Thursday, 28 March 2013

Amber's story

This is a very personal story, nothing Kennels related I'm afraid. I make no apologies though. My main reason for wanting to write it is so that I have something to remember. I don't want the memories to fade.

I hope that any one interested in the Kennels might be able to get some idea of the type of people we are through reading it. Our passion and our love for our own dog means that we understand the feelings you have for yours.

In November 2006, myself and Lee decided that finally, we could afford to get a dog. We were so excited, we'd waited for so long! We agreed that we would like a medium (coffee table) sized dog, a Collie or Collie cross. This was the breed of my childhood dog and of course, they always tend to be your favourite.

So, we booked 2 weeks off work, and off to the Dog's home we went. It wasn't a nice place, noisy and damp and horribly cold. All the dogs had obvious signs of kennel cough with streaming eyes and noses, and their manic barking was deafening. The first dog we asked to meet was a beautiful Staffordshire Bull Terrier bitch. However, we got her out of the kennel and she proceeded to run up Lee's body and sit on his shoulders! She then jumped off and ragged on the lead with ferocity. Thinking of our poor Poppy cat at home, we said sorry to her and put her back as we knew she wasn't for us.
We carried on walking up and down the kennels, past all shapes, sizes and ages, all barking like their life depended on it. We walked up and down a few times before we noticed her. Sitting quietly by the bars, a little Collie cross, about a year old, with bright ginger fur, googly eyes, bat ears and a foxy brush of a tail. We asked to take her for a walk around the grounds and as we strolled along me and Lee looked at each other and smiled, she was the one. Her name we decided, was Amber.

The staff at the Dog's home were, to be honest, uncaring and negligent. They did not rush to give us a house check at all. We made the 30 minute journey every day to visit her and give her a walk and a pigs ear, and after a week, when still no progress had been made with the rehoming, we complained and they just told us to take her home.

Amber when he first got her, lying on top of Freddie, my Mum's dog

Of course being a rescue dog (no history but 'stray') she came with a little baggage. Kennel cough that lasted 4 months until she was better. She was terrified of the car, didn't have a clue about house training, and liked nothing more than to rummage through the bins for food (which she'd then hide around the house - digging a pretend hole and covering it over with pretend dirt - yes very cute but she'd do this until her nose bled!). If you let her off the lead she'd sprint for the hills, oh yeah and she chewed a few massive holes in the carpet of our rented house too!

But over the first year all these things disappeared, not with any special training or anything, just by getting on with it. That's the special thing about Collies, their capacity for learning is so very natural. Not only did all her quirks and problems disappear, but she learned commands with an ease that I've not seen before. I often wonder what we could have taught her if we'd just taken more time.
She learned all the basic commands sit/stay/down etc within minutes. We also taught her some novelty tricks, spinning round, standing up on her hind legs etc. She even learned how to play a guessing game using cups and a ping pong ball, we'd hide the ball under a cup, switch them round, and she'd tap the one the ball was under with her paw for a treat.

She also learned an awful lot of words and cues on her own. She knew what 'walk' meant - of course most dogs do, but she also know all the words connected with that special word. Eventually you run out of 'secret' words for walk - she was just too clever. She also knew words like 'bath' (not a favourite), squirrel (look out the window... burst through the dog door.... fly down the garden like a bat out of hell... look up tree and bark), and 'where's that mole?!' (sprint to nearest molehill and dig frantically). Along with knowing things like, when Lee takes his glasses off, it's time for bed (and for some strange reason she found this exciting).  In fact, if I were to list all the things she learned it would take me a considerable time. She was one of the cleverest dogs I've known.

'Bath' - not her favourite word!
Lee and I fell in love with her of course. She was almost like a child to us. We'd play silly games with her, like hide and seek - she'd look for Lee all on edge, barking as if to say ''come out!''. He'd jump out on her and chase her away - she loved that.  Sometimes we'd cover her over with a blanket so she couldn't see - she'd walk around tail wagging bumping into things. She had a great sense of humour and was always happy to make us laugh. We also made up a 'voice' for her. I don't know if anyone else does this with their pets. Maybe we're just a bit weird! but her 'voice' was her sort of persona, which was always a bit of a smart arse. We would annotate things that she did to make us laugh ......  you probably had to be there!. 

During her first couple of years I worked as a veterinary nurse, working shifts meant she never spent too long alone, however I eventually decided that veterinary nursing wasn't for me (although I would never go back and not do it - I learned an awful lot during those 2 years) and I became self-employed as a dog walker. This meant that from then on, we spent most of our days together.

What a life for a dog that is! To be a dog walker's dog. She'd jump in the back of my van and off we'd go. I wasn't the sort of walker who took loads of dogs at a time (I think its a little irresponsible) but Amber was always there as a companion for my doggie customers, and more importantly, she would always come back to me, which meant so did they.
She loved them to chase her, she was so fast and nimble. She would toy with Ted the cocker spaniel (who we took walking most days). He'd run as fast as his legs would take him, ears madly flapping up and down with the sheer effort, but he would never catch her. Sometimes she'd let him catch up and at the last second, dart in another direction (Ted had some near misses almost crashing into trees - I'm sure she did this on purpose!). When it was her turn to do the chasing, she'd catch Ted with ease and nip at his bottom.
One particular time Ted was chasing her, Amber suddenly decided she needed to have a wee, she squatted, and Ted (not slowing down any) collided into her at 100mph. Her body was like a ramp. He flew over her head and through the air, ears still flapping, crashing into the mud. We were creased double with laughter at such a funny sight.

So fast and nimble!

We'd walk for miles each day, in all weathers. In the summer when it was too hot, we'd stroll down to the lake and I'd sit on one of the big flat rocks, and throw a ball for them to fetch. She loved to swim, and would dive in getting a 10ft head start on the other dogs. Once she was swimming back with a stick and poked Ted up the bum, making him leap out of the water and yelp - poor Ted! But so funny!

Leaping in to the cool water on a hot day

In 2010, Lee and I finally (after 10 years) got married, and Amber even came with us on our little honeymoon. There was no question about whether we were taking her or not - of course we were!
This was also the year that we got asked, by Teds owner's in fact, to run Woodland View Kennels. A new venture for us which meant that Lee and I would be working together every day.

Looking for pheasants outside our honeymoon cottage

Amber also played a big part in the running of the kennels. We like to let the friendly boarders play together, and Amber was an important part of our 'temperament assessments'. She had a great ability to interact in the correct way with other dogs. She would be quiet and gentle with nervous or old dogs, tolerant of puppies, and stern with over boisterous sorts (she was very good at teaching manners). Quite a dominant character, all the other dogs seemed to know that she was the boss, but she was always friendly and fair.

In 2011 I became pregnant with our first baby. It was a terrible pregnancy fraught with complications and worry. Amber was there all the way through. She wasn't sure why I was so stressed out, but she'd put her little head in between my legs (she liked to do this for some reason - always used to make non-doggie people so uncomfortable!) and I'd smooth her silky ears flat. We'd go walking together (or rather, she'd run and I'd waddle) and in her own way, she helped make a difficult time more bearable.

Two months before our baby was due, we found a lump under Amber's teats. I immediately worried that it could be a mammary tumour, a common cancer in bitches (and we had her spayed late). So we went to the vets as soon as we could and a biopsy was done.
I heard the phone go as I was wallowing in the bath, and Lee came up and told me the bad news. Amber had cancer, worse still, she had lymphoma. Lymphoma is a very aggressive cancer, and not something that can just be removed as the lymphatic system goes all around the body. The vet said without treatment (chemotherapy) that Amber would die within 2 months. Well, I sat in the bath and I cried and cried and cried. She was only 7 years old. It was a death sentence.

But it wasn't over for Amber yet. The vet, Richard, said that chemotherapy could possible give her another year or so, and apparently, the chemotherapy was different than the sort us humans have when we suffer from cancer. It would be wrong to give a dog the same aggressive chemotherapy as humans, they can't consent to being put through such discomfort and pain. Therefore chemotherapy for dogs is a much gentler version, not aiming to cure the cancer but simply to extend the dog's life as long as possible whilst keeping the 'quality' of life as high as possible. We were insured so, we decided to try it an see how it went.

The stress of the diagnosis was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I was admitted to hospital with high blood pressure (which turned out to be pre-eclampsia) and I gave birth to baby George was born 5 weeks early. Amber had her first dose of chemotherapy whilst we were in hospital.

The chemotherapy went much better than we imagined. Yes there were a few days when she was a little ill, the odd day of nausea or perhaps a urine infection that we'd have to nip in the bud. But once the right dose of drugs had been chosen, the months ticked along and we almost forgot that she even had cancer. We'd drop her off at the vets for a day every 3 weeks. She'd have her drugs and settle down in her kennel, have some dinner there, and then I'd pick her up and off we'd go for another 3 weeks. She was such a well behaved dog, going to the vets was no stress at all for her. I'd hand over the lead and off she'd trot for her drugs and dinner. Richard said she was a pleasure to treat.

You think a year is a long time, but the days, weeks and months tick by quickly. Especially when you have a demanding little boy to take care of.

Amber didn't think much of George when we first brought him home. George suffered from silent reflux (essentially - acid reflux) and because of this he screamed... a lot! She'd hide under her chair and peep out, probably wondering why on earth we had brought this little banshee home to disrupt our lives.
Eventually, George grew out of his reflux, the crying lessened and then weaning began - and so did a beautiful friendship. Amber suddenly discovered that 'the Brat' (that's what her 'voice' called him) dropped an awful lot of food.

The start of a beautiful friendship

The love between Amber and George grew. She would come and sit in his playroom with me and try to pinch his toys while I wasn't looking. She'd let him climb all over her (I always permitted her an escape route from his rough little hands, but she never seemed to want to get away) and she'd keep trying to lick his nose if it was runny (I know - gross!). She'd sit and watch George play and join in with a gentle tug of war or bringing the ball back when he threw it. This was such a bitter sweet thing to watch, as I knew George would never remember Amber, but I hoped that Amber felt her life had been enriched by him.

Our two kids
 George's canine walking frame
''Come here Brat and let me lick your nose clean''
Time went by too quickly. We never forgot that our time was limited with her, and loved her like each week was her last (well we never knew!). Eventually, as expected, the cancer returned. We found a new lump on her neck. This meant that the drugs needed to be changed as she had become resistant.
So we tried some different drugs. The first drugs had no ill effects but also, no effect on the cancer. We tried another drug, which made her feel quite ill and nauseous. We tried again, with worse effects. She was so poorly with the last chemotherapy treatment, that we decided, with heavy hearts, to call it a day. We stopped all treatment and let the cancer run it's course.

We decided that we were going to end it all at the first sign of discomfort. We wanted to have control of how and when she went, no emergency put to sleep because she'd gone down hill quickly, with her feeling terrible or in awful pain. I wanted her to die peacefully before that happened. To us the length of time she had wasn't important, only that she felt happy.

We walked together every day without fail, and we never missed an opportunity to fuss her and give her attention. The lumps grew every day, which was worrying, but I got into a routine of walking her each morning, and if she looked bright and happy and energetic, then I would say 'today she's ok' and not worry about her. Until the next day of course.

A selection of pictures taken during her final days...

We had 3 more wonderful and happy weeks. On the last weekend when I noticed the way she was moving looked a little strange, tucked up. She also started to sleep a lot, the sort of deep sleep that you usually only see in a truly exhausted dog. On the Sunday I looked at her and noticed how she was sitting, with her hanging down. We also noticed her shaking a little. She was still eating, happy to go on walks and interested in life but, we knew this was the beginning of the end. We wanted her life to end on a happy note so we agreed tomorrow, Monday 25th March 2013, 15 months after her diagnosis, was the day we were going to put her to sleep.

That morning Lee booked her appointment, 11.15am. We took her for a lovely walk through the woods. I made sure I took everything in. She ran around, sniffing smells and picking up sticks, eating the snow and jumping over puddles, looking back every now and again to check we were still coming. Once the walk ended she hopped into the boot of the car, and we drove to the vets. I could barely hold myself together but was determined not to break down and upset her.

We were shown into the vet's room, and Richard took Amber out of the room to put her cannula in (something she was well used to after all this time). I thought to myself  'this is taking a long time' and then she came trotting happily through the door back to us. Richard said it had taken a while because she had been running around the back,  having a fuss from all the staff who had grown fond of her. We asked her to lie down on the mat, and always obedient she did just that. I nodded to Richard to go ahead, and stoked her silky ears the way she liked as she quickly and quietly passed away.

Its a strange thing, stroking a dog whilst it dies. I've done lots of anaesthesia's and it's not the same. When a dog is put under anaesthetic, they go limp in your arms but you can feel still the life in them. Their bodies still feel warm and supple. With euthanasia, you can, without doubt, feel the life disappear from their body. They almost turn to stone under your hand. The sparkle in their eyes just disappears all of a sudden. Like turning off a light.

Just like that she was gone.

We don't feel guilty though. In fact I think Amber's death went as well as anyone could ask for, she was surrounded by love and happiness and it was timed perfectly. We did what we wanted, and that was to keep her life wonderful right to the end. No pain and no suffering. That was our final gift to her.

The days after are hard. After all for seven years she's always been... there.
In her basket by the door, looking out of the window (for that goddamn squirrel), in the rear view mirror of the car (chin on the back seat, wondering where we're off to), in with the kennel dogs during exercise (usually hogging all the balls), at my feet in the kitchen watching the floor for crumbs. You miss the little things.

No I'm not driving - but felt like I needed to take a picture. I knew I'd miss this. and I do
Share? No way!

Of course we will do it all again. After all I can't have my little boy growing up without a dog. My Mum had some wise words for me. She said to me not to wait too long. She said you'll wait and wait for the pain to go and it just won't. You will always miss them. And when you do get another dog, eventually, (hopefully after a long time), they will die too, and then you will miss that dog just as much. I think Lee and I have got another 3 dogs in us yet. This means we'll have to go through all this pain 3 more times. It's no wonder some people say ''never again!''.

We're not one of those people though. She was worth it.

We miss you Baba

1 comment:

  1. A warm and heartwarming story of the love and emotions that a dog in your life brings, I'll share my story with you one day, but for now have read of "The art of racing in the rain"