He certainly finished well. Two days before his final car journey he had scampered a couple of miles through the woodland behind our house, tail still whirling a figure of eight of pure zeal and joy as he snuffled out every pheasant on the estate. Then it was a very simple train of events. He trotted up a slight slope in the garden, his back legs suddenly collapsed, and without any show of distress or pain he looked back at me...and we both knew. I said aloud to my wife, "He's dead", and the spaniel didn't touch a scrap of food or take a lap of water from that moment on. We both just knew.
I carried him to his bed and just sat there, trying to tempt him to drink and offering a tasty morsel or two, but it was only to try to express concern and affection; I knew it wouldn't work. He patronised me by gazing up with droopy but affectionate eyes, and the three-quarter tail of the working spaniel thumped a reciprocally affectionate drum beat on his bed for me.
He stayed inside all night. There was no pain expressed, but then he rarely showed any expression of pain. This was the dog that had torn open his shoulder on a barbed wire fence, carried on working for half an hour afterwards, and I only realised there was an issue when he emerged from a stream and his left leg was running red from top to bottom. He didn't flinch or stop wagging his tail for a second; life was too much fun to worry about the trivialities of blood. The same dog retrieved a shot rabbit to hand, having snapped his leg in a spiral fracture on the way out to get the fluffy vermin. He waited until I had taken it from his mouth before he had collapsed at my feet.
He was as tough a beast as I have ever seen, and as brave as a lion.
I phoned the vet at 0800hrs the next morning and forty-five minutes later I watched the blue liquid from the syringe enter his veins, he looked up at me for the last time, and I saw the eyes half close in death, then in an instant blue over in death's fixed gaze. It is a sight I have seen in countless deer I have shot, but to see it in my mate was as much as I could bear. Even the poor veterinary nurse was stroking my arm as my tears moistened his fur.
When I arrived home, the pointer was in the pen he had shared with his "big brother" for two years. He hadn't seen me take the old boy out in the car that morning, but he howled like a wolf baying at the moon for the whole day. He, too, just knew.
There will be those that won't understand the big deal about this I'm sure, and they are perhaps right to view it as overly sentimental. There are of course, myriad things of an almost infinitely more important nature happening every day around the world. But not that day in my world. I am not one to anthropomorphise; it's not in me. My feelings are more in line with a sense of emptiness, something not being there that really should be, and its being missing has left a hole that cannot be filled.
Which is why I didn't try to. I chose to move on instead.
Gunnar is not Maximus. It's one of the reasons I chose a different breed for my next working dog. Their personalities are completely different, as are their working styles. The younger did not step in to the shoes of the elder; he brought along his own clogs to dance to the different tune that I play for him. From my point of view this avoids any comparisons that may not be helpful. That said, I have remarked (out loud of course) to the pup that he does have a much better nose than the spaniel, and that he is inherently more biddable (Maximus was prone to going "self-employed" if you didn't give him something to do...all the time). On the other hand, when the neighbour's dog attacked Gunnar, he looked at me and scurried out of the way. The same dog had tried it on with the 12 year old, rather deaf spaniel, attacked him from behind, and had received the kicking of his life from the great warrior: never a step backwards!
I got so many things wrong when I trained the spaniel, not least of which was that I was too hard on him. He always forgave me (there's a bit of anthropomorphism for you) and we worked together for 12 years. It was such a joy. I have just started working with Gunnar really. He is also a great joy (apart from his penchant for mutton. Live mutton that is). I do tell him that his big brother was never so rude, and we are reaching an understanding, but the sight of a deer-sized beast in the woods, even if woolly coated, is still hard for him to resist. Ah well, we'll move on from that as well. He is also a great joy to spend time with.
I try not to think of how long I'll have him for. The great white hunter, J.A. Hunter said, "You get too fond of a dog. Not until after his death do you realise how much he meant to you. I sometimes wonder if the pleasure in owning a dog is worth the misery caused by his death".
The jury is still out for me, but in the meantime I intend to have many adventures with the new boy. He really is coming on a treat, though still as mad as a box of frogs on occasion. But I take great comfort in reading words of great hunters like J.A. Perhaps I'm not such a soppy sentimentalist after all. And if I am, I am in the best of company.
What does God think of all this? And anyway, where do animals go after they die?
Don't know...and, don't know.
Here's what I do know. God gave us dominion over animals. We must therefore treat them with responsibility and authority. I do that with my animals, and with the animals that I hunt with my animals. I reckon God is pleased with that. What about my sadness at their dying? He gave me emotions and He wants me to express them. That can only be wrong if I am more sad about the death of a dog than I am for example, at the suffering of people that I know. The challenge comes if I start to care more for animals in general than I do for humans in general. I do struggle with the idea of giving money to save stray dogs when there are still starving children on our streets.I need to make sure my perspective is clear, even when people blur the lines by being so, well, awful to each other at times!
I've no idea where animals go after they die, but I am absolutely certain that God has the perfect answer to that. And it will always be full of love, affection, fairness and be absolutely, and profoundly, right.
So I'll leave that with Him. Same place I left Maximus when I walked out of the vet's, heart in bits, carrying only a lead, but moving on, back home to take Gunnar for a walk.
The woods remain beautiful...but I still miss the whirling tail in the undergrowth. Always will.