I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion.
The heart of a dog beats faster than ours. Dogs generally have good hearts: big, and open to fresh experiences and new encounters. But, when Fudge arrived seven years ago we knew what the odds were: we had shared our lives with a King Charles Spaniel before and knew that over half of the breed develop an inherited, genetic heart disease by their fifth birthday (as did Fudge), and more than 90% by the time they have reached 10 years (should they survive that long).
But, whereas the onset of the disease was slow and gradual for our last dog, for Fudge the crisis that came in her seventh summer was sudden and traumatic. At the end of a week of hot weather which may have exacerbated the condition, on a Sunday evening in June, we had to place her in emergency care. Later, at 4 am, we were woken with the news that she had suffered two cardiac arrests. If she had been with us in our home she would certainly have died. But rapid intervention saved her. In an oxygen tent and with IV lines attached her condition stabilised.
The next day she was transferred to the care of a cardiologist at Liverpool University’s Small Animal Hospital. Two days later we picked her up from the state of the art facility where expert care and the administration of drugs had placed her on the road to recovery. As summer turned to autumn it was as if the drugs had wrought a miraculous recovery. We knew in our hearts there was no cure: for the rest of her life she would be dependent on the drugs, but we did not expect the end to come so soon. As the year turned, she began to display signs of failing. Despite increases in drug doses, episodes in which she struggled to breathe began to occur, and on Saturday last we realised that we must accept the vet’s advice to end her life in a merciful fashion. After a peaceful day spent close to both of us, she passed from here to some distant shore, eight days after her eighth birthday.
Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!
When a dog enters your life it’s like a love story whose conclusion you know in your heart is bound to come too soon, for a dog’s life is short while ours are long. It’s a lesson in mortality and in having to come to terms with loss and grief. Dogs die too soon, as many have lamented, including Rudyard Kipling:
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!),
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes – for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear!
We would do anything to keep them with us, to keep them young. But it’s one gift we cannot give. Instead, troubled to the depths of our soul, we offer them a different gift, to be free of suffering.
But, their gift to us is beyond measure. A few years back, the American poet Mary Oliver published Dog Songs, a collection of poems and one essay inspired by the dogs in her life. ‘Because of the dog’s joyfulness,’ Oliver wrote, ‘our own is increased. It is no small gift.’
In what manner can the story of a dog’s life be told? For their days, hours and minutes do not spool out sequentially as do ours. Dogs live in a kind of permanent present or, as Joseph Krutch, the American naturalist and biographer of Thoreau, expressed it (writing about birds, but his words might apply to any animal), they live in a series ‘of almost discontinuous eternities’: the immediacy of their lives means every moment is an ‘eternity of joy.’ Here’s Mary Oliver again, addressing fellow poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and speaking of her dog Percy:
Emerson, I am trying to live,
as you said we must, the examined life.
But there are days I wish
there was less in my head to examine,
not to speak of the busy heart. How
would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not
thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.
We could begin telling Fudge’s story in our linear fashion by recounting that she came to us from Sharon, a KC Cavalier breeder in Southport, that the date of her birth was 22 January 2009, and that she arrived in our household on 4 April that year.
If she could tell her own story, however, it would surely consist of an eternity of joyful moments ‘just running forward’.
Taking up a favourite position on a kitchen chair surveying the back garden, watching for cats slinking along the back wall or, lifting her eyes and contemplating the sky and birds in flight, in deep communion with something ineffable, her eyes focussed on some wisdom beyond our knowing.
In The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger writes that ‘our customary visible order is not the only one’: certain people – children intuitively – discover ‘the interstices between different sets of the visible’. ‘Dogs,’ he suggests, ‘with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders.’ Many times I would see that look – one I think I captured in the photo above – in Fudge’s eyes as she stared out at the garden. What she saw, I was sure, was not what I saw.
Berger’s observations come in an essay in which he celebrates the work of the great Finnish photographer, Pentti Sammallahti, whose photographs (above) invariably contain at least one dog. Berger surmises that it was probably a dog who led the photographer to the moment and place for the taking of these pictures.
In each one the human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and is slipping away. The interstices are open. … there is an expectancy which I have not experienced since childhood, since I talked to dogs, listened to their secrets and kept them to myself.
For Fudge, another favourite spot was in the living room, ensconsced on the chaise, seemingly dozing but with one eye on the avenue, on the lookout for postman, courier or cat – all deserving of a good bark.
Her favourite outdoors place was the shore at Formby, or any beach; something about the limitless space of strand and sky seemed to electrify her. She would run between the two of us, dig furiously in the sand, and find a stick to carry home in triumph.
But maybe her favourite place was the park, morning and afternoons, checking the messages left by other dogs and adding her own, meeting the regulars (particularly the human ones, whom she loved and dazzled with her affection), insisting on the same route each morning.
I remember, a few years ago, reading Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, which aimed to ‘see what it is like to be a dog; what the world is like from a dog’s point of view.’ In that fascinating book, Horowitz suggested that ‘Dogs don’t just detect smells better than we can, they can also use this superior sense to smell time’:
Odours are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age. The future is smelled on the breeze that brings air from the place you’re headed.
She was checking her social media! I’ll miss those morning walks and the fraternity of fellow dog-walkers in which everyone is acknowledged, at minimum with a nod, more usually with exchanged greetings, while often regulars might fall in alongside each other for a while, sharing a conversation. Such are the social and psychological benefits of dogs for humans.
Fudge was delightful with children, especially little girls, and a walk in the park would always mean her being surrounded by clusters of children to whom she would run, tail erect and waving like a flag, sprinkling a little magic around.
Like all dogs she was a creature of routine. One of her best tricks (and you knew she knew it was a trick) would be, just as we had settled down to TV or a book, to nose through her box of toys, selecting one to drop at our feet demanding that we play. The best trick of all was pick out one of those marrow-filled bones and then hurl it across the laminate floor. The noise as the bone clunked across the floor ended all hope of concentration. When play was done, she would sprawl between us, legs akimbo and paws to the ceiling in the abandoned manner of all dogs, snoring contentedly.
A recent survey revealed that most dog-owners regarded their animal as a member of the family. It’s not surprising really: dogs have evolved to become the animal species most integrated with human society. They are the species closest to us in social terms, having evolved alongside us to become acutely attuned to human communicative signals.
Dogs are extraordinarily attentive and have an uncanny ability to predict what their owners will do, whether getting the dog a meal or preparing to go on a walk. With Fudge, this trait was most apparent at our own meal-times when, apparently dozing at our feet, she was in fact alert to the tiniest signals, her senses fine-tuned to hear the sound of cutlery laid on plates at the end of a meal or the last scrape of a soup bowl, sounds that would send her barking and twirling around the kitchen. All our fault: just because one time we had shared some left-overs with her.
Here I am one morning at breakfast, the Guardian spread out on the table before me, and another of her essential routines: to sit on my lap sighing contentedly as I read, staring watchfully or meditatively out at the garden, or licking my face and ears to distract me from the day’s woes. Mary Oliver again:
We meet wonderful people, but lose them in our busyness. We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place. Steadfastness, it seems, is more about dogs than about us. One of the reasons we love them so much.
In Dog Songs, Mary Oliver wrote about her dog Percy, describing him, in words I immediately recognised, as being ‘a mixture of gravity and waggery’.
The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, of the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him … Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?
I admit, I was intoxicated by her beauty, the perfection of her markings. I particularly loved the sight of the back of her head with its triangular patch of white like a neckerchief. That’s why the photo above, taken on Arran, at the head of Glen Rosa in her third summer, is one of my favourites.
It’s been hard writing this. As John Berger observes in The Shape of a Pocket:
The sudden anguish of missing what is no longer there is like suddenly coming upon a jar which has fallen and broken into fragments. Alone you collect the pieces, discover how to fit them together and then carefully stick them to one another, one by one. Eventually, the jar is reassembled but it is not the same as it was before. It has become both flawed, and more precious. Something comparable happens to the image of a loved place or a loved person when kept in the memory after separation.
I’m not over it yet, the jar is far from being reassembled. At the end of her unbearably moving poem, ‘Her Grave‘, Mary Oliver writes:
How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.
the slick mountains of love break
My beautiful dog’s heart failed, and now my own heart breaks. But, waking this morning to an empty space at the foot of the bed, I heard birds singing. The light will get in, eventually.
The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
What I must recall now is that Fudge enriched our lives with her irrepressible personality and her bounteous heart. Dogs do that for us, they give us our humanity, as Mary Oliver concludes in ‘Percy Wakes Me’:
Percy wakes me and I am not ready…
Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast….
He is sitting on the kitchen counter where he is not supposed to be.
How wonderful you are, I say. How clever, if you needed me, to wake me.
He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply his eyes begin to shine.
He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments.
He squirms and squeals; he has done something that he needed and now he hears that it’s okay.
I scratch his ears, I turn him over and touch him everywhere. He is
wild with the okayness of it. Then we walk, then he has breakfast, and he is happy.
This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.
I’m not alone
- Dear Master: Requiem for a Greyhound (Hazlitt)