A few weeks ago my loyal dog, Merlin, a lanky Scottish deerhound had to be put down. The vet cried as she did it. He was six and the best dog we’d had. To own a Scottish deerhound once you had to be a baron or someone important lest ne’er-do-wells poach the king’s deer. In Australia they were called kangaroo dogs as they were trained to pull down kangaroo. Merlin was one of those and came as a pup from a sheep station and breeding kennels in out-back New South Wales where they had a proud tradition of breeding deerhound or kangaroo dogs. He used to lie faithfully in our kitchen on his big padded mat and when workmen came to renovate the house he would bale up anyone he didn’t know. He just like mooching around and being with us; a very peaceful boy. With children he was a lamb. When on his back legs he stood over six feet tall. No one bugged me when I took him for a walk. Other dogs retreated. Alas, last year, he developed an idiopathic cardiomyopathy which was treated with all the advances of modern drugs and for about a year until he finally became too breathless to run after our new Australian cattle dog, a blue heeler, called Roy. We recently bought Roy as we could see Merlin was dying and the children had already gone through a hard eighteen months when my wife was found to have breast cancer.
We had already lost two Irish Terriers to ticks, a common problem in Queensland. Both had been given prophylactic tick medication regularly but as Fate would have it, the ticks won. They often lie hidden in ears or the corner of the mouth of in the toe webs. They were feisty dogs, and would take on any dog regardless of size. There was no backing down with an Irish Terrier.
Our vet, Joanne, had had her own ordeals and is a woman I admire greatly. A few years ago, when her brother, a GP was lost in the Himalayas while trekking, she went out in search of him. Everyone else had given him up as lost. She flew from Brisbane and only by her own determination, did she locate him. He had been lost and had survived in a snow cave without food for six weeks. She wrote a book about it and it became a film or documentary (I can’t remember which). He had lost about half his body mass and nearly died when being rehydrated and fed. Some incorrectly said it was a hoax. His daughter was in my daughter’s class. He still has permanent frostbite injuries to his digits. Joanne wrote us a condolence letter when Merlin died. It was not one of those form letters or a signed card. We were very touched by her thoughtfulness. Merlin was only one of two deerhounds in Queensland. I also write condolence letters to every patient’s next of kin when they die. I always have and always will (1). However my wife, children and I felt very deeply what it is like to be on the other end and that was with a dog and not a human. But what could be more faithful, more oblivious of one’s moods and foibles and more, dare I say it, endearing, than a dog. I measure my life not in its length but by how many dogs I have experienced. Our aboriginal people used to measure the chill of a night by how many dogs they slept with. A really cold night was a “three dog night”. Dog’s body temperature is 38 degrees Celsius so they are warmer to sleep with than a woman although I still prefer the latter. However dogs don’t give you hot tongue or cold shoulder.
When I went to the Louvre a few years ago I happened upon a big painting of a big hairy dog…just a dog. It was Merlin. It was a Scottish deerhound and it was called “Faithfulness”.
P.S. We now have his ashes to spread on our back garden where he played such lively, romping games with the children. He ran like the wind and may he forever play in the wind in that kinder place.