At the vet dog shelter, in a room stinking of fresh puppy shit, the Australian Kelpie-cross puppies who made all the stink and mess, are a mad scramble of canine characters. Out of that litter of seven or eight gambols one pup, not too manic and not too needy. He comes to me and smiles.
At home, Daisy, now five or six years old, doesn’t care too much for him, but we do. Again the routine of mopping up messes and training, but this one, whom we call Spud, is a sleek and shining black dog, invisible in the shadows, who wants to help, wants to do the right thing, even when his irrepressible high spirits get the better of him.
Fences are again an issue, especially as he can squeeze his bendy, skinny, flexible little body through all manner of tight spaces to get out and explore the world. Then he learns to jump, making the crap temporary fences redundant, and the construction of higher more solid fences the priority.
Out in the sun, he runs, gleeful, through the paddocks, chasing the alpacas until they, protecting themselves and the ewes, form an arrowhead and start backing him up, at which point he looks sheepish and ready to talk his way out. He runs to the high ground to watch over us, his Kelpie genes kicking in. Bounding and bouncing through the grass when it gets high. Swimming in the dam with who knows how many tiger snakes. Rustling through the reeds, joyful face appearing.
Fear of the car until the first trip to the park, and from then on a mad paint-scratching scrabble to get in the back seat and go anywhere, head out, long tongue flapping, barking.
At the park, working off that boundless energy, I use the ball-thrower to fling the ball as far as it can go, and set that black lightning streaking after it. Bounce, leap, mid-air catch. In the car after, soaking through towels, Spud, muddy and wet, tongue hanging, beaming and barking at white trucks and cars. Only the white ones. Loud as a bastard.
Breakfast sees that little face appear, hope writ large, joyful if there’s a slurp of milk in a bowl. Always happy, always wanting to have fun and do the right thing. A gentleman, ready to share anything he has, be it a ball, a bone, or a bowl of food.
Learning to ‘leave’, the crucial command to ensure he’d step away from snakes. Sit, stay, lie down, find it, this way, okay let’s go, okay – what time is it? All simple instructions he’s happy to learn and do.
Sleeping on his mat, almost steaming by the fire, or curled up on the couch, head on our lap, eyes open and drinking in our expressions.
After dinner Spud’s the mobile fat-trap, doing first-stage dish licking with earnest gusto, tongue flapping like a wet rag, determined to get every last skerrick.
The joy of the long drive to Queensland, stopping at footy ovals all the way, losing the collar out the window with the new Queensland rego tags. Arrival, and the joy of the new lake, of chasing the ball, the leaping, the grace, the on-shore leap and the off-shore landing. The final paws-up pounce on the ball, the big splash. Skimming the ball across the flat sheltered water of Hatch’s Bight, Spud bounding in the, to him, chest deep water, the pounce and then the reluctant but generally gracious handing over to the slower bully Daisy, then forced to watch her glacially slow return to shore with wistful eyes – a hiatus to the fun, but, later, the chewing of dead tree roots beside her in companionable work.
Spud’s favourite thing - his party trick; hiding behind a tree or anything, throwing the ball out from his hiding place where we can find it and throw it. At which point he emerges – surprise! – and chases and catches. That mischievous face, expectant and smiling, half-hidden behind a tree, in bushes, behind one of us.
Running off in the State forest after a kangaroo. Searching to find him again. The yawning fear we’d never find him. Twice. And then never again in that forest.
Always at our sides as we worked, outside or in. That, or lying by the fire or in the sun close by. Then, after a rest, that bright open face and smile appears with the implicit suggestion of a trip outside to play with the ball. Wouldn’t that be awesome? For a skinny black dog, he has a bark that will raise the dead, a Baskervillian boom that, unannounced, sends me flying upright out of my chair.
The joy of the beach. The dog beaches at Sunshine and Coolum – dog heaven, no leads, no territories, no hassles. Spud racing through the park to the beach to wait for the first throw, pounding along the hard packed sand or splashing into the smaller waves. It’s all about the chase, the bounce, the catch, preferably mid-air. Tireless chasing, running and catching. Then, after, sinking down onto his side of the back seat to rest, or sit up and rest his head on my driving shoulder to look forward, be close, and get the open driver’s window breeze.
Appearing in my doorway, he looks like a cartoon dog sometimes; the bright whites of his eyes with those beautiful amber irises, tail up, the smile of mischief and readiness. Every half hour – let’s go! A short run next door will do; anything together.
Lying on the couch, head in Brenda’s lap, looking at me as if to say life could not possibly get any better than this. An almost overwhelmed smile of complicity in such joy; a sharing of his joy.
That awful 2011 Christmas. A week before Christmas, Spud is ill, cause unknown. Within days, it’s clear he’s dying. Visiting the vet, Spud, as always, is a happy, gracious visitor, accepting, tolerant, generous and brave. The drug regime works to an extent but as time goes by the diagnosis emerges. He’s probably not going to get better, and we can only control symptoms. Still, the possibility of improvement spurs us to do all we can.
For the next eighteen months, the slow, incremental decline. Never in pain or distress, always happy unless weaned too quickly off the prednisolone. A process of learning what drugs and diet helps most to keep his tail wagging. In the end, that’s all that matters. If the tail wags, then we can do no more.
Walks become slower, less frequent, shorter. Ball play is still fun, but no longer the aerial acrobatics, only little catches. It doesn’t matter to Spud, who only cares to play with us, sharing the ball equally between us.
I take no chances with pain, and soon painkillers, three times a day, are part of the regime. The pressure sores begin, and Brenda makes padded pants and a harness arrangement that allows him to sleep, infuriatingly to us, on his side on the hard floor. Keeping cool is crucial as his metabolism burns out of control.
The air conditioner is bought. Would we have bought one if not for Spud?
Mats are everywhere. Places to rest his increasingly skinny bones are there when he needs them, dressings are twice a day, play time ten times or however often he wants.
After the big 2012 ‘low pressure system not quite a cyclone’ storm, the next door’s half-collapsed grevillea makes a wonderful green, leafy place to hide, and throw the ball out so I can give him the joy of springing forth out of hiding to reclaim it, then throw it back to me. That mischievous smile, those bright eyes, peering out, waiting for me to engage.
Always sharing joy and love.
And always, when there is any kind of food preparation in the kitchen, Spud is there, patiently lying on precisely that area of floor in a direct line between the counter and the stove. He's so trusting he never fears he’ll be trodden on. So we never tread on him.
Dropping down on a wooden floor, he sounds like a sack of logs when he collapses in front of the fire, or onto a cool floor in summer.
A year later, there’s not a single day goes by I don’t remember that sweet face, that big heart, the dozens of moments in every day he brought us joy.
‘Just a dog’.
Don’t use that expression around me. Ever.
Rest in peace, my sweet boy.