As all people lucky enough to have or had dogs in their lives know, one day you’re going to lose them, and it’s going to hurt like hell.
For many, and I’m definitely one of them, life to me never seems complete without a dog to pet, walk, chill, and howl at the moon with. A house never really feels like a home without that excitable tornado of fur and fang that greets you with a fierce and unconditional love every time you open the door after another grinding and grueling day in the civilized world of artifice and repression.
And then one day you open your front door, and where once there was unbounded joy, there now exists only a terrible sense of loss and a haunting absence. Your best friend has gone. Where once there was an unstoppable force of nature, there is now only a mocking stillness and absolute silence. An emptiness which seems to taunt the entire universe in its blank completeness.
Everything that lives dies; it’s a simple fact of life. For over 30 years, I’ve never been for more than a few months without a four-legged friend. You never get used to them dying, but you resign yourself to the fact that if you want a dog in your life, then the price you pay is living through and surviving their death.
Like all animals, dogs, if fate is kind, get old and pass away through old age and the various afflictions it brings. Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I had experienced this scenario on four different occasions.
On each occasion, a visit from or to the vet was involved to end each beloved pet’s suffering. It’s a terrible decision to make, but all too often a necessary one if you want to return the same sort of selfless devotion to your dog that they have shown you.
Each time is different, but each time has one thing in common — you always forget just how much it hurts. And each time that old wound is reopened with new sorrows and new agonies, it gets a little deeper and a little more pronounced.
When our dog Banjo died earlier this month, it left me, my partner, and our two young children reeling with a new kind of hurt.
Banjo wasn’t an old dog. He wasn’t even 2. Our beautiful black and white Sprocker Spaniel was only 17-months-old when his life came to an end. His death came completely out of the blue. He died from a terrible condition called mesenteric torsion.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the condition. Needless, to say it’s thankfully quite rare, but when it strikes it kills fast.
What happens during mesenteric torsion is a dog’s intestines basically twist and cut off the blood supply. Unless they are untwisted fast, the dog’s entire GI tract dies.
Experts are unsure of the exact cause of mesenteric torsion. It is believed any condition which irritates the gut, such as intestinal parasites, inflammatory bowel disease, Parvovirus, or foreign body obstructions can cause it. Some believe vigorous exercise directly before or following a big meal can also be a factor, as can eating too fast. Some breeds, such as German Shepherds, appear predisposed to the condition.
The symptoms of mesenteric torsion are vague and, in the early stages, can easily be mistaken for a slightly upset stomach. By the time this condition is diagnosed, it is more often than not too late. Mesenteric torsion is as ruthless as it is evil. The morality rate for this condition is almost 100 percent.
Here’s how quickly it can strike. On the morning of his death, I took Banjo for a walk. He was his usual frisbee-catching self. In other words, as fit as a fiddle. Before I left for work, he appeared in a little discomfort. Nothing major. He just wouldn’t settle or eat.
My partner said she would take the day off work to keep an eye on him. A little later, she called me to say he had begun to pace and appeared out of sorts with himself. We decided to play it safe. A trip to the vet was in order.
We get to the vet and hey presto! Banjo makes a remarkable recovery. He begins to bounce around the place like a young pup without a care in the world.
The vet still thoroughly examines him, takes his vital signs, and said he seems fine. There’s a bit of tenderness around his stomach area, but she thinks this could be due to him perhaps eating something he shouldn’t or perhaps a mild case of pancreatitis.
She gives us some medicine to ease his stomach and some painkillers in case he suffers any further discomfort. We return home relieved. To the point, I consider taking him out for another walk. My partner advises against it.
A strange thing happens almost as soon as we walk through the front door. Banjo’s back legs drop and he staggers toward the back garden before vomiting. It’s distressing, but afterward, he appears to cheer up a bit and lies down to rest. Believing he has purged himself of whatever it was that was bothering him, I return to work. My partner stays with him. We both think he’s on the mend.
A few hours later, I receive a phone call from my partner. She is in tears and begging me to come home immediately. Banjo has just been crying to the point of screaming, and he is now lying at the top of the garden refusing to move. I rush home. He’s listless. Although I can see in his eyes he’s happy to see me, he won’t budge from his position in the garden. We rush him to the vet. He won’t walk, and I have to carry him. When a spaniel allows itself to be carried into the vet without a fight, you know it’s serious. In hindsight, by that time, I believe his system had already gone into shock.
The vet takes one look at him and realizes he’s a different dog to the happy and playful one that visited only a few short hours ago. She’s alarmed that his gums are so pale and suspects internal bleeding. She tells us the priority is to stabilize him immediately. Without another word, she picks him up. I attempt to follow her and Banjo into the operating room.
She said, “Sorry. You’re not allowed.”
Banjo looks at me over her shoulder. I look at him. There seems to be a weary resignation in his eyes. It feels like a farewell. I push such negativity from my mind and quickly tell him, “I’ll see you soon.” I won’t.
The door closes. After what appears like an eternity, it opens again. The vet explains to me they’re doing all they can to stabilize him. They’re also carrying out blood-tests, x-rays, and ultrasounds to determine the cause of his condition. They tell us it’s best to go home and wait for them to call.
We only live a five-minute drive away. So we return home. Without Banjo it feels somehow empty. The call eventually comes. It’s like being mugged by a nightmare. The vet tells us he’s not responding well to treatment. His stomach is full of some sort of liquid. They’re not sure what. They suspect he might have a stomach torsion. They say he’s deteriorating fast. They explain they need our permission to carry out investigative surgery. Usually, they would transport him to a specialist to carry out such an operation. This is no longer an option. They fear he would not survive the trip. It’s all a bit unreal. The decision has been made for us. We agree to surgery.
The minutes creep by, tense and strained. Every part of me still believes Banjo will pull through. A little worse for wear but alive, alive, alive!
The phone rings, and I hear my partner break down. Sobbing uncontrollably, she pushes the phone at me and disappears. I walk upstairs. Every ounce of my being alive with dread. Alongside my partner, I can now hear my two children crying for the dog they love. Their grief is heartbreaking.
I put the phone to my ear. The vet’s voice is small and quiet. I’m listening but not listening. He explains how a large part of Banjo’s intestines has died from a lack blood supply. He stresses that he has an almost minimal chance of surviving any operational procedure. And if by some slim chance he does? The vet said he’ll be a different dog. His quality of life will be awful. He’ll be inactive, in pain, and prone to constant diarrhea. The vet recommends doing the “kind thing.”
The “kind thing” in this instance entails putting Banjo to sleep while he is still under anesthetic. It’s a devil’s choice. Fate has damned poor Banjo either way. I ask again if there’s really no chance he can recover and be the same dog he was. The vet replies he probably won’t even pull through. He urges me again to do the “kind thing.”
Grief chokes me. I can barely get my words out. I want to see Banjo one last time and say goodbye. The vet said it would be too distressing for any of us to see him like this.
Feeling beaten and useless, I give my consent for the vet to do the “kind thing.” I ask him to do one thing before the end. I ask him to put his hand on Banjo and say goodbye from all of us. I give him our names to say. I tell him to let our dog know just how much we all love him.
I tell him we’ll pick his body up in the morning.
The grim finality of those words overwhelms me. I hang up. My partner and children rush into the room. All in tears. All crippled by shock and grief. One memory above all stands out. My 8-year-old boy punching his head and shouting “No! No! No!” Again and again and again.
He was very close to Banjo. Everyone was. Our shared grief was both deep and wide. We had only lost a dog less than two years before. His name was Toby. A beautiful collie/spaniel cross. Toby had been a constant in my son and daughter’s life from the day they were born.
To them, Toby was always an old dog. An elder statesman. An animal who was accommodating but not always playful when it came to kids.
In the last few months of his life, Toby became very ill. To the point that we began to accept his death before it actually happened. It gave us a chance to teach the children about the cycle of life. They knew Toby was not the dog he had once been. He had grown tired and old. Almost weary of life. And when his time came, there was a measure of acceptance. Life had come full circle. The hand that gives is also the hand which takes.
When Toby passed away, we cried, but we did not rage. With Banjo, it was completely different. He was taken from us in such a brutal and unexpected fashion. There was no solace to be sought in such a tragedy. No wise words to heal such a wound.
Banjo was the first puppy the children had to call their own. He was meant to be that special dog in their lives. That mythical one which has a special place in all dog lovers’ hearts. The dog you have known as both a child and an adult. The one who stands loyally by your side through the complexities of youth and the follies of age.
Banjo was meant to be their ever-present friend from childhood to young adulthood. Instead, he now lies buried in our backyard next to Toby.
I guess he just wasn’t destined to make old bones. They say the light which burns twice as bright burns half as long. This definitely has an element of truth in Banjo’s case. He was Mr. Popular. Everyone adored him. He was kind, gentle, and loving. He loved people and was forever approaching the meanest and most vicious dogs in an attempt to be their friend. And if a dog snapped or got aggressive with him, he would never react. I think he realized life was too short for such pettiness. He also loved to be cuddled and held more than any other dog I’ve known.
Banjo could be a big baby, but he was also a hearty adventurer. When his blood was up and a scent on the breeze, no undergrowth was too fierce, no river too fast, or no distance too great for this athletic hound to cover.
He was a great dog, and his death doesn’t make sense. We all miss our reckless buddy, our dopey playmate, and our most loyal of companions.
When each dog dies you not only lose a best friend. You lose what they represent. A part of your life which is innocent, trusting, childlike, egoless and content. A part that lives in the moment, unhindered by the past and with no thought for the future.
If a dog can teach you anything, it’s the simple message that we are all born happy. It isn’t something we should strive for. It’s something we are. It’s about enjoying the present moment. It’s about being content with what we’ve got as opposed to what we want.
I love dogs but I’ve never considered them as human beings. I have far too much respect for them. I would never project human attributes onto dogs in a vain attempt to transform them into Disney creatures.
A dog is one of nature’s wonders simply because it is a dog. Throughout history, they’ve been by our side and watching our backs. They have helped us humans hunt, stay safe, and prosper for time out of mind.
And most importantly of all, dogs have and will always be human beings’ most valued and important connection to the natural world. You know, the place from whence we all came before skyscrapers, smartphones, celebrity culture, and jet-planes eclipsed our existence.
A dog doesn’t care about wealthy you are, how famous you are, what car you drive, the job you do, the size of your chest measurements or waist, neither has it any time for the size of your house or social media following.
A dog will search its human companions for one thing and one thing only — the essence of what really makes you who you are, after all social constructs and civilized pretense have been stripped away.
And if they like what they see, you’ve got a pal forever.
As we grow, experience can jade us, cynicism can erode us, and arrogance can disconnect us from what is important. The presence of dogs in our lives and their simple and direct ways can help us reconnect with what is real. Help us recover the essence of who we once were before the insanities of this world took hold.
There’s an old saying, “Help me to become the person my dog thinks I am.” In other words, take a look at yourself through the eyes of your dog and you can get to what’s real.
Of course, to really appreciate the portal to the natural world that a canine companion effortlessly provides, you’ve got to get out and about in the great outdoors. And so we come to one of the best, if not the best thing about having a dog in your life — walking.
For three decades, I’ve been walking dogs nearly every day. In all seasons and all weathers. We’ve ventured up mountain, across stream, through river, on field, on path, through forest, across sands, by sea, and in town. I do it because walking is a dog’s favorite activity, but also because over the years, dog-walking has become my drug of choice.
It helps me relax, unwind, collect my thoughts, and, above all, to form a special bond with my dogs.
A dog will lead you to places where you’d never dream of venturing on your own. They delight in showing you the hidden corners of the world and the myriad changes which transform such places with each passing season.
With a dog as my guide, I’ve stumbled across lonely ponds on high mountains, isolated glades in thick forest, winding ways, forgotten meadows, ancient bridges, rambling rivers, and disused paths leading to secretive streams.
When you take a dog for long walks, conversation becomes redundant, leaving your mind free to wander as it’s liberated from all conscious thought and petty distraction.
The freedom of walking with your dog with no particular place to go provides its own particular rhythm. In such a state, the world is born anew. It’s a form of meditation. And like any meditation, it’s purpose is the revealing of that which is elusive and eternal in the smallest of details.
The long grass blowing gently in a meadow on a spring day, the midsummer’s sun bathing a mountaintop in an otherworldly glow, a forest frozen, still and white, a diamond-speckled river in autumn winding its way to the promise of rebirth and hope, and a black and white dog called Banjo darting across a field at midnight. His elusive symmetry dissolving like liquid mercury beneath a harvest moon.
The infinite can be seen in all such things.
But for now, the walking has come to an end. For the second time in two years, my family and I are without a dog. There is a Banjo-shaped hole in our hearts and in our home.
In time, the rawness of grief will be replaced with the bittersweet sting of melancholy and the remembered joy of his short time with us. Every raging storm, no matter how fierce, eventually becomes a weary sunset which silhouettes the world in its entirety.
And when such a time comes, there will also be a dog-shaped hole in our lives. I am not naive enough to think any of us will want to go for too long without another four-legged wonder to bring that unique completeness to life only dogs can provide.
But for now, all roads begin and end with Banjo. A dog, a friend, an inspiration, and a gift from above.
It’s true that when dogs die, they take something of you with them, but they always leave a bigger part of themselves in return, to keep and to hold, forever in your heart.
[Featured Image by T. Butters]