I’ve always loved animals, all creatures big and small. From as early as I can remember simply being around an animal made me feel at peace. As a kid, being at the zoo or on a farm was my version of heaven. Although I can understand why people shudder in fear around some animals, I’ve never really understood people who can’t stand any of them.
Despite this love of all things animal, there has been one animal that has had the greatest influence.
Let me paint you a quick word picture:
When I walk down the street there's usually a reason behind it, most likely to get coffee. Or food. There are always people around, doing their own things. If eye contact is made I'd smile, I might say "hey", and continue on with whatever I was doing. I probably wouldn't stop (especially if I hadn't had a coffee yet, or was closer to hangry than hungry), and I certainly wouldn't put on a stupid voice or scratch them behind the ear.
Dogs, on the other hand, will stop me in my tracks. I look up at the owner, "do you mind?" as I reach towards the dog. It's always been a yes. As I pat the dog and scratch it behind the ears, my voice changes "hello doggy! you're so beautiful", its tail starts to wag. I always thank the owner, I might even find out the dog's name, breed, its age; it all depends on the person. Either way, even if I didn't get to pat the dog, or stop to speak to the owner, they always put an instant smile on my face. To be honest, sometimes the only reason I'd stop to chat to someone would be to get some attention from their dog.
For some, this just sounds stupid. For others, this sounds all too familiar.
The point is, in my world, dogs win. Always.
Why do dogs win? Well, I might be slightly biased as I’ve always had a dog in my life, but when I look at what my dogs have represented, it becomes clearer.
The list could be pages long, but here are my top 5.
- Dogs are the ultimate optimists; no matter what dire situation might be occurring, it could be
freezing cold, pouring and they’re soaking wet, yet they will always have their tails wagging.
- Dogs love you unconditionally; whether you scream at them, punish them, ignore them, go away for a month, no matter what, they will always come back and curl up next to you. They love you at your most unlovable moments.
- Dogs are completely trustworthy; you can tell a dog your deepest, darkest secrets, your ultimate fantasies, your greatest fears, complain about that awkward family dinner or the person that irritates you at work, who your latest crush is, even share your criminal mastermind plan to take over the world, nothing would ever get repeated.
- Dogs are the best listeners; when many people simply listen to respond, dogs always listen and hear every word, there is no judgement, no angst, and no unsolicited advice. You can tell them the same story 15 times, or spend 4 hours talking about a break up, no matter what, they let you get everything off your chest in the safest environment possible. You know they won’t ever interrupt.
- Dogs find pleasure in the simple things; going for a walk, eating food, playing with other dogs, basking under the sun, a belly rub, searching for food, a scratch behind the ear, chasing after a ball, being with their family, and anything to do with food. They would be just as happy to go for a run with you, as they would be to stay indoors and watch Netflix.
I concede that dogs can’t help but be this way, good is their default setting; but that’s what makes them all the more special. They can’t be bad, cruel, vindictive, manipulative, or lie, they can and will always be good. It's why we follow them around and literally pick up their sh*t.
Last week was National Dog Day, a day to celebrate the beauty, companionship, and importance of all things dog. Originally I had written a piece sharing my relationship with dogs, and animals generally. It focused on the important role they have always played in my life, as well as how they can be an invaluable tool for one’s emotional health, physical health, and overall wellbeing.
Unfortunately that had to change…
For those that have read ‘mum, i wish i was dead’, you will know that my best friend for the first 10 years of my life was Windsor, a little Fox Terrier. For those that haven’t, now you do. This was my grandparents' dog, and as I’d visit them several times a week, Windsor was as much family as they were. We would play, go for walks, he would sit and watch me build Lego, and I’d talk to him as if he were my brother. When I would sleep he would lay on the end of my bed and growl at anyone (including my 2 very loving grandparents) that would come in to check on me.
One day after school I caught the bus to their house, yet there was no wagging tail or excited barking. Windsor was not there. Although I was unaware at the time, he had been extremely sick, and the only option was to have him put down. As a 10 year old I was told he was sent to a farm, and believed that story until the embarrassing age of 16. It wasn’t that he had gone that upset me the most; it was that I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Within a year my family bought a new dog, a little black labradoodle, Mindy. I still remember the day the four of us got in the car and drove a 6 hour round trip to pick her up. She lay on her little bed on the back seat between me and my brother. We patted her the entire way.
For the majority of my life, for the past 14 years she has been there, always, unconditionally, through my darkest moments and deepest depression. When I started to become fit and healthy, she was my running partner. I knew I was getting fitter when it changed from her pulling me up the hills, to me pulling her up them. In summer we would fall asleep in the backyard under the sun, in winter it was by the fire. She got me a girl’s number once, and I’m sure a fair amount of my Tinder matches are because I have her in my photos.
She was a smart dog. She knew she was allowed to be on my bed but not the parents' bed. When I was home the lounge was a suitable bed, but that was kept secret from everyone else (whoops!). She knew dad would always give her left overs after dinner, so would sit by him, waiting patiently. By patiently, I mean barking until he gave in. She would always be excited, running towards you, wagging her tail when you arrived home, staying by your side until given some affection. That excitement was matched when anyone new would be introduced. She really was a sucker for attention.
Sometimes her intelligence was hilariously frustrating. She learned how to open all the doors in the house, unfortunately closing them wasn’t in her repertoire. She knew when she misbehaved, but that didn’t stop her from pushing her boundaries. She knew there was no way anyone could stay mad at her.
Mindy was 14, and although she’d been grey since 7, she had the energy of a puppy for most of her life. About a month ago she developed a growth and so we took her to the vet. It was diagnosed as cancer. Due to her old age, the fact that she wasn’t in any pain, the position and type of cancer it was, operating would have been more detrimental and painful to her than leaving it. We also didn’t know where it was growing internally.
It was decided that when the time comes, when she started to be in pain, we would say goodbye.
What started out as something no larger than a thumb, within a month had grown and spread to the size of a foot. It was bleeding, she was in pain. We did as best we could to help reduce it, but going up and down the stairs, simply getting up off the floor was becoming more and more difficult. Her breathing was becoming irregular, even her bark had changed. She wasn’t wagging her tail like she used to.
My parents spoke to each other, spoke to me, and spoke to my brother overseas; we made the decision that it was time to say goodbye.
Once the decision was made, I was fine. At least that’s what I thought. What was going to be done on a Monday, I kept pushing further and further away. However, with each passing day I realised that I was becoming more and more selfish. We called the vet to make the appointment for the end of the week.
The night before was hard. It had been almost 8 years since I last cried myself to sleep, and although it was the same room, this time it was for a very different reason. I knew the decision was the right one, but rightness doesn’t always remove sadness. That night I left my door open, and the next morning I woke up with Mindy lying on the end of my bed. With tears in my eyes, all I could do was smile.
My brother wanted to skype with her, so he could see her one last time and say his goodbye. It was one of the nicest moments I’ve ever seen. She definitely had no idea what he was saying, but in that moment it reminded me that the goodbyes we make, that we need, are for us, it’s for our closure, our peace of mind.
With half an hour left, she followed me to my room; I needed to say a proper goodbye. I lay down next to her, looked into her big brown eyes, and as tears started to roll down my cheeks I said:
"Hey Mindy, my beautiful girl. I’m so sorry you’re in pain. I need you to know this isn’t your fault, you have done nothing wrong. You’re just really sick, and there’s nothing we can do.
You have brought such joy into my life, you have seen me at my absolute worst, but you were always there no matter what. When all I wanted to do was die, when I felt no one cared, that I wouldn’t be missed, you curled up next to me and just let me be me. When everyone wanted to give me advice, tell me how to be happy, to just think positively, you just sat and listened. When I was too scared to tell anyone my darkest thoughts and feelings, you didn’t judge me, there was no angst, you didn’t run away. When I felt like the world's greatest burden, you were always just happy that I was still around.
It’s only hitting me now, but there were times when my hope to keep fighting came from you.
I really hope you’ve had a good life, that you made friends, that you were happy living with us.
I’m sorry I didn’t play with you as much as I used to, or go for walks like we did. Sometimes people take their loved ones for granted. But you have been very much loved. Your brother wishes he could be here, he tried to say goodbye this morning. I know you don’t understand any of this, but I need to believe some of this gets through. I always treated you like a person, like you understood.
Thank you for showing me just how important you are. I love you so much, and you need to know this isn’t your fault. You have been the perfect dog, and a great friend. Thank you for being you."
I gave her one last cuddle. I wondered if she knew.
I got into the car with mum; Mindy always loved car rides. We arrived and Mindy was excited, she always got a treat at the vet. As we waited, she barked like usual, her tail was wagging. It was nice to see her happy.
We got called in, she was weighed, and the vet explained the entire process. The only words I could muster were, “will she be in pain?” He guaranteed that she wouldn’t, “it would be as if she was falling asleep”. He explained how sick she was, and that this was the best decision for her. The vet asked if we wanted to be in there while it happened, I nodded my head. I couldn’t let her be in there by herself.
As tears started to roll down my cheeks, I held her paw with one hand, patted her head with the other, and stared into her eyes for the last time. In a broken voice, I managed to get out “goodbye Mindy, love you”. She was gone. My heart felt like it was breaking, my stomach tightened, my head throbbed, my hands were shaking, and the tears didn’t stop.
It takes a lot to shut me up, but I didn’t say a word for a very long time. It was as if a part of me had just been taken away.
There was no'farm' this time, but there was a goodbye.
I know for many this may all seem absurd. Animals, pets die every day, let alone actual people. I understand Mindy was just a dog, but she was my dog, a part of my family. Although I didn't realise it until recently, she helped me survive my depression, and thrive after it.
Will I get another dog? Of course! I fully understand the value and impact having an animal in your life can have. But a new dog isn’t a replacement; Mindy didn’t replace Windsor, and our new dog won’t replace Mindy. It will be a new friend, that has it’s own quirks and personality.
I really do feel lucky to be able to relate with animals, especially dogs. If anything they remind me the value in being a good listener, the power of unconditional love, to always forgive but never forget, to remove judgement, that sometimes a hug is more powerful than any length of advice, that there is always room to be optimistic, and that the most pleasure can be found in the simplest of things.
I think that sometimes, if we acted more like the animals we hold dear, we might just end up being better people.