Take me home COUNTRY ROAD
Stuff NZ Newspapers
Wriggling and brighteyed, Jake was picked by Robert Negus from a litter of tiny puppies reared by the Butterick family in Ashburton. Negus, known to everyone as Bob, pointed at Jake, who stood out to him as being the pick of the litter, and asked with apprehension: ‘‘Is that one taken?’’ He and Faye Irvine had taken many years to get over the sadness of losing their beloved manchester terrier Jiggs at the age of 11. Dogs were more than just companions to them, they were family members. Both were overjoyed the day Jake entered their lives. At their property named Medbury in Shands Rd, Canterbury, Jake had 16 hectares to explore. He would dart at breakneck speed around sheds and through hedges. He would leap into the truck and sit up, ears pert, watching when Negus, a harness driver who famously won the 1981 New Zealand Trotting Cup and the New Zealand Free For All with Armalight, jogged the horses around the back track. Jake only ever stopped to bark furiously when he saw a rabbit. ‘‘There was one constant in his life and that was the long sandy beach at Kakanui, just south of Oamaru, where he stretched out in a gallop, hunted in the tussocks and up the cliff faces, chased seagulls and ignored other dogs walking along the beach sedately on their leads,’’ says Christine Negus, Robert’s daughter who has written several family stories for a book. ‘‘It was a delight to watch his joy in the freedom of the spaces there. He went down the steps and took off. And all his life he went down to the boat shed at the Kakanui River mouth and sat, briefly, on the bench and watched the birdlife on the lagoon and the fish jumping.’’ Robert didn’t want anyone to teach Jake to hunt, but he didn’t need to be taught. Stealthily he padded through paddocks, chasing rabbits or a dirtbrown hare. He dived after the mice who darted in corners of the feed shed but also sometimes quail, pheasants and even hedgehogs. Living with Robert, Jake enjoyed visiting new places. ‘‘He became very alert, and he was fascinated with the highcountry landscapes,’’ Christine says. ‘‘He was riveted by what he could see. His total absorption was something compelling to watch.’’ Robert thought Jake sometimes looked at him in a way that clearly stated he was bored, and the pair would ‘‘go for a drive together’’. Jake made his own adventures too – running across the busy Shands Rd to hang out with the Wyn-Williams dog, and when he was out gallivanting another day he was picked up by a Prebbleton family. A man from the Selwyn District Pound rang Robert in the morning to pick him up. When Faye’s health meant she needed to go into fulltime care, it was just Robert and Jake left at Medbury. Robert’s daughter Robyn Negus was a regular visitor, dispensing plenty of comforting pats to Jake, as did Faye’s family. Christine baked especially for Jake and always took her dad dinner on Sunday nights, which Jake liked to share. ‘‘Jake always gave Robyn a great reception when she went to Medbury.’’ In November 2016, when Robyn had her first round of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she sat on the sun porch at Medbury with Jake at her side, looking out to the back track paddock. It’s still a moment her sister treasures. Christine recalls her dad calling her in a panic one afternoon, saying: ‘‘I ran over Jake, he’s got a broken leg.’’ ‘‘Man and dog were both in shock. We scooped Jake up in a blanket and took him into the Emergency Vet Clinic in the centre of Christchurch, and picked him up next morning after paying the $750 fee. ‘‘He was taken back to reassure Robert he had survived the night and then to the vet who had to undertake a complicated operation on his little bones. He came home with his leg all wrapped up, with a cone around his neck with instructions to keep him inside.’’ Cone in place, Jake stared longingly out the window at the rabbits who playfully leapt in the paddocks, taunting him. Jake went missing not long afterwards. Robert eventually found him caught by the cone in the gorse fence down the track, where he had been after rabbits. Robyn died on June 14, 2017. At the time of his daughter’s death, Robert knew he was also terminally ill, with the same cancer. He wanted to get everything organised, Christine says, ‘‘from his funeral to giving away things to people who would use them’’. ‘‘My biggest worry is that little dog,’’ Robert told Christine, who promised him Jake would be well looked after. She moved in to Medbury to look after her dad in his last days, and to care for Jake as well. Jake still loved his walks round the track, but he was ‘‘clearly concerned’’ for his master. ‘‘Often he was just lying on the bed and putting his little head on the pillow alongside Robert’s head,’’ she says. In his 90th year, Robert Negus, died on September 2, 2017. Living in an urban area, Christine didn’t think her home was suitable for Jake. ‘‘The vet had earlier said that he would like Jake but when he took his dog to see Jake it was clearly not going to work,’’ she says. ‘‘The vet said that he would put up a poster to find a new home.’’ The vet was looking at the pictures of Jake on his laptop when one of his clients saw them. ‘‘So that was how Jake was adopted by probably the world’s best harness racing driver Natalie Rasmussen of All Stars Stables,’’ Christine says. In mid-October 2017, complete with his favourite green sofa, Jake was delivered to his new home in Rolleston. ‘‘He had 30ha to run around and there were stables to roam and an old man who groomed the track between training sets – all this was very familiar. ‘‘Jake jumped into the truck to go round the track with Neil Pilcher who worked there, front legs up on the dashboard, eager, alert.’’ In early 2018, on a hot summer day Jake went missing. ‘‘There were social media calls for people to look out for him. People searched . . . there was no sign of him, and after four days there was a dread he was gone forever.’’ Neighbours found the little black and white dog caught up in netting in the back of their shed. Smelly, skinny and tired, Jake had lost 2 kilograms and had a raw neck. He was taken to the vet and cleaned up, and he stayed with Christine at Medbury. For a while it was like his old life again. But it couldn’t last. He returned to the stables, this time moving in with Neil into the small cottage in the yard. ‘‘Jake went everywhere with Neil.’’ In May 2018, Neil, 81, died. Christine took a sad little black and white dog to Kakanui for a holiday. But when they returned Jake ‘‘no longer had an old man to be with all day, and night at the stables’’. Even though everyone at the stables loved and fussed over him, it wasn’t the same for the little dog. Then she got a call from her neighbour, Helen, one afternoon: ‘‘There’s a little black and white dog on your lawn looking lost.’’ But he wasn’t lost at all. He had run away and travelled about 1 kilometre to a place he knew. He was returned to the stables, but it was the start of a pattern. ‘‘Sometimes he returned five times a day.’’ Christine took Jake back to Kakanui to cheer him up. Jake trotted happily down Chambers St to All Day Bay and played on the beach. One day, as they went across the 1896 wooden bridge, they met a woman with two children coming the other way. They stopped and talked, as people do in Kakanui. ‘‘What a lovely little dog,’’ the woman said. She listened intently to Jake’s story and how he needed a new home. ‘‘That woman was Winsome White, and her old dog Henry was dying,’’ Christine says. ‘‘She didn’t want another dog right then, but she loved Jake at first sight.’’ An idea had been planted. They kept in touch. White’s house with a view over Oamaru Harbour was perfect for Jake. ‘‘He could also play at Herbert Forest and a paddock at Kokonga, in the Maniototo near Ranfurly, backing on to the Central Otago Rail Trail.’’ Many times Christine says she wished her father knew how well Jake was looked after. But her neighbour at Kakanui, Betty Grant, who had been ‘‘a wonderful friend to Robert Negus for a decade’’, once told her convincingly: ‘‘He does.’’ Christmas marked Jake’s seventh birthday. Maybe, on that day or others like it, you might catch a glimpse of a happy black and white dog running at the Herbert Forest, near the Waianakarua River, where the air is still, birdsong is stunning and there are hundreds of rabbits waiting to be chased. Good boy, Jake, good boy.