Reviewed by Richard Blake
This book is the conjectural autobiography of Louis, a friend’s dog. It starts with his meeting, as a puppy, with his human family, and ends with the inevitable last appointment with the vet. Between these points, we have all the usual highs and lows of a dog’s life.
If you have never had a dog – if, indeed, you have no affection for animals – the book will leave you cold. If you are such a person, there is nothing I or anyone else can say to make you buy it. Fortunately, however, we are a nation of dog-lovers. If you are, or ever have been, a dog-owner, you will find something on every page with which to agree or identify. Partly, I think, because of my present mood, it left me feeling sad, and a little guilty.
I grew up with animals. I lived in a house where there was a continual entry and departure of pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, even, for several years, a pigeon we called Prudence, Then, when I was twenty three, my dog, Bobby, died in my mother’s garden of heart failure. It was a good death. He had enjoyed nine months of recovery and happy decline since a cancer operation. Going suddenly, as he rolled in the dust, was as good an end as any dog or his owner could have wished for. I now decided that this was the time for me to do without pets.
About a week later, my mother called me at work, to say that she had put a deposit for me on a border collie puppy. Annoyed, I marched her to the pet shop to get a refund. Sadly, she made me look at what she had chosen. It was a little bitch, who thumped her tail up and down as she looked back at me through the bars of the cage. I carried her home inside my coat, and named her Victoria in honour of the Queen, and of one of Mrs Thatcher’s more than usually lying promises of national restoration.
Victoria was clever and pretty and affectionate. We loved each other dearly. From their first meeting, she and my wife got on. We lived happily together for many years. Then, when she was eleven, the vet told me she needed a hysterectomy. These were the days before mobile telephones, and we were away from the telephone when the vet called to say he had found pancreatic cancer, and wanted permission to put Victoria to sleep. By the time, I returned his call, she was awake, and my wife and I wanted to see her before we made our decision. Of course, we chose to take her home and care for her.
I could call the vet an incompetent. Or I could talk about the miraculous properties of the slimy water in our fishpond. But Victoria made a full recovery, and we had another five years of placid joy with her. Every night, she would sleep on her beanbag beside our bed, and I would put out a hand as often as I turned over, to pat her on the head and have my fingers licked.
Then, one evening, she had a stroke. It left her paralysed from its effects and from exhaustion. Next morning, with great sadness, we took her to our new vet to have her put down. He looked at her, and said she would recover. She did recover. Within a few days, she was limping about the garden. Soon, she was chasing her football about. It was now that she began to go deaf and blind. But it was a slow descent, and she continued to have more good days than bad. Six months later, though, she began having fits. Each one seemed to take more away of what she had always been.
At last, she began having fits every few hours. She was now in pain from the repeated contraction of her muscles. We fed her aspirin. We fed her phenol barbitone. Nothing worked. My wife and I dithered. After two false alarms, and any number of fears that had gone nowhere, should we not wait and see a little longer? But this really was the end. We took her to the vet, and, just as when I had carried her home from the pet shop, she snuggled in my arms as the injection took effect.
We never replaced Victoria. For months after her death, I missed her every day and every night. I also felt guilty that I had let her suffer for two days after any reasonable observer would have said there was no hope. But we never replaced her. Unless you have had one, you cannot imagine the depth of the love that exists between dogs and their owners. But every joy would now be overshadowed by the knowledge that dogs, unlike children, do not on average outlive their owners, and that there must – unless the unexpected happens – be that last and tearful appointment with the vet.
I suppose I have recovered from Victoria’s death. My new cause for guilt, though, is that my daughter now wants a dog. Unlike me, she has not been brought up among animals. For a while, she was even scared of animals. But she now says she is lonely. When we visit my mother, she plays for hours with the dogs there, and talks about them for days afterwards, and draws pictures of them. We live in a house without a garden. The house itself is not suited to pets. We go abroad several times a year. On any reasonable view of things, we cannot have a dog.
And yet. And yet.
How long are my wife and I walk our daughter home from the relevant shop, with a puppy clutched to her chest? Oh, we shall twist and prevaricate to the last moment. We shall assure each other what madness and inconvenience a dog would be. But how long before we give in, and the cycle starts over again?
Has this book stiffened my resolve not to give in? Hard to say. But it brought back all the memories – happy as well as sad.
So you will not buy this book if you dislike dogs. You must not buy it if you are determined not to have another dog. Otherwise, I recommend it without reservation. Buy a copy for yourself. Buy copies to give as presents. You will not be disappointed.