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October 1, 2020 · OPINION

An Ode to Sonny the Wonder Dog

Photo/Scott Lingamfelter
By L. Scott Lingamfelter

Last Saturday morning, our yellow Labrador, Sonny the Wonder Dog, went on his last retrieve peacefully at home lying beside me. He had been suffering from severe arthritis in his hind legs and a very bad bowel condition. Through it all, he never whimpered or complained. But I could see in his eyes that he was saying to me, “It’s time, Dad, it’s time.” I am also grateful to God that he answered my prayer that he passed quietly and without distress. But there’s a hole in my heart that God now must fill.

From his first days with us as a puppy, Sonny was simply loving. And he was deeply loved by our family. He was actually a gift to our oldest son, John, who was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), my alma mater. His military travels, however, resulted in Sonny staying with our family where he won our hearts, particularly that of our youngest son Paul, who was then still a VMI cadet, but home for holidays and the summer.

I am a hunter, so I had Sonny formally trained and he was a superb retriever. In fact, his father, Joe, was a national champion and that showed up in Sonny for sure. But he was also our pet and went with us everywhere. We would take him to VMI on football weekends, where he was great fun for the young cadets who would hang out at our tailgate. When I attended session in the General Assembly, I would bring him with me. My sister Gayle and brother-in-law Hank gave both of us a home in those days and they grew to love Sonny as they did their own Labs.

When I was a boy, I always wanted a dog like Sonny. Now our family has had the pleasure of his life and he made ours better. Indeed, Sonny had a huge impact on me and my family. It was impossible not to love him. His eyes radiated affection to everyone he met. I used to say, “he would lick a burglar to death and then lead him to the jewelry.” And he loved children. Oh, how he loved them. When our grandkids came along, he would sit by their cribs, watching faithfully and later allowed them to crawl over his back and head if they wanted. Somehow he knew it was his duty to entertain them. Wherever they were, he wanted to be right there beside them.

He also impacted many of my legislative assistants who spent much time with him in my home office. Nathan Schrader, Jeb Wilkinson, Steve Spiker, Andrew Clark, and Terry Durkin can all testify that Sonny was special indeed. So, can I, even as my eyes well up with tears thinking about him.

Sonny’s life changed how I feel about things in life. I’m a soldier. That’s who I am, and sentimentality was not my strong suit when I was a hard-charging Army officer on a mission. But Sonny taught me that to be a complete man, one must permit one’s heart to melt now and then and take in the love that is around us if we simply slow down long enough to let it seep in.

Now when I look at other people walking their pets in my neighborhood, I see them through different eyes. I now know what they feel in ways I ignored for years. I now understand love in a way that I had shut out for a long time in all of my busyness. If that’s not life changing, frankly I do not know what is. But Sonny also reminded me of this. The love our Father in Heaven has for us is an unconditional one when we embrace Him. Sonny’s love for me and my family was unconditional too. And that, in a way, is a glimpse into a more powerful love we can all enjoy, if we actually receive it. I’ll stop the sermon there. I could go on quite a bit with it. But I’ll end this ode to Sonny with this thought.

Life doesn’t need to be lived with a hard edge. We can afford to take time to have relationships that are or could be transformative if—and only if—we are willing to walk a bit slower, care for someone else a bit more, and allow our hearts to be melted a bit by the love of someone else. Sonny melted mine.

In the play Give ’em Hell, Harry (1975), the writer puts these words in President Harry S. Truman’s mouth: “You want a friend in life, get a dog!” That’s what Sonny the Wonder Dog was to me: my friend. “Sonny, fetch it up!” and retrieve in peace, my buddy.

The writer, a retired Army colonel, represented the 31th District, including much of Fauquier, in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002 to 2018. He recently wrote a book, Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War. Published with the author’s permission, this column first appeared Oct. 1 in his email newsletter.

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workhardgetahead · October 2, 2020 at 9:23 pm
A tremendous tribute to a life well lived.
My condolences sir.

All Dogs go to Heaven.
AngryBob · October 2, 2020 at 1:20 pm
I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Lingamfelter. Our pets become our family and the loss can be just as hard. Your writing made me think about a number of furry 'family' I've lost over the years. Fond memories.

Thank you for your service to our country and to our community. I have the utmost respect for you and your family. God bless.
Chris Butler · October 2, 2020 at 11:32 am
Scott, So sorry to read this but what a great story you shared. I recall conversations with you about your pup out at Shady Grove Kennels. You cant beat the unconditional love of a great lab! Rest in peace Sonny!
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