Farewell, Old Friend

Dog lovers: why do we do it? I mean really, why do we fucking put ourselves through it?

We know, when we let them into our homes and incorporate them into our family dynamics, exactly what their lifespan is. We know that they don’t live as long as we do, and that there is going to be an emotional payback for all of the years of unconditional love and non-judgemental companionship that they offer us. But it is only when you reach that devastating moment of reckoning when you ask the question: is it all worth it?

I’m a Doctor Who fan. How many times have I heard it said, courtesy of the script writers, that the Doctor doesn’t stay with his companions because the hurt of watching them age and die, while he goes on, is too much. Having watched the programme since the 80’s, you think I’d have made the connection by now, wouldn’t you?

Our Golden Retriever was put to sleep yesterday. My children are still crying, my wife is hurting. But though things are raw at the moment, the ten years that he was part of our family has got to have been worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When my wife and I decided to get a dog, we couldn’t agree on which breed to get. I was used to large German Shepherds, having had them as pets when a boy, she was used to smaller dogs like West Highland Terriers, so we thought we would meet somewhere in the middle. One day, when walking in the Lakes, at Rydal Water, we encountered a woman walking two Golden Retrievers. One was old and blind, the other was young and acted as the eyes of its mature friend, guiding it along. We asked the owner about their temperament (we were about to go into fostering, and so had to consider how any dog we would get would be like around children).

“Wonderful!” was the reply. And so it was decided: we would get a Golden Retriever, and name it Rydal after the place of our agreement. Thank God we weren’t at Bassenthwaite Lake.

My wife picked the puppy up one day and came looking for me to introduce him-I was a postman and still on my round. She pulled up alongside me, brandishing a little, shivering furball in her hands. “Rydal loves his little mummy!!” 

Perfecting his ‘love me’ look.

From the start he perfected the art of capturing the hearts of strangers. Even as an adult, whenever I walked him around the estate kids would come flocking to him. And he really indulged them, too.

From the size that he became, it's hard to believe that he could fit into one of my hands.

From the size that he became, it’s hard to believe that I could hold him with one hand.

I have had a few dogs in my life, and Rydal really was the best behaved out of them all. Only once, when he was younger, did he have any sort of behavioural aberration. We left some money out on the side, two twenty pound notes, to pay a guy who was doing a small decorating job for us. When the job was finished and the time came to pay him, we couldn’t find it anywhere. After hunting high and low for it, as Rydal slept peacefully (or feigned sleep) in the corner, we eventually came to the realisation that the dog had somehow reached up and eaten the money. Forty quid-what happened to he ain’t nothing but a pound dog?

It was like the old homework gag-we had to tell the decorator that we couldn’t pay him as the dog had eaten his money. Then we had to field the incoming texts-‘It’s my mates leaving do tomorrow, I feel awful not going but I’m skint. Can you ask your dog to lend me some money?’ And ‘You need to exercise Rydal more, he’s putting weight on. About forty pounds.’

My wife wanted me to go through his excrement when I took him out, but forty quid was nowhere near enough doing that for!

Glowing in the sun, on my old school fields.

Glowing in the sun, on my old school fields.

But that was about it-he grew into a fantastic dog. Didn’t destroy things, didn’t chew things. Sometimes I would forgetfully leave the bin lid up in the kitchen (where he slept) and he wouldn’t go in it. Once, there was chicken in there, on the top, scraped from one of the kids’ plates, and he didn’t touch it. And he loved chicken (even though it went right through him). Or I would be taking him for a walk, and, forgetting my key for the side gate as it was raining outside and I couldn’t bring him back in through the house, I would leave him stood outside on the step, telling him to wait for me, and he would. Despite both the temptation of the kids playing inside with an open door, and his eagerness to go for a walk, he would be sat exactly where I told him to wait.

Off the beaten track.

Off the beaten track.

Many a time I would remark to my wife “How good is he?”

Many a time he would suffer such ignominy at the hands of my children

Many a time he would suffer such ignominy at the hands of my children

Once I walked into the room to find my daughter painting his face with make-up while he sat and let her. Thank God I intervened before the lipstick and rouge had been used. But I couldn’t remove the pink eyebrows. It was embarrassing when walking him, people would stop to stroke him: “Isn’t he lovely!” as I would attempt to pull him away before they spotted them. I have barely any street-cred around here as it is.

He really was the most obedient dog I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a few of my own, as well as attracting others too! Even as a postman, I bucked the trend of fearful posties being savaged by dogs. My round was up on the Langley Estate where I live. As I went around I would usually have somebody’s dog coming around with me, for the whole of my walk. It’s been ten years since I did that job, but even today I bump into old customers who say “How can we forget you-the Langley postman who always had dogs following him?” Not exactly the epitaph I was looking for on my grave. But I’ll take it.

Sometimes it would seem that Rydal had an appreciative eye for the aesthetics of the world. He would sit outside, basking in the early sunlight, watching the birds and the sky as he sniffed the air. Looking for all the world like he was taking in the morning.

Rydal’s end came on quite sudden. I remarked a few months ago all at once he was looking old. His face had aged, his muzzle greying, though his eyes still had that energetic sparkle. I would walk him around the estate at quite a fast pace, let him off for a run on my old school fields (for a nostalgic creature like myself, they will now take on an extra poignancy). It was a joy to see his unadulterated joy. Snow was a particular favourite of his.

Bright eyes.

Bright eyes.

Awaiting the snowball.

Awaiting the snowball.

But suddenly, just a few days ago, he began walking very slowly. There was no gradual decline, no warning. Overnight he had become one of those aged dogs you see, shuffling along beside their owners. He moved slowly, breathing becoming short and shallow. Walks were cut to just a dozen or so yards,and  he would stop in the middle of the road when crossing. It was the speed of his deterioration that caught us unawares. My wife thought that he could have had a twig or something caught in the back of his throat that was affecting his breathing. On the Monday he had slowed right up, and ate his last meal. Tuesday night he didn’t want to be left alone. My wife stayed up longer with him as he seemed like he just wanted attention. When I got up the next morning, yesterday, he was stood waiting for me behind the door. From what followed, I think he had been on his feet all night, unable to settle. Even then, even then, he was quiet all through the night, not disturbing anyone, despite how wretched he must have been feeling.

I made the appointment at the vets. My wife was still hoping against hope it was an obstruction in his airway.

But I knew, and began steeling myself for the news. We couldn’t get him in the vets until 4.50pm, so I had one last day at home with him, alone. He was panting that much the whole of his chest hair was soaked. He couldn’t settle-going into the back garden, the front garden, the run of the house. And still, as he always did, he followed me everywhere, content for me to stroke his head while he ebbed.

Struggling, in the garden.

Struggling, in the garden, the end in sight.

The time drew near. An hour before, I told my kids to give him a hug and wish him good luck at the vets. I knew they were in effect saying goodbye to him, but I just couldn’t tell them that. They then went next door to my Mum’s. My wife was still at work, but wouldn’t have come anyway. She works in the funeral business, deals with grieving families everyday, goes out onto funerals, also picking up deceased people for the coroner in all types of places and situations.

But she couldn’t handle this.

One last kiss, an hour before.

One last kiss, an hour before.

Rydal and I waited together for the black cab to arrive. He was still panting hard, sitting facing me. I put my forehead to his, scratching him behind the ears in the way that he always loved.”You are a good dog, Rydal. You’ve been a good dog-you’ve been the best of dogs.”

Listening to my final praising of him.

Listening to my final praising of him.

We got to the vets, and despite how terrible he must have been feeling, he was his usual co-operative self. As soon as we sat down we were called in. He trundled in by my side, allowed himself to be weighed. Within a few minutes we knew that there was no twig, it was something a lot more serious. Possible growths, his age, and cancer was mentioned, but I didn’t really take it in, it was just what I expected, and the clock, his clock, was ticking.

A lot of euphemisms were used which really meant the same thing: the last thing that I could do for my dog was agree to kill him and put his suffering at an end. I have always been very stoic-like, and, you know, manly, about things like this. But this time I became upset as soon as we started talking about it. I lay him down, and as he was injected it was so quick-no longer than twenty seconds, his head slumping as his eyes dulled and my eyes blurred. It reminded me of the last time I had to go through this with another dog-you could see the light in the eyes fade as the life departed.

Younger days.

Younger days.

I fear this post has become a little overly-sentimental and mawkish. Time has made me that way. I used to be able to keep a lid on things, but this time I failed hopelessly.

The vet, who was lovely, gave me instructions about the crematorium that I just didn’t take in. I agreed to her suggestion of shaving some hair to take home for my kids. I was offered an hour, but spent ten minutes in there alone with him, stroking his head one last time. “Go to your reward, big fella.”

And then I escaped out into the street, back into everyday life. There is an entrance opposite the vets that leads to the woods that I regularly walk in, and I sought refuge there. I sat on the large hill below Alkrington Hall and sent a text to my wife, asking if she had finished work yet. And, when I heard that she had, sent a simple message: ‘He’s gone.’ Then began building my resolve to break the news to the kids.

Animals are our teachers, and for our children, sometimes the lessons are harsh.

Animals are our teachers, and for our children, sometimes, the lessons can be harsh.

For those of you who prefer happy endings, or look for optimistic ‘signs’:

I sat on that hill, looking around at these beautiful surroundings, thinking about nature and how the world works, and also the question that kicked this post off: dog lovers, why do we do it? A white-tailed bumble bee landed on my foot and remained there. It was most zen-like. It just remained motionless while I watched it on my trainer. Then, about three hundred yards below me, at the foot of the hill, a dog came into view, crossing Lever Bridge, the owner still not in sight. It was a Labrador Retriever, similar to the breed that Rydal was, only shorter-haired. He suddenly started bounding towards me, sprinting up the hill. As he reached me he was all over me, licking my chin, somehow not standing on the bee. A bundle of playful energy, he danced around me, briefly, then shot off again, back down the hill towards his owner.

Despite everything, I laughed.

It’s only been a day. There is a hole in the house, a sense of something missing. The kids fill up whenever they go into the kitchen. I’ve heard it said before, of people grieving the loss of a pet, it’s only a dog/cat. It’s not like it’s a child or anything. That is true. I’ve probably echoed similar sentiments myself. But grief is grief. We don’t choose, as we go through life, just who or what we give our hearts to.

A bit of mine has gone with Rydal, wherever he may now be.

Goodbye, old friend, thanks for the love and the memories.

You really were the best of dogs.