The hardest decision you’ll ever make: Part I

As a child, I had several pet hamsters and a pet rat. My father is fond of cats, and we always had a cat. But never a dog. As soon as Michael and I got married, we started talking about getting a one. I fancied a German Shepherd. Michael said they had bad press, and he wanted something smaller.

As soon as the couple and their dog left, I asked Mike, ‘What kind of dog is that?’ ‘A German Shepherd,’ he said. Really? I wanted one so badly I didn’t know what it looked like.

One day, as we walked by the St Albans Cathedral, we met our perfect dog. I fussed him, and he licked my face. Now I wanted a dog just like him: large, black, and long-haired.

Our perfect dog

Michael liked that dog. He said if we were to get a German Shepherd, it would have to be a long-haired black one. Of course we were getting one! How silly we must look walking around by ourselves—like a pair of loiters. If we walked with a dog, however, we would be walking a dog. And what a dog it would be! Everyone would see us, and say, ‘Wow! What a dog!’ And he would be our dog.

Immediately on return, I began searching. I should have been researching, but I had no time for that: we were already on our way to see puppies I found advertised in a local paper.

‘Remember, we are only going to look,’ Michael said, and I ‘completely agreed’.

The perfect dog

With the mother of the puppies
With the mother of the puppies

The breeder didn’t do it for living: she just wanted to let her bitch have a litter before spaying her (a common misconception). She explained the bitch was tall for the breed, as was the stud, and so the puppies would likely grow large. We liked the bitch. She was cautious but friendly and without apparent temperament flaws. Both parents had been screened for inherited diseases, and the puppies KC-registered.

The litter played and tumbled. They were fuzzy and fat and black, and they had chunky paws. One came to Michael, lay on his feet, and fell asleep on his shoes. Eventually, Michael needed to move his feet; so, he picked up the puppy and put him with the rest of the litter. The puppy promptly returned, lay across Michael’s feet again, and resumed the sleeping.

That’s how we picked our dog, or rather, our dog picked us. We put down the deposit, and I’ve never been more clueless or excited in my life.

An imperfect owner

I had no idea what to do with a dog or how to train one. Instead of reading up, however, I went to a pet store and bought a fabulous food dish, a tonne of toys, and the loveliest lead, then phoned work to book two weeks off so I would be at home when the puppy arrives and help him settle in. I was now ready for my dog. (That two-week holiday gave Tango nothing but separation anxiety, which he never got over.)

At first, it was easy, because Tango mostly slept. On my slippers. Soon, he grew into an impressive, even scary-looking hound, but he harmed no-one. Michael’s little nephew once slapped Tango on the face, and hard, but Tango just squealed and walked away.

When my little brother stayed with us, Tango didn’t take his eyes off him, and when Andy teased him, hiding around the house or in tall grass outside, Tango told him off by pushing him onto the ground and yacking in an unnaturally high-pitched tone while nibbling at his clothes. Andy found this most amusing. The two adored one another, always tumbling and play-fighting.

Tango loved his walks, and being so large and powerful and stubborn, he pulled on the lead a lot. I thought a choke chain would help; it didn’t. I bought a collar with metal spikes, but Tango yanked it so hard I worried he’d rupture his throat; the spiky collar was discarded. I then decided an electric collar would be a good idea, but after trying it around my throat, I didn’t use it on Tango. None of these is suitable training aids, by the way, and is plain dangerous in the hands of an overconfident dumbo such as I was then.

Tango was quite fond of local cats, but he didn’t chase without permission. Once, just as we stepped out for a walk, he saw a suitable target and froze, staring at the cat staring at him. I only needed to say No, and he would turn away, but he was on the lead, and I thought What the heck. Let’s run! and said, ‘Okay!’ Tango rocketed toward the cat; the cat flew along the concrete path; yanked off my feet, I had been dragged along the pavement for quite a distance until finally, I was saved by the fence the poor cat leapt across. Had it not been for that fence, who knows where I’d end up. It was very funny. Even to me.

I never repeated that same mistake again, but one sunny weekend we came across a cat when Tango was off the lead. He stared at the cat, then glanced at me as if to ask, May I? This was a densely built residential area with plenty of fences, and being quite an unwieldy beast, Tango could never keep up with a cat. So, I thought Why not! and said, ‘Okay!’ And Tango shot off, skidding and zigzagging across the grass. Instead of taking the expected route, however, the cat dashed through someone’s front door, which happened to be wide opened. Oh. My. God … OH MY GOD!

The house was alive with screaming, crushing and barking when I reached it. Do I go in? Do I ring the bell? What do I do? What an idiot! By the time I had Tango out of the house and the door shut behind us, I also had a furious woman yelling from the safety of her window. Apparently, the door had been left open for the cat. Tango didn’t get the cat, of course, but he had been very thorough in his search: he’d checked the upstairs bedrooms, after which he thundered down the steps and ripped into the front room, where he crushed into several pieces of furniture before ploughing his way into the garden, where he terrified barbeque guests and turned over a table with all the food. Thankfully, no-one had been injured. Phew! I apologised profusely and told Tango off as strictly as my conscience permitted, but the woman continued, using a multitude of colourful phrases to explain how dogs should be kept on a lead. I knew I had been careless and wrong, but eventually, I snapped that a cat flap would have been a much better idea than leaving her front door wide-opened. I couldn’t resist. It was very funny. Not to the lady of the house or her guests, though.

Tango had a sense of humour. We walked by some lakes once, and I threw his ball in the water. He swam to retrieve it, and when came out, soaked, he found himself standing in front of a bench of snoozing grannies—a perfect opportunity. With his side to the grannies, he dropped his ball, spread his legs and stretched out his neck, and I instantly knew what was about to happen and took off toward him, screaming unimaginable threats, but alas, when a dog needs to shake, a dog shakes. I remember the scene vividly, in small detail and in slow motion: a massive long-haired, dripping wet dog drenching a party of peacefully sunbathing grannies in a shower of stagnant pond water and his panicked owner running toward him, yelling, ‘Tango! No!’ It was very funny. Even to the grannies.

Tango loved riding in the car, had his own seat belt, and always stuck his head out of the window, splattering slobber across the side of the car as his tongue flapped behind him. We often took him to Brighton. He loved the sea and the fish and chips, and he loved the town: crowds meant admirers, and Tango loved the fuss. One beautiful summer night, we stopped to check out a bar. Everywhere was packed with students and other trendy people drinking beer and snacking on a variety of sea creatures. Tango sat behind our backs as Michael and I looked at the menu on the wall when someone asked if it was be okay to pet our dog. Of course it was. I heard people go Ooh and Ah and say what a gorgeous dog we had. I was delighted. Then our audience changed its tone to Eew and Yack. I assumed someone had a bout of gas or something, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t turn. Then I heard people getting up from their tables, gasping, and I turned around just as Tango, surrounded by aghast diners, began emptying his bowels right on the bar terrace. I tried to pull him away. I screamed, ‘Tango, no!’ God knows I tried to stop him, but alas, when a dog needs to go, a dog needs to go. It was very funny. Even to the diners.

He loved jumping several feet high to catch water from the garden hose in the summer and snowballs in the winter. I said Speak! as he barked, and soon he barked on command, and when he barked, glasses rattled in our cupboards and all the neighbourhood dogs picked up. He had an excellent nose and loved searching; when I hid his ball, he could sniff it out in the bath, under bed covers, and in the bin. He was strong and smart and gentle.

We were so close. We were so bad, so mischievous, so terrible together … And yet, we were perfect. Tango wasn’t just my first dog—he was truly my dog. And he was a good dog even despite all the mistakes I made. I dread to imagine how neurotic he could have turned out; yet despite being brought up by a total amateur, he turned out okay. I may have not known how to train a dog, but Tango knew how to train me.

Play-fighting with my Tango

The perfect ending

I dreaded the day we’d part. I thought about it all the time. I thought it would devastate me and I would die from sadness. Michael joked he’d have to leave the country. But no-one had been prepared for how I reacted: when we put Tango to sleep, I didn’t shed a tear. I was fine with it. And so was Mike. I cannot figure out why.

I said goodbye to many animals before and after losing Tango. There were rabbits who wanted to be left alone, who disliked being touched, lived outside and with whom I thought I had no bond. And yet, losing some of them has been among the most painful experiences of my life. There was one that arrived at Helicopter Ears in seemingly excellent health, and we found him dead in the morning; I was in pieces for days. But there were also rabbits with whom I had a long, close bond, similar to that I had with Tango; and yet, unlike with Tango, I was broken when I lost them, and still am. I don’t quite understand why, but maybe as I write about it I can figure it out. Maybe we can figure it out together.

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