A Dog’s Life

Today, 28 August 2015, my mum and my brother took our Sky, our oldest dog, to the vet to have her put to sleep. It’s a recurrence of a tumorous growth, perhaps a cancer, that she had two years ago. Then, it required operation. Now that it is back, it’s worse, and there’s nothing that could be done: the tumour had become infected, and either one would have killed her. So today is a sad day.

When I first moved back in with my parents, following the disintegration of my life after an ill-timed moment of trust, I would take Sky for a walk in the forest. It was a way to get out of the house, and have space with my thoughts; there is nothing like the (mostly) silent constancy of a dog to provide space for your thoughts. After a while, those walks became runs. Though Sky is – was, it will be past tense from now on – was old, already eleven, she loved to run. To begin with, she ran faster than me, loping ahead in her particular, peculiar doggy stride. It encouraged me to push harder and go a little faster. It was good, but she deteriorated quickly. The last time we ran together, I was outpacing her and it was only after I turned a bend and stopped to see her loping so far behind that I realised she couldn’t keep up. Even then, once she had reached my heel, she tried to start running again, still filled with a doggy enthusiasm for life. The runs turned back to walks, but eventually she couldn’t manage that. I noticed a growth on her back leg.

I remember the first time I met Sky, both vividly and not. I was back home in Portsmouth, visiting and checking my post. I still had my key, and let myself in as no-one answered the door. As I opened my letters, I heard a little yip and looked down to see a fluffy grey pup poking her head nervously around the corner of the sofa.

That was Sky, an anxious puppy. She never overcame that shyness, always happier to let the more boisterous and inevitably smaller dogs take the lead or boss her about. But that grey pup is old now, and quite sick.It’s gotten to the point where Sky struggles to stand, her back legs shaking so much it is painful; where younger dogs playing causes her to be so upset she hides; where her eyes and her nose have failed her so that she has to get so close to something to see it that she frightens herself with its proximity. It’s my mum, whose love for Sky can’t be doubted, who has been the closest witness to Sky’s deterioration: mum feeds her, walks her, sits with her, washes her with water and, when that got too hard for Sky, with baby wipes. Last night, Sky’s last night, my mum turned off all the lights and locked all the doors as normal but, when it came time to leave Sky on her own, she couldn’t do it. My mum sat up all night so that Sky’s last night would not be lonely, and sat with her at the vet so she would not be frightened in the end.

Sky has had a good two years since her previous diagnosis. It might feel like when the tumour was first spotted, she should have been let go. But there have been runs and walks in the forest, sniffing this plant and looking at that wild animal in mild but not aggressive interest; new dogs came in to the family, which though at first they made her nervous, she befriended and until very near the end she would wrestle with Freya, or clean Daisy (the newest, and noisiest Spry dog); the Forest was a place of belly rubs and treats and away from frightening roads and cars. It helps somewhat to think of Sky as a grand old lady, enjoying her retirement out in the woods in the sunset of her life, but that’s really a human projection on to a different type of thing entirely.

Dogs are magnificent creatures. They are not human, though we humans project ourselves on to them in ways large and small. It’s a human foible that dogs haven’t picked up. Their love is not a human love; their loyalty, as immortalised as it is, is not human loyalty. But they are things that are real, and that exist, and perhaps most important of all that we can recognise. It’s a strangeness about us that we can’t reciprocate, not in them that they love us so fully and without limit, that we form bonds with them that require no language, transcends the limits of speech. Perhaps that is the greatest gift dogs have passed on to humans, the ability to breach a divide between species without words. It is the privilege of the dog owner to share some space in time with the dog, to share in kinship with a species that, at the last, though not our own, understands us perhaps more than we understand ourselves, and certainly more than we understand them.

Goodbye Sky. You’ll be missed.

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