Beach Walking with Toby

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I’ve had a week of transition this week. I’m rethinking pay structures and the courses I run, again. And I’m sitting on some news I want tell you, but that will have to wait.

Right now I don’t want to talk about anything except my dog. Today I went down to the beach with Toby, my thirteen year old springer retriever cross. Over the bonfire weekend we realised Toby must now be profoundly deaf as well as slowly losing sight to cataracts, having a heart problem and quite bad arthritis. We are entering that time of life in dog ownership when the deal that you struck when you brought home a puppy has to be paid out. We will lose him, he has aged, has reached the last part of his life, he is now elderly. He will die soon. That’s the thing about pet ownership; you sign a pact with death when you take a pet on, knowing that at some unknown point in their life, your life, you will have to let them go, relinquish them to death. It never seems fair, but it is the price you pay for a very special kind of friendship.

The realisation that Toby, a dog who went so completely to pieces when fireworks went off, even just last year, now can’t hear them at all is incredible, another little flag that tells us that the inevitable is on its way. In some ways it’s great that he now isn’t the shivering, barking, crumpled wreck that fireworks made him, but also, oh, my boy is deaf, he is now living in a muffled world, away from our voices. He did hear some particularly loud bangs that seemed to shake the windows and did have a bit of a grumble and a perturbed bark; puckering his muzzle up the way he does when worried, but he was easily distracted by a Kong Toy filled with peanut butter. Otherwise he slept through the whole thing. These days I have to wake him up on a morning, and sometimes when he is asleep next to me on the sofa and dream howling, when I try and wake him from the dream his head goes slack in my hands and he doesn’t come back to us. It takes coaxing for him to slowly open his eyes and remember where he is. One day, he won’t come back at all and I feel like I am already grieving for him.

Of course, the reality is that we could have him for years yet, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. I’ve decided to make a real effort to fill his days with the things he loves – walks, toys, cuddles, being with me. Today it was so bright and sharp and autumnal I decided to down tools (working the weekend, again) and take him down to Filey bay. We’ve not been down to the beach together for over a year as I wasn’t sure his back legs could cope with the hill. I keep him on an extended lead these days because he’d run off if I let him, and not being able to see me or hear me calling him back would be a problem. His recall was never great, now it is non existent. On this cool autumn day with the sand blowing up the beach and the light landing pink on the waves he was reborn, as a young dog, prancing and galloping and into everything. When I was crouched looking for fossils he came and knocked me over, snuffling into my hand to see what I had. He played with other dogs, said hello to children, snuffled at pockets and dug in the sand. He had a good day. Only one time did I feel we might have walked too far, and that was when he fell backwards trying to jump out of a stream, his back legs failing him at the crucial moment, and then he simply stood looking confused, waiting to be rescued. We made it back up the hill slowly and he was still able to get back into the car. He’s absolutely wiped out downstairs now, fast asleep on the sofa.

Being out in the sunshine was wonderful. The beach was busy with folk enjoying the late autumn light, the sound of the waves on the beach. I felt suddenly very lucky, privileged to have a body that allows me to do this, to live here in this beautiful place and to do the work I do and to have the opportunity to write sometimes, and also to have this home and my husband and my animal friends, especially Toby. We have a very close bond, Toby and I, we are together all day and I feel like we know each other’s movements and habits and likes and dislikes. I can hear him shuffling about downstairs while I’m working upstairs and if I stop for a cup of tea, there he is. He likes to be with me, like right next to me, most of the time, but also likes to stretch out in the sunbeam that crosses the living room floor. Toby is still naughty, still a terrible thief and a dustbin, but these days he’s easier to catch in the act as he can’t hear me coming up behind him. These days I am also more likely to catch him and cuddle him, because he’s my boy and I want him always to know happiness and love.

There is something special about humans having friendships with animals, especially dogs. We’ve been doing it for a long time, we’ve had them beside us for many, many years, thousands of years. You would think they would have evolved to live longer, to stay with us. But in some ways the knowledge that they haven’t, the knowledge that you have a tiny slice of this utterly joyful friendship, makes it so much more valuable. I hope I get a bit longer with him.

Until next time


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