He looked directly at me when I first saw him, huddled and withdrawn behind the gate, the most beautiful pair of big brown eyes I had ever seen. Slightly greasy fur, black at the end, tan underneath with a fluffy white tummy, legs shorter than they should be for a being of his size, the staff said he was a lovely boy but had had a bad start. He had come from Liverpool, he had been called Shan and especially enjoyed having his tummy rubbed. That was all we knew. But it was love at first sight and he came home that day.
I sat in the back of the car with him on the way and I couldn’t stop looking at him. I told him we would always look after him and he’ll be happy and safe now. The door opened, he stepped in trepidatiously, so on edge, unsure what this new life would be, as he inspected every corner of the room. I remember feeling insubstantial, apologetic; this was the home we were giving him, I hoped it would be enough. He was nervous too, full of unbridled speculative energy, panting, pacing and jumping at every sound I made. A sneeze made him crash his wide tail around like a propeller, a cough made him cower.
At first, he refused to leave the house. For what felt like weeks, he wouldn’t walk. I would carry him to the end of the road and try to convince him there were great things ‘out there’. For those early days he was just called ‘this way’ out of unending attempts to coax him towards any particular direction. He was nervous of so many things, I began to construct a narrative around his past. He objected to men in high-visibility, he hated doorbells, footballs, wide spaces, sudden noises and the taking off of belts. He was a wild little creature, so watchful, so aware.
After a while we named him Dylan.
It took time but once settled upon, it suited him.
After a while he started to trust us.
When I came down in the mornings, or home from work, he would stand up on his back legs to greet me and I would hold his front paws to balance him, like we were dancing together. Gradually, he got braver, venturing to the beach, the crescents, the downs. He investigated each corner and tuft of grass with such concentration and dedication, it was as if he was trying to understand everything about it. At the time I was studying counselling and would watch him embody the idea of an ‘authentic being’; something we were all trying to perform, as he responded completely momentarily to any impulse he had.
We got into a rhythm, walking morning and evening through the changing seasons and I became aware of nature for the first time since I was a child. I would notice the first signs of Spring, the last leaves of Autumn, and the point in the year when our walks coincided with both sunrise and sunset in perfect balance. He would scavenge in the bushes during the summer months, looking for discarded remains of barbecues. He would proudly present his discoveries to me, his most glorious trophy being an uncooked packet of sausages which he pierced with his teeth as I tried to take it from his mouth, leaving sausage meat swirls squeezing themselves up my arm. If he found a dead fish on the beach, he would gleefully rub his back in as much of the flesh as possible and look woeful and confused when I took him home and washed off the stink.
He was indifferent to most dogs and identified early that he was fonder of humans, who were more likely to share their food with him. When my friend brought her dog Lola to visit, we all bought cake and walked across the downs, Lola striding ahead of us chasing cyclists and joggers and Dylan staying back with both eyes on the sponge.
My relationship broke down and I went away for a few months. When I came home, it was just Dylan and I in the house. I asked a friend to help with walks when I was at work. She called me on the first day and said she had lost him, that he had run away from her up the downs. She had spent two hours looking for him and had decided to call me when she didn’t know where to look anymore. I felt total terror. I ran home thinking I wouldn’t see him again. Just as I got to the front door, the RSPCA called and said they had found ‘Shan’, a woman had seen him on his own and knew somebody must be missing him so had brought him in. I found him looking forlorn and sad, back where we had started. I had never been so happy.
After that, I asked a professional dog walker to take him out. It is with this little pack of his that he learnt to look for water in the crook of tree roots, and he got more confident with other dogs, but I was also told, after several months, that he had discovered a short cut and would just run back to the car and wait there. So, he stared to come to work with me. By this time, I had changed my hours and had started to rent a shop space on the beach part time. We had never gone anywhere together other than for ‘walks’ in quiet places. He had been timid and vigilant, and anywhere with too many people made him pull on his lead until his tongue went blue. The idea of walking along the seafront to ‘work’ or taking him with me on ordinary ventures seemed like it would be too stressful for him – and me.
But this shift meant a new relationship for us both. We became complete companions and as I gently pushed the boundaries of his comfort by seeing how he responded to main roads, buses, pubs or friends’ houses, until eventually he came everywhere with me. He would sleep at the end of the bed and I would poke my head over in the mornings to say hello, and give him a saucer of milk when I made tea. He would jump up onto the sofa for a cuddle after breakfast and we would have a cuddle before work. That became my favourite moment of every day.
When I opened the beach shop, we went down every morning, whether it was raining, howling a gale, hailing or sunny. Some days I wouldn’t see a single soul as we cowered behind the door to shield from wind or sea spray without a customer all day. During the summer months, when the carousel would spin all day, there were buskers, sunbathers, sea swimmers and day trippers coming into the shop in various forms of dress. He would take an opportune moment to run into Ronnie’s and get his own Mr Whippy poured for him. He was so joyful, so content, so free, and looking back, so was I.
When I was setting up the new shop, he was there as I unpacked, painted and set up displays, daunted by what I had taken on. Yet, I never felt alone; he was a constant, a reassurance, with his unconditional love and presence alongside me. When I opened, I was worried he wouldn’t be able to come to work because it was on a main road. I had a ‘doggy door’ build for him so he could stay in the back room, but he protested against this at the first opportunity. He intuitively knew what our space was and went no further than the doorway, sometimes sitting on the step to watch the world go by. I know I lost customers because of that but I don’t think I cared.
I made sure he was never too hot, never too cold, never hungry, ignored, or going without a tummy rub. He had his own fan on hot days and a bed and blanket on cold days.
When I felt alone, he was there with his soft fur, big heart and concerned eyes. When I was celebrating, he beamed with me. He witnessed my heartbreak, glee, bedroom singalongs, failed cooking, drunken dancing, successes, anxieties and momentary breakdowns. There were certain songs that he would sing to; he would just start howling along and I would laugh and tell him “what beautiful singing”. He was constant, unbridled joy.
He had adventures. He chased squirrels, barked at seagulls, got blown sideways in the wind, ploughed through snow with his mouth wide open. He scoured pavements for disgusting food that he saw before I did and he would make himself momentarily happy before being sick.
One day, on a morning like every other, which began with us having breakfast and walking to the shop, he was sleeping next to my feet under the til and he started having a seizure. I didn’t know it was a seizure at the time; I thought he was dying. His legs were racing, his head was banging and he couldn’t hear me trying to reassure him. It went on for what felt like hours, but, in reality it lasted only a few minutes, until Dylan, breathless, pacing and confused, came to. I closed the shop and we got a taxi to the vet who told me that in older dogs, it was unlikely to be a one off. We tried some medication but he continued to have seizures for the rest of his life, sometimes with a gap of several months in between and then clustering together like little earthquakes, each time traumatic and terrifying and seemingly so unfair that he had no control over what was taking hold of his little body in such a violent way.
Despite the occasional day spent inside with curtains drawn in an effort to reduce stimulation after a seizure, life carried on as normal. But the combination of age and medication gradually undermined his energy and there was an almost imperceptible shift from the days when he would race ahead of me pulling the lead, to him walking behind me and waiting for me to slow down to wait for him. I don’t remember the time when we matched each other’s pace exactly, perhaps it was just momentary, but in a way we really did that all along.
His wilfulness, however, never became dampened by tiredness or age. By this time we had met Pete, and I think Dylan knew Pete was here to stay, so began to test his tenacity. He would walk to Pete’s side of the bed in the middle of the night and tap on the radiator, using his paw like a drum stick, banging rhythmically and intermittently to see if he could get a reaction. Pete’s big heart and infinite patience meant that he did get a reaction, usually in the form of a head rub and a chuckle. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Dylan was determined to climb the stairs every night to sleep at the end of our bed, even though his legs had become tired, and he wasn’t always able to make it to the top. We tried to pick him up to lift him, but his heavy pride made him fall to the floor, making him a dead weight and impossible to lift. There was a dance of wills, until he eventually relinquished some dignity and allowed Pete to roll him up in a piece of carpet and carry him up the stairs under his arm. Ends must.
Our walks to the shop became slower and more pained, and I made the difficult decision to start leaving Dylan at home during the day. Instead, we made our evenings and weekends full of Dylan-friendly adventures and his life entered a new stage – that of retired canine living. His itinerary involved day trips and picnics up the Downs, canal boat holidays in Oxfordshire, ferries to the Isle of Wight, spa weekends in Sussex and a very comfortable mode of transport in the form of a Toyota IQ, with the entire back seat and boot devoted to his senior comfort.
He continued to test Pete’s endurance, though, despite his age and aches. On a riverside walk, this otherwise sedentary older dog decided to leap into the river the moment we weren’t looking at him, and Pete, balancing one leg on the river bank, with one arm holding a tree branch to prevent him falling in, fished Dylan out of the water by his harness. Either that or we would have had to wait for him to float downstream.
He was aware that I would have done anything to keep him happy and he seemed to recognise that I had met someone who would do the same.
Over the last few years, he took life at his own pace and we followed his lead. A half mile walk took hours and it didn’t matter, we learnt to savour the moments as much as he did, spotting birds and flowers we might have missed going at our own pace. His favourite activity was a pub dinner, during which he would sit under the table and bark until we shared our food. He was a contended little dog. But the cause of his seizures was insidious; a ‘space occupying lesion’ that was too risky to investigate. He would be overtaken by ‘cluster seizures’ which would knock him over when he was mid stride, or cause him to fall over when he was eating his dinner. He found it increasingly difficult to get up despite us helping to lift his back legs and putting carpet off-cuts all over the floor for some traction.
We had adventures, so many adventures, all 13 years that he was with me, but he became too uncomfortable and our time together had to come to an end. It was more peaceful than I had imagined but the sadness is more profound than I have ever known.
A friend of mine said that the palliative care we offer our loved ones at the end of their lives means that their body is at ease, enough, to allow the soul to fly free of physical constraints without pain. And I like to imagine that Dylan’s beautiful soul was free to escape his tired body and run to the Downs, the sea, the parks, the rivers; the places I see and think of him, free on the wind, the waves and in the trees, the crooks of which he would stop for a sip of water and a nice sit down.