Ask anyone in the small town of Castle Rock, Wash., and his status as legend becomes clear — for 18-year-old Labrador Retriever Bear Dog, not a day goes by without visits to old friends or chance encounters with new ones.
To tell Bear Dog’s story, as The Daily News has, is to tell the story of how, for nearly two decades, one very special dog has touched the lives of an entire town.
Bear Dog’s owner, retired trucker Don Caulfield, brought Bear Dog home as a 6-month-old puppy in 1996. Right away the amiable Labrador turned into Castle Rock’s social butterfly, fetching sticks for delighted work crews, attending sports games, and escorting children to their homes after school.
“Bear’s special to everybody,” local concession stand worker Janice Vinton explains. “Kids can maul all over him, and he just sits there and eats up every bit of the attention.”
The legend of Bear Dog became such a phenomenon in the Castle Rock area that out-of-towners made special trips just to meet the very special dog. Some people bring gifts for Bear Dog to Caulfield’s mobile home, hoping the now grey-muzzled Lab will join them on trail hikes. Others want to snap a photo. One of Bear Dog’s longtime friends, a man from Seattle, makes a trip down to Castle Rock every weekend armed with short ribs — a tasty snack for Bear Dog.
“Nothing amazes me anymore. When people show up and I don’t know them, I just know they’re probably there to see Bear,” says Caulfield. “How he got so popular, I don’t know. He done that himself.”
With so many friends, Caulfield is surprised that Bear Dog can keep track of them all. But the Lab’s proud owner says that once Bear makes a new pal, he will never forget them. That includes a local deer named Maggie, who during her lifetime would swim with Bear Dog in the river and cuddle with him on Caulfield’s porch.
Bear Dog’s advanced age comes with some health issues, Caulfield admits. Recently Bear Dog’s hind legs stopped working, leaving Caulfield to help the old pup around with an improvised sling. Caulfield thought he’d have to have Bear Dog put down, even going so far as to prepare a gravesite. But as if by some miracle, 18-year-old Bear Dog snapped his legs back in place after taking a spill down the front porch steps and now gets around just fine.
“Every time I think it’s time, he bounces back somehow,” Caulfield says, amazed. “I don’t know how he does it.”
After Castle Rock’s beloved black Lab had a heart attack while running across the nearby baseball field last year, Caulfield no longer lets Bear Dog venture that far. Of course that doesn’t always stop a very determined Bear Dog when he wants to visit one of his many friends and admirers.
“I tell him he can’t go, and I catch him sneaking out,” Caulfield explains. “He hears them kids, he’s gotta go. Them kids love him. They love him by the dozens.”
When the North County Recreation Sports Complex was erected near Bear Dog’s home, officials made sure to include a very important sign that stands as a testament to the lovable Lab’s impact on everyone he meets.
“No pets allowed inside baseball complex or on soccer fields,” the sign reads, but with one very notable omission for the sweet old dog that has become a kind of mascot: “except Bear Dog.”
Castle Rock’s Mayor Paul Helenberg explains that when construction began on the sports complex almost a decade ago, Bear Dog was right there alongside the crew, bounding through the fields nearby.
“He was just one of the guys who helped build it,” Helenberg tells TDN.com of Bear Dog. “He’s just been there all the time. 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.”
Mayor Helenberg says the day Bear Dog passes away will be a day of mourning for the town of Castle Rock, but the townspeople would never forget to honor the dog that licked their hand, cheered them up and walked them home over the years.
“It’s going to be real sad,” Helenberg admits. “We’ll do something special. We’ll probably put something up there on the hill, a monument.”