1 July, 2002 - 30 July, 2012
Some ten years ago, baffled and irritated by the acquisition of a dog for my son Caleb’s sixth birthday, I wrote a piece entitled ‘What’s the Point of a Dog?’, sent it around, and found that commissioning editors to a man and woman were obviously dog owners. No-one wanted my wise words.
I was non-plussed. The article seemed to me eminently sensible. Dogs were a hassle weren’t they?
They had to be walked, groomed, fed, cleared up after, prevented from frightening small children, trained, and found a home for when one went away. But then one could say exactly the same for one’s children (and at least dogs don’t answer back or say “No!” and stamp their feet). I cannot now for the life of me remember what was specifically troublesome about having a dog.
This morning our dog was put down. Riddled with lumps of cancer in his abdomen, anaemic, and lethargic almost to the point of unconsciousness, with no appetite and a “seriously disfigured liver”, Boaz had come to the end of his days, threescore and ten dog years after his birth, and the point of a dog becomes clear. A dog is a vessel for the unspent affection, the love, that is so often hard to bestow on one another. (It strikes me that maybe this is an affliction particularly affecting the shy British, which might explain our reputation as dog lovers). Our grief at the death of our dog made us dumb, but also breathless with sobs, and was real.
I daresay this will be considered by all the non-commissioning editors out there as rank sentimentality. Ten years ago I would probably have agreed with them. However, it was ever the case that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and this is especially so of love. Dog lovers tend to warble on about the faithfulness of dogs, but frankly dogs would be damned foolish not to be faithful to their principal food source. I have never doubted that Boaz attached himself closer to my wife than any other member of the family because he knew damn well he was more likely to get a tidbit from her than from the rest of us. Then again, my wife is chief of the Wheldon pack, and a good dog always follows its leader.
So, yes, whenever other members of the family either are not present or do not deserve affection, for one of any number of reasons, there is the dog to receive it. Boaz, a larger-than-usual Tibetan terrier, was particularly suited to the receipt of love, for he was shaggy and handsome, with a thick black coat marked by streaks of brilliant white on his chest (his ‘bib’), head, and the tips of his tail and one paw. He was good-natured except when he had fearlessly hunted down his own food, such as half-finished yogurt pots or misplaced packets of digestives. This once meant our cleaning lady Elena’s sandwiches. She received a nasty nip attempting to retrieve them, and had to phone for help because Boaz took up guard of said sandwiches by the front door and would not let her pass.
It is thought that dogs are ‘clever’ but I never saw that particular quality shining in Boaz. He seemed to me to be a bit dim. This was often in truth because he could not see very well, his shagginess often obscuring sight. He was occasionally stubborn, refusing to move unless bribed. When walking he would invariably be behind, sniffing, examining, scenting, and if you called him to catch up, he’d trot towards you, but only so far. He was very much himself. (On those rare occasions when he walked in front he would sometimes affect a mincing gait that was frankly excruciating).
He occasionally went missing, although he probably would not have called it that. He had simply wandered off, following one bouquet after another, with no sense or indeed need for destination. The frightful hollowing out of one’s body that comes with a child gone astray, and the rising sense of panic, made itself felt on these occasions in only slightly diminished a form. One’s negligence in allowing such a thing to happen was awful.
Such self-recrimination was a symptom of our need for an object to love that would happily accept that love, requiring nothing in return other than food and shelter and the occasional throwing of a ball. In a family a dog acts as a bonding agent. He can be the subject of talk (including argument, fantasy, drama, and so forth), and the cause of laughter (frequently so with Boaz) which is the most powerful of all adhesives, but chiefly he can be the resource for otherwise unspent affection. And as the scientists now attest, being affectionate is good for you. One way or another, dogs make life better.
Boaz was company for all of us, in both different and similar ways, and we are lonelier without him, closer to each other in our grief, and further away without his adhesive presence. He was a real, physical being, a tame animal, a peata, to use the Scottish Gaelic word, which feels more appropriate than the mere ‘pet’.
For of course as well as all the mollycoddling and stroking and laughing a dog provokes and inspires, he will also take you out walking into the world. This is the single thing I am personally most grateful to Boaz for. He showed me Hampstead Heath, and, mawkish as it may seem, we shall spread his ashes there, in that benign, tame, handsome and gently mysterious place which suited him so well.