We moved her to the fire and I decided to lie next to her all night, for hours with my face next to hers so she knew it was okay. I moved to the couch and kept my hand on her chest. Slowly the breathing became shallow, and near faint. I held her paw and prayed, "Protect her 'till I get there."

Jason Atkinson served 14 years in the Oregon Legislature and is now making a documentary called "A River Between Us," part of the Why the Klamath Matters project and writing a book of interviews on western lands. He is a Rodel Fellow with the Aspen Institute and a devoted two-handed fly-fisherman.