In a heart-wrenching column, Carla Carlisle talks about the sadness of dealing with dogs who don't go gently into the good night.
I now check my emails before going upstairs — a vow I made mid-lockdown two: no laptops in bed. Last night, the only email I bothered to read was from my friend Tessa. ‘My very very old cocker spaniel, Betsy, sank her teeth into my hand on Thursday. The pain! It was unprovoked and she gripped me tight, the fleshy part between my thumb and index finger. She is quite blind and deaf, and maybe I startled her. I give her the benefit of the doubt, but we are yet to cuddle again. I am flooded with antibiotics, but my hand is still swollen and bruised and ugly.’
I read the email twice before taking Otis out for his ‘finals’. A fox-red labrador whose inner soundtrack is Nina Simone singing ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’, his late-night routine is to bound off down the farmyard to the gardener’s cottage. He then sits outside and barks ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ until Pip opens the door and gives him a piece of cheese. He has good manners and never crosses the threshold, but he’s as headstrong as a horse in his moonlight bid for freedom and Camembert.
Like Betsy, Otis is now deaf and almost blind. Two years ago, on his routine check-up, the vet had a look at a small sore near his penis. She took a needle biopsy. The diagnosis came a week later: an aggressive tumour. She advised surgery, explaining that it would be ‘complicated’ because ‘it’s an area of soft tissue’, followed by ‘chemo and radiation’. Until that moment I did not know there were veterinary oncologists.
I murmured: ‘But he will be 12 years old next month. I’m not sure I should put him through all that.’ Worried the young vet might think I was too mean to invest in the medical needs of my dog, I tried to sound casual. ‘And the cost? A rough estimate, a ballpark figure?’ ‘Around £4,000,’ she replied. Almost apologetic, I turned down the offer. ‘It’s not the money,’ I said. ‘It’s his age.’
“When my husband came in, my handsome, sweet boy began to snarl like a hound of the Baskervilles. At first we laughed. Then we tried to embarrass him for being so silly. When it happened again, and again, it stopped being funny.”
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That was two years ago. Otis now snores softly in his personal sanctuary under my desk. Last year he stopped using the steep back stairs, but comes up the front stairs and arrives in my study before I do. When Merlin, our son and daughter-in-law’s six-month-old wire-haired vizla, comes to visit, Otis is stoic. His cloudy eyes ask ‘how long must I endure this?’, but he soon forgets his age, plays a bit, nobly shares his toy collection and practises patience. When Merlin occupies Otis’s large bed under the kitchen dresser, Otis curls up in Merlin’s bed. I take pictures with my phone. Everyone is happy to let sleeping dogs lie.
All is not well, though. I’ve always loved the nonchalant freedom of country dogs who aren’t confined to fenced-in yards or kennels. All my dogs have had a routine: checking out the farmyard, investigating the coming and going at the farm workshop, enjoying the woodburners in the cafe in winter, claiming the shade on the restaurant terrace in summer.
That freedom ended when Otis began seeing visitors as trespassers. He started barking (frequently, loudly and at nothing visible to the human eye). Then he began growling at visitors, delivery men and customers. Nobody likes a growling dog. Customers are not reassured by ‘he’s OK, he lives here’ or ‘he’s old and deaf and nearly blind’. They don’t believe the owners’ dogs have property rights and they like to say so on Tripadvisor. Now Otis only gets to roam his acres when we’re closed.
Other changes have been harder to deal with. Like the dogs in Tottering Hall, Otis enjoys his place at the foot of the bed. I love a dog on the bed, but my husband, unlike Lord Tottering, is quietly long-suffering. A few months ago, Otis and I went to bed early. When my husband came in, my handsome, sweet boy began to snarl like a hound of the Baskervilles. At first we laughed. Then we tried to embarrass him for being so silly. When it happened again, and again, it stopped being funny. Otis now sleeps in the kitchen and each morning he shows love and joy to the early-rising man who gives him breakfast.
“In these bewildering times our dogs have been our salvation. They have given us companionship, devotion, sanity, hope and, we believe, uncritical love”
After reading Tessa’s email, I sent her an essay entitled Hawk by the American novelist and essayist Joy Williams. Hawk was her beloved German shepherd. I believe there was never a better dog mother than Miss Willams (and few better writers). One day she took him for a two-day stay at the kennel he knew and liked. When she bent down to give him a goodbye kiss, he suddenly attacked her. It was savage. The bone in her hand was fractured in several places and the tendon torn. The doctor said she had to have surgery immediately: ‘The bone could become infected and bone infections are very difficult to clear up.’ The expression ‘life- threatening’ was used.
As soon as I remembered those details I felt like an idiot for sending the essay to Tessa, also a writer. I tried to reassure myself that no bone was broken in Tessa’s hand, but then I worried: did she have an X-ray? Am I the kind of alarmist friend no one needs or am I a life saver?
In these bewildering times our dogs have been our salvation. They have given us companionship, devotion, sanity, hope and, we believe, uncritical love. Our happiness has been dependent on them. I hope we haven’t harmed them by making their happiness so dependent on us, especially as our terms of endearment are non-negotiable. And maybe we have to accept that dogs share our rage at growing old and they express it the only way they know how.
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