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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The dog in question

Dog leadI wish I could have called this story The dog of marriage, but that title was already taken by Amy Hempel. That story and the title set me off writing this one.

The dog in question

I want to write about putting down a dog, not because he was old or ill, and his time had come. But about the time I put down a dog that was only six years old, he was a dog I loved, but could no longer live with.

It’s not a neat story, with a beginning, middle and an end. Putting a dog down, having a dog put to death, killing a dog, is not like that.

You could tug at this story in many ways; each tugging could lead in an altogether different direction. One tug is about the dog training, the many different approaches we tried or that one could try with a dog. K9 training (a quasi-police dog style of training) is one approach, there is dog whispering and there is clicking. I could tell you about countless Saturday mornings spent on a field with this dog, and with other dogs and their owners. My pockets filled with bits of dog biscuit and salami. I could tell you about how to be the Alpha Male so that the dog gets it, or at least how to act as if you are an Alpha Male, even if you aren’t one. I could tell you about being firm and consistent. About why a dog needs a choke chain, and about approaches that abhor choke chains. I could list all the books I read, all the people, the experts I spoke to and their different views about what I should do with my dog.

“All he needs is for you to be firm.”

“He needs clear boundaries.”

“He must know who is boss.”

“You must never let him on your bed.”

“He must never go into the front door ahead of you.” I could tell you about how I tried to train this dog.

I should mention here that he wasn’t even my dog. He was my husband’s dog. You know how that is, a dog belongs to someone, ultimately. That is another thread we could tug at. I am no longer married to the man who was the owner of the dog that I chose to have put down. See how I use the passive voice, to distance myself from what I did and from the man who is no longer my husband.

I could write about how our dog had mange as a puppy. How peculiar he looked, like a moth-eaten fluffy toy, a well-loved toy, how he looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. I could write about the weeks of smearing smelly unguents onto his patchy skin. About how I washed my hands afterwards and how the smell didn’t come out easily. I could write about how he whimpered when we washed him, whimpered and wriggled. I could mention that Rescue Remedy was used. And how my husband carried him around in a red towel slung over his shoulder, and how I took a photograph of my husband, the red towel and the dog. I could describe how after months of treatment his fur grew black and thick. And of how his fur came to have a reddish undertone in a certain light.

I could write about why I felt he had to be put down, and about why my husband didn’t want to be the one to do it.

These are some of my reasons. He snarled at our child. Three times. Savage snarling. Real snarling, like a dangerous, chained dog. Another species. A dog kept especially for dog fighting. It took me three snarls over several months to come to a decision. I could explore in detail how I watched the dog, how I kept the child away from him. Kept him away from the child. How it started with the dog chewing her toys, shredding her clothes, her baby-gros, her blankets, her tiny little jerseys, her booties. I could fill in some of the back-story of how he nipped almost everyone who visited us, perhaps even everyone. I should tell you that I tried to make out that it was just a nip, no big deal. People were afraid of him, afraid of visiting us. I could tell you how in the years that we had the dog, we had few visitors, few friends in our home. And in the same breath I could write of how much the dog loved me, how devoted he was, how he liked nothing better than to be right next to me, almost touching me, and how reassuring I found this.

As I said, I learned to be careful of where I left my little girl’s things – I came to know that the dog would destroy them. We had two dogs. The older dog was a little crazy, a hysterical maiden aunt sort of dog, but he would never bite a child. But the younger dog, the dog in question, I can’t say for sure. At the time I tried to think of what to do, to come up with a constructive solution. I tried to find the dogs new homes. They will be happier together, is what I told myself. I advertised in the Worcester local paper and in all the Classified Ads in all the Cape Town daily newspapers. There were no takers.

I could tell you more of the back-story of how the dog was born on a farm outside Grahamstown. How he grew up going for long walks in the veld, barking at monkeys, and sometimes even chasing buck. I could even tell you about how he and the older dog became a small pack. How they yelped in a particular way when they saw a buck and of how they didn’t come back till they felt like it. I could tell you about how the neighbouring farmer nearly shot them. How he phoned to warn us that he would shoot the dogs if they ever came onto his property again. I guess they were lucky not to be shot by the neighbouring farmer – the dogs – because we couldn’t control them. We tried, but we didn’t have a fenced-in yard. It was a communal farm. There were other dogs. We lived furthest away. I could admit that we never walked the dogs with leads on. I am not sure if this part of the back-story has anything to do with what this story is about. How I came to put down our dog. But I suspect it is central.

He was only six years old when I had him put down. He was my husband’s dog. But secretly he was my dog. He doted on me. He wanted to be near me. I think he was a little afraid of my husband. And I was a little afraid of the dog, in spite of his devotion.

Of course I shouldn’t forget to mention how many phone calls I made to animal rescue places, DARG, TEARS, the SPCA, how I tried to find him another home, and how futile it all felt. As an aside, I should say that at the time I had a full-time job, a child under two, I was forty-two. I was exhausted. Bone-achingly tired. I offer this to provide context, not an excuse. I knew I didn’t have what it took to drive him to Hout Bay or to Somerset West twice a week for three months to attempt to correct the dog’s behaviour. I knew it was beyond me. I also knew I could have the dog put down. This is how our world works; we can have dogs put down. It’s not a crime.

I discovered that I have it in me to kill a dog I love. I knew what I had to do and I decided to do it. To have a dog I love put down. I prefer the euphemism.

It was up to me; my ex husband wasn’t up to the horrible stuff.  It fell to me to do those things – the unpleasant things. I picked up the dog shit in the garden, took the dogs for walks every day, had them neutered. I knew I would have to do this thing too. I wondered, even then, sometimes, if I stopped picking up the dog shit, how high would it pile up? What would my husband do, would he hire someone to clean it up? Would he ask our child’s nanny to do it? Or would he just ignore it? Would he even have noticed?

My husband and our child waited in the car on the day I took the dog to the vet for the last time. I led the dog to the security gate entrance. He walked a little way in front of me as he always did. His ears down, but he wasn’t afraid, he trusted me. If he had been afraid he wouldn’t have been in front, leading the way. He would have resisted, sat down or pulled back. He didn’t know where we were going or why.

As I entered the vet’s surgery I avoided looking at the other people on the seats with their cats in baskets, their dogs on leads. The usual receptionist was there, a woman in her sixties. When she wasn’t answering the phone or taking payments, she knitted. I told her my name. Oh yes. She looked at me; she knew what I had come for. She waved me to a seat. I led my husband’s dog to the seat she pointed at; he sat close to me, leaning against my legs. I patted his head and fondled his ears. We waited.

I don’t remember much of the rest of what happened that afternoon. Inside the surgery the vet explained to me what he was going to do. I thought of the death sentence by lethal injection. I patted the dog softly on his side. He was quiet and gentle. The snarling dog was nowhere to be seen. I thought, panicking a little, ‘maybe I’ve made a mistake’. The vet injected the tranquiliser. I patted the dog, gently over and over. Sorry boy, I said, sorry. Sorry.

Then the vet injected the lethal poison. Our dog was already lying still from the tranquiliser, and before I knew it he had gone. He was gone. He had stopped breathing. I looked at him, lifeless, my hand on his side. I stopped patting him then, he was still warm. The vet unhooked his lead from his collar and gave it to me.

I re-entered the waiting room, carrying only the lead. I opened the security gate and crossed the pavement to the waiting car, to my husband, my child. Just before I climbed into the car I noticed the flower seller on the grassy verge and her buckets of brightly coloured flowers. Poppies, freesias, ranunculus.


Recent comments:

  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    July 29th, 2015 @13:42 #

    I would have loved to have stayed in the room with my dog's body for a few hours after she died. I feel vets should offer that option, in a special room for dying animals.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 29th, 2015 @21:56 #

    Colleen's piece is beautiful, but I can't read it again -- it was too much for me the first time I saw it. But wanted to say, Anne, that I had my beloved old cat put down at home so I could sit with her body and feel the warmth slowly leave it. Nearly killed me, but necessary. And this goes for human death as well.

  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    July 30th, 2015 @14:01 #

    It nearly killed me to have to walk away from Mui Mui as she lay, still warm, on the duck egg blue fleecy we wrapped her in. It was very sudden as she'd collapsed on a public holiday so I had to drag my vet away from his family. But still. I needed to spend time with her afterwards and it was clear that it wasn't an option. A friend said I should have taken her body home with me. I enjoyed Colleen's piece (if enjoy is the right word) because the death of an animal often involves euthanasia and it raises all sorts of issues.


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