Hattie in our local field
I’m writing this for (admittedly) selfish reasons to set down my feelings about losing my much-loved German Shepherd, who passed away yesterday after a short illness. To many people, a dog is just that – a dog. They don’t understand that they’re smart, intelligent, funny, selfless and loyal beings – or as I often say, “Like people, only better.”
It seems inappropriate for me to continue sharing these feelings on social media, because quite simply, it really doesn’t affect the number of people who would read it, and after all Facebook is meant to be fun. I have tried to respect the unspoken rules of social media by sticking to announcing her loss, and that is how it will stay.
So, should you choose to read this, it is probably because you’re a pet owner yourself or because you’ve lost one and know how searingly painful it is.
To set the scene, I should explain that our paths crossed with Hattie’s when she was a twelve-week old stray who was found covered in diesel and picked up by the council dog warden. My brother in law worked closely at the council with the dog warden and having heard about this gorgeous ball of fluff and knowing that we had been looking to find a German Shepherd puppy to join our family, he rang me to ask if we might be interested in meeting her.
We barely needed time to think about it, and not long after we were to be found introducing ourselves at the local dog pound to enquire after her. The pound worker smiled and turned around from the desk to retrieve what appeared to be a comically small cat carrier – from which they proceeded to unfurl a long, fluffy and exceptionally wriggly puppy. I fell in love with her the moment she began to emerge from this incongruous setting, and she seemed to grow before our eyes as though someone had “just added water”.
“I’m going to the bank to get the cash to adopt her.” my husband announced without hesitation, his eyes not leaving Hattie’s as he spoke.
The pound worker told me that while we waited for him to return with the adoption fee, she would have to sit on my knee so that she did not pick up any diseases from the floor that other animals had brought in, as she had not yet been immunised. There was a window on the wall behind us and she sprang up to watch my husband leave the car park, then stayed in that position until he returned. Her tail wagged frantically and she squeaked as she realised he had come back for her.
We took her home and, letting her out of the car to explore her new surroundings, she became alert to a small group of young teenagers passing the garden gate. She immediately began barking, as if to claim her territory and her family. The youths laughed at the sight of this tiny black and tan puffball doing her best to force them to go away and we took her into her new home to meet our excited children, then aged 5 and 7.
We named her Hattie, as our surname is Sykes (anyone familiar with Eric Sykes’ UK sitcom in the 1970’s will know that Hattie was his sister). She began her life with us, as most puppies do, as a determined and repeated chewer. Someone had imparted the wisdom that to discourage this, we must liberally coat our skirting boards in tabasco sauce. This had the undesirable effect of not only turning our wood-stained skirting boards a fetching shade of crimson, but also resulted in them disappearing faster than ever – Hattie had discovered that she loved strong tasting food and hey, who doesn’t love a chilli-flavoured wooden plank?
As she got older, she became more curious and I came home one day to find she had opened the cupboard under the kitchen sink, removed a bottle of bleach (and, inexplicably, its lid) and was lying on the floor happily chowing the plastic contents down. After this, we insured her against further mishap and bought child-proof locks to avoid a repeat episode.
And what a good job, too! Because no sooner had her insurance policy taken effect, than she tried to jump a small wrought-iron gate in her attempts to follow my husband outside one night. A blood-curdling scream alerted him to the fact that she had seriously hurt herself, and he ran back to find that she had got her foot trapped in the scroll work on the gate and snapped it. A desperate trip to the vet’s surgery confirmed the obvious break, and she spent the following six weeks making endless trips to the vet’s surgery to be fitted with a variety of cheery-coloured plaster casts chosen by our young children.
Thankfully, she spent the remainder of her life avoiding bodily injury or destroying wooden household fittings. She grew into a protective, beautiful, sociable, eager-to-please dog whose only fault was her inability to realise that she was just too big to sit on your knee. Not that it stopped her. She spent many happy hours pogo-ing through the long cornfields, trying to catch rabbits that were always too fast for her.
Hattie and me
When we decided eight years ago to look into emigrating to Australia, Hattie was firmly on the list of family members we would be taking with us. There was no question that she would join us there, we thought. As the plans drew closer, and it became obvious that finding a rented home there would be much harder with a dog, my mum offered to keep her in the UK until we were settled enough to bring her over.
There were several factors involved in why this sadly never happened. I had never really imagined staying in Australia for a long time, nor had I considered that finding a job would be so difficult for me. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that the skilled party was not in fact me; it was my husband, and it was on his wages that we have had to survive on more than one occasion.
This meant that finding the money to bring Hattie to live with us here became increasingly swallowed up, and if I had known that when I walked away from leaving her with my mum six years ago, crying until my eyes could no longer see, I do not think I would be living here now. I ask anyone reading this not to judge me for what happened, for I did not abandon her and nor did I stop thinking about her every day, just as I do all of my family.
The fact is that Hattie has been loved by all of her extended family during the time we have lived here. My mum became her mum, my dad became her dad, and she in turn became their faithful protector and best friend to their little dog, Leo. Leo and she would lie together in front of the fireplace, Leo curled up in the gap between Hattie’s front and back legs. They had spent their lives together in the same family, but now they were just living in the same house.
They played in the garden together and when Leo became too inquisitive as to what was going on between his female friend’s legs, she would pee on him to dampen his ardour. Many is the time when his notions of romance have resulted in him skulking into the porch, dripping with urine, indignation and humiliation.
I got a call from my mum last week explaining that Hattie was unwell. She had lost control of her legs, a common health complaint for German Shepherds of advancing years. She was now unable to walk unaided, and was injuring herself falling over. There is no cure for this progressive disease, known as Degenerative Myelopathy, which affects both the spinal casing and its nerves. Mum waited anxiously for a few days to see if she would get better, but her symptoms became worse and it was clear that if this continued, she would be suffering unnecessarily.
So it was with great sadness that my mum and brother-in-law accompanied my 19 year old son (who is currently in the UK short-term) to the vet’s office once again. The vet agreed that Hattie’s time on earth was at an end, and that it would not serve her best interests to keep her alive, only to struggle on.
I do not want to write about that, only because it is not my place to comment on the experience of others and their personal sadness. I just want to express how grateful I am that she was surrounded by people she loved dearly, and they her. In particular, I have been comforted by knowing that my son was there with her.
Suffice to say that Hattie was loved right up to the end, and will continue to be, forever and always. And I hope that if you’re reading this, you’re doing it because for you too, there’s no such thing as “just a dog”.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post.