There was nothing special about Spike. Countless other dogs are more handsome, prettier or nobler and come from more refined breeding lines. Yet more are smarter; the lift never quite reached the top floor for little Spike. But he was our ordinary little dog and he was deeply loyal.
We didn’t choose Spike. He chose us. His owners lost interest in him when he outgrew his puppy cuteness. He took to roaming the countryside, often calling in to visit and Mark was one of the few people, if not the only person, in his life who took the time to give him attention and a kind word.
We knew Spike’s lineage. His parents were owned by a friend of ours at the time and the dad, Steinie (short for Steinlager beer) was a characterful dog loved by all. In fact, we had Spike’s litter brother whom we named Merlot. Merlot was similarly of the utility genre of dog but hugely charming. And naughty. Irrepressible and unabashed in his naughtiness. Dudley may be an avocado thief but Merlot – he had a taste for chocolate. He had a taste for most human food but chocolate was his favourite. That was when we learned that the toxicity of chocolate is directly related to the quality – the higher the cocoa solids, the more poisonous the chocolate is to dogs. The Christmas when he ate three boxes of chocolates which he stole was when I worked out that these gifts often given to Mark were not of good quality. So too with our son’s large chocolate Easter bunny and the block of king-size chocolate he stole from a customer’s car when the door was briefly left open. Merlot suffered no ill effects and he was always unrepentant when reprimanded.
We wept when we found Merlot’s body by the road, hit by a car immediately outside our place. They did not stop to tell us. At the time, Spike’s owners offered us the less-loved Spike as a replacement but he lacked the engaging charm of his litter brother and I declined.
Spike’s life took a turn for the worse. Roaming dogs are not a welcome sight in the country and after many complaints, his owners took to tying him up. They would feed him but otherwise he was left alone and ignored. For seven days and six nights a week, he would be tied up and on the seventh night they would let him roam free. On that seventh night, he would turn up here. Mark used to joke that Spike had his suitcase already hidden beneath our guava bush, waiting for an invitation to move in.
He was offered to us again and eventually we agreed, more out of pity and concern for his welfare than because we wanted him in our lives. We took off his over-sized collar – the buckle had stripped all the fur from his throat – and we made him a bed. He never looked back. He was finally home and there was no way he was leaving here. His roaming stopped immediately, even though we never tied him up again. His devotion was unparalleled. Mark was number one but it was me he came to whenever he had a panic attack at thunder, duckshooting season or the sound of gunshot from any gun other than Mark’s when they were out hunting rabbits or possums. I wondered if his deep-seated fear of shotguns came from having one fired at him in his earlier, roaming days.
While fine with other dogs, he was completely disinterested in other humans. Not fearful, just disinterested. He only had eyes for Mark and me and to most people he probably lacked character and charm. But our love for him grew.
He was one of those dogs that transition from boundless energy of youth to old age without the slowing down of middle age. I can’t remember when we first looked at him and thought he was getting old – maybe two years ago, no longer than three. His hearing went first and he lost a lot of confidence with that. The panic attacks at thunder and gunshot stopped as he went deaf. The dark ginger patch over his eye faded to near-white. He had an irregular heartbeat, the vet told us and then dementia started. We let him grow old in comfort and security.
Spike was so old that he pre-dated digital cameras, let alone phone cameras. I searched through boxes of old photographs to see if I could find any images of Merlot, his litter brother, as a puppy so we could determine his age. Eventually a friend came up with a photo of Merlot as a young dog, but not a puppy, which we managed to date to 2002. So we figured Spike was around 19. We have never had a dog of that age.
We hoped that Spike’s heart would just stop in his sleep and save us from having to make the hard decision to euthanise him. But it didn’t and the day came when we looked at him and thought that his life was no longer good. Neither of us could remember when we last saw his tail wag and he was increasingly confused and ever slower in his movements. We asked the vet to make a house call this week.
It was harder than we thought to say goodbye. The thing about losing a loved pet is that it is such a personal sadness but one that is experienced by so many other people that the outpouring of sympathy and understanding is genuinely heartfelt.
We buried him beside his best mate, Zephyr in our little row of unmarked pet graves beside the stone wall. A very ordinary little dog he may have been, but he was our very ordinary little dog and we loved him well.
RIP little Spike.