To lose a dog is to lose your heart

The last time we had bitten off more than we could chew, he was perhaps 12 weeks old. A pup.

With friends, and already his second leash – the first one fully chewed and useless – we had walked sprightly into the Wicklow hills.

All was bright and happy with our crew. He bounded, yelped and threw his body between our legs. It was a fresh, bright blue winter’s day which, despite the naked trees and sullen earth, made the world itself seem utterly expectant. Ready to be born.

On the return journey through the forest trail, he suddenly became halting. Lying low to the ground, pausing, bounding again; once again taking cover.

He and I were young in our days together. I was not sure what I was seeing.

‘He’s tired!’ cried Caitriona. ‘That’s all. The little pup is tired!’.

With that, I created a makeshift pouch within my anorak, by means of a built-in waistline string.

My tailor-made papoose was an instant success. We walked the final forty minutes with Rufus sleeping soundly, lying across my chest.

I can still feel the warmth of his little, heaving body as he slept, the sweet pup-smell that is like no other, and the unexpected pleasure that it was to care for another soul.

Rufus, my golden haired cocker spaniel, became part of how I lived my life.

This was not quite my original intent.

I had imagined an ‘outside dog’; a rodent-warrior, a security fiend, a sort of Cúchulainn of my north county Dublin garden.

During that first winter he spent a lot of time whimpering at the back door trying to get in. For a brief period I held firm.

‘No Rufie! You’re an ‘outside dog’. You live outside!’.

But Rufus lived inside.

He had me convinced he was perished with the cold.

The vet told me some months later that, in fact, he could endure cold and wet beyond all reckoning. His pleading at the back door was not a question of weather; he was lonely.

Learning to live with each other was a raggedy affair.

Rufus set about eating everything on ground level that was not metal.

My efforts to contain this became known to us both – in our secret language – as his ‘box’.

Rufus’ box was a physical cardboard enclosure at the outset, but over time became a conceptual space in any room: that corner where there was a warm place to lie, and to which Rufus should instantly repair.

Rufie! I would call out, in my makey-up masterly voice. Box!

In truth, his box became the whole house. Rufus would show up in the toilet, paws up licking my face as I took a bath, under my feet as I prepared food and, his final quest, in the bedroom.

There we reached a compromise. He could lie on the saddle of the door, half his body outside the room, half inside. This allowed both of us to believe what we needed to believe: me, that he was not in the bedroom; him, that indeed he was.

This was a nightly ritual that spanned years. That life of his that stretched from Halloween in 2001 to a sorry night in September of 2013.

Last night.

I am awake after four hours of sleep. Re-looking at the symptoms on some random website. Matching what I saw with what the vet finally told me, blood test results in hand. Wondering why I did not see it sooner. Renal. Nephrons. Failure. Words climb upon words. Yet I cannot explain why these signals did not compute. Too much noise. Too much noise.

I chose early on to bring Rufus wherever I was going. He was good in the car – aside from his penchant for chewing it up – and he made it very clear he wanted to come. He became an extension of myself, and a great master of my ways.

Rufus was a giant-pawed, spontaneous and raucous hit with my friends. His spirit was at one with the wind; he was a dog not for running, but for rushing. Gusting.

His element was the sand. In it, his object – a great, hairy, audacious object – was to catch those pesky Howth seagulls and make them his.

For years, the Burrow Strand and the Pier were his joint hunting grounds. He was not a dog given to barking – except in hot pursuit of those wretched, elusive birds.

In these moments he would become ungovernable – emitting a high pitched, sustained scream as he chased and chased.

To the untrained ear, this was the sound of a dog in distress. It was a sound which attracted the attention of strangers, a focus which quickly melted to a certain kind of wide-eyed joy.

Who is this crazy dog? their faces asked. Who is this bird-obsessed ball of golden brown with floppy ears and out-sized paws?

It is a bond beyond all telling, that between a man and his dog. We seem convinced, from our human perspective, of the existence of hierarchy. We hold that we are above, and that animals are lesser. Below.

This is not how I lived my life with Rufie. For me, he was a soul and I another.

I wanted him to feel free in his life, whilst recognising that, in the end, I ended up making the decisions. Despite my encouragement, he never seemed attracted to the making of independent plans.

A pure and simple love emerged between us, and I learned much from its daily demonstrations. He was not one to hold a grudge; he was always one to match a mood; he was ever-positive and willing; he walked in the world with a humble nobility.

His was a powerful soul, secure of purpose, loving to the very last, and god-like in its simplicity.

He did, however, get me into some scrapes.

A particular avian incident in Howth stays etched in memory.

We were walking the pier on a sunny afternoon. As usual, Rufie had gained instant fame and admiration from the Sunday walkers as he chased seagulls, screaming high-pitched glad tidings as he rushed about. He was a dog who knew what it was to assume the stage.

I was keeper of a humiliating truth when it came to his hunting prowess: when Rufus was actually within snapping distance of a bird, he would immediately go shy. There was no bite in him. He was all high-pitched bark.

Our stroll amongst the admiring throng took a sudden turn.

Rufus, some distance away, jumped into the water and swam, in hot pursuit of a mother duck and her five ducklings.

There was furious paddling on all sides and Rufus seemed to be gaining ground.

And oh how the crowd turned.

People who, thirty seconds earlier, were his keen admirers, stopped and stared in horror. Who is that damned dog? Where the hell is his owner? Those poor little ducklings!

I arrived into a scene which to me had comical proportions. With cartoon-like movements, it did, in fairness, seem that ducklings were about to become lunch.

Although presenting as though he was menu-planning, I knew differently. I was therefore incongruously relaxed, and fighting hard to contain my amusement.

I attracted immense pressure from the mob; the mob which couldn’t bear the thought of those little ducklings being injured. The mob which didn’t care one jot about seagulls. The mob which had loved Rufus to bits one minute previous.

With one whistle I distracted his attention, and the duckling psycho-drama was at a close.

I returned home with a sense of the constancy of a dog’s behaviour, and the volatility of our human instincts in return.

I did not see his illness arrive. It came cloaked in things unremarkable. A sluggishness here, a lack of appetite there, an uncharacteristic little accident now and then. Such is the creeping hand of dusk; darkness can fall fast, and the sky tumbles before one has a chance to look up.

Four days ago, his spirits began truly to fail him and even I had to acknowledge it. Getting up the stairs was a great effort; there was no gleeful rotating at the door in the hope of going for a walk.

His life, punctuated by negotiation -to get more food, more affection, more walks – began to fold without the slimmest resistance. Fold so fast that I was confused; convinced he would just pull through nonetheless, despite the evidence.

On Saturday, I decided to return to the Burrow Strand with him. There, amid sand and gulls, he might re-find his spirits.

He trundled behind me for a doleful kilometre. His was slow and unsteady progress. No bird chasing; no swimming. The only thing he could do, needed to do, was follow me.

Until suddenly, he couldn’t.

‘Come on Rufie!’ I beckoned, hunkering down, ten metres away. ‘Come on sweetheart’.

He stared back at me, listless in the sand.

That stare. I noticed that stare above all. A gentle pleading in our own secret language.

For a second time, I realised that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

With silent resignation, I went to his side, stooped and picked him up.

Then slowly, his weight slung around my chest, the warmth and humidity of his body penetrating the layers of clothing to my skin, I solemnly trudged the sands of Howth, and carried Rufus home.



5 thoughts on “To lose a dog is to lose your heart

  1. my son in london mark cnlan sent this to me..we all cannot believe the likenes to yr dog and our lucy.. who died last j=may…b any chance we woonder were they off the same little.we bred lucy ouirselves and she was one of 6 pups..born in ballinteer dublin 16. you are a man of great words
    i hope they have brought closure ton u over this great loss as indeed we still are. still waiting for lucy to appear\?? good luck..regs maus conlan

    • Hi manus. Thanks for your kind comments. I got Rufus in 2001 from a breeder in Waterford named Frieda. I called her Frieda the Breeda. I recall he came from a litter of four. I look forward to seeing Lucy’s picture.

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