Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Requiem for a Good Dog

My dog Emma died yesterday after a few days of violent illness. We think it was poison. She was 10.

I got her when she was a puppy. My brother’s dog had babies unexpectedly – how we never once noticed she was pregnant, ever, until two days before she gave birth was something I’ll never understand but it happened every time. I really liked the little blonde one with the retriever’s nose but I didn’t expect to be allowed to keep her. It was always my dad and my brother who got to keep pups against all logic. Dogs and cats weren’t something I got to keep when it didn’t make sense.

When my parents told me I could keep her, if I wanted, I was shocked and deeply moved. That they had even noticed how much I liked her meant a lot to me. More than I could really express. That my dad was willing to give up the puppy he liked so that I could keep mine touched me too. I gave it a few days of serious thought because having a dog is a big decision, and then I said that if the offer still stood I would like to keep her, thanks.

I took a few days to name her too. The name came from a Jane Austen book that I had actually not read. The tag line – a beautiful meddler – was what inspired me to name her Emma. She was beautiful. Somehow the vagaries of Golden Lab, Chow, Terrier and Poodle had combined to create a 30lb white blonde retriever. Right from the beginning she was my dog. She looked to me first for everything. She didn’t like children because she’d been briefly tormented by a visiting child and she had a good memory. She was extremely protective of anything she deemed to be our property, to the point of biting our landlord’s brother in the butt when he came to borrow some tools. When she killed a chicken at the age of six months, she took the scolding with a confused expression – but she remembered it (until she was about a year old and killed another one…but that’s an impressive memory for a puppy, and she never killed another one after that). When she realized I didn’t like something she did her best to fight instinct and obey my inscrutable whims. I could put an egg on the ground in front of her and she’d do everything in her power to not even look at it, though I could see the hunger for it in her face.

She went nuts when I first put a collar and leash on her. She was so frightened, being restrained. But when she got used to it and realized that the leash meant quality time with me, she’d go nuts for a different reason. I had to walk her at heel for at least ten minutes before I could get her to listen to any other commands. But once she learned to stay I could make her lay on the lawn while I herded sheep or dealt with other animals that were spooked by the presence of an overly helpful dog.

When I went away to school she moped around and stopped eating for a while. I think she thought I had died, because eventually she moved from sleeping below my bedroom window to sleeping outside my parents’. They didn’t appreciate being woken up by her barking in the night but it meant she was eating again so I didn’t mind. When I came home for Christmas she treated me with disdain for a day before deciding I had been punished enough and whole-heartedly welcoming me back into her life. After a few trips away and back home she had figured out the routine and no longer withdrew, although she no longer greeted me with the same enthusiasm either. I wasn’t the reliable pack leader I had once been. I think instead of transferring that role to another human she took it on herself, bossing the other dogs around with aggression and the attitude of a much larger dog. Even though her pack mate Phoebe was at least twice her size it didn’t seem to phase either of them that Emma was the leader. It was the accepted order of their world.

It doesn’t surprise me that Emma was the one to die. When she and Phoebe were out wandering the fields and forests, if they had come across some piece of rotten or poisoned meat, Emma would have never allowed Phoebe, or the pugs, to eat any of it. Instead she would have claimed it all for herself. She protected the other dogs lives with her firm belief that as leader, she should have all the best things in life. It was an accidental act of nobility which caused her death.

I just wish that I could have been there to take care of her as she died. She suffered a lot as she went, more than any animal deserves. If there is an afterlife for our pets I hope she’s got a good one – a place in rabbit hell would be perfect for her, as that was the only animal on our farm that I never succeeded in training her to not chase. And maybe someday I’ll get one last chance to let her know that she was, indeed, a good dog.

1 comment:

Whispering Heart said...

this post is heart breaking.

I saw Emma just before she died. I knew she was sick because it was raining cats and dogs and she was lying out in it not trying to get to shelter...she did not look to be in pain so much as out of energy. i stopped and petted her for a bit...but phoebe half growled at me...she was very protective of Emma.