Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Muffin, the rescue dog

A dear friend of mine brought this article which was published in The Guardian on 6th September to my attention.

"Barney Bardsley decided to get a dog when her husband, Tim, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the difficult times to come, Muffin was to play a crucial role.

She is an ordinary dog. A leg at each of her four corners. An inquisitive nose, which she thrusts into everything - the more disgusting the pile, the better. Bright, button-brown eyes. Two feathered flops for ears. This is Muffin. A spaniel-collie cross- in other words, a bog-standard mongrel. I make no special claims for her. But her role in my life, and in that of my daughter and late husband, Tim, has been crucial. People who do not like animals will never understand her story of canine valour. Others will find it laughingly obvious. Nonetheless, it impresses me: the power of companionship, the pivotal support one small dog can provide. In life, in sickness - and after death. They should put Muffin and her ilk on the NHS: she's better than Prozac and a good deal cheaper.
She has been with us nearly nine years now, and it has not been an easy journey, for the dog or her human companions. But definitely worth it. In December 1999, I decided our family needed a pet. We had two goldfish but they were hardly interactive. Our daughter, Molly, was seven - and the initial thrill of the fishes' arrival had long since worn off. But as we started to face up to the reality of Tim's recently confirmed terminal cancer, we all needed a little joy and a bit of bounce in our lives. So I suggested a rescue dog.
So far, so good. Off we all went to the RSPCA in central Leeds. I had visions of a gruelling prison visit but it wasn't like that at all. We sat in the waiting room and leafed through a brochure with a write-up of each dog. Then we picked three possibles and they were introduced to us, one by one. All most civilised.
The first one - big, blonde and rather smelly - immediately knocked Molly over, ruling herself out at the first strike. The second - a hairy mop on legs - was overexcited and slobbery. The third was a scrawny bag of bones with a scurvy-like skin condition and a sad string for a tail hanging down between her legs. She was an anxious and darting individual. Black and tan and the smallest of the bunch. Curiously, it was Tim - an imposing 6ft 5in - at whom she first launched herself. They say the dog chooses you, rather than the other way round. And she had made her choice. This was Muffin - or rather Sonia, as the RSPCA rather ludicrously called her.
Frankly, I was not impressed by any of the three specimens, but both Tim and Molly preferred Sonia. It was intriguing that I had clearly missed something when I met this dog - something that had conveyed itself to both husband and daughter. So I decided to have another look at her, in secret, on my own, just to be sure.
The RSPCA allows you to walk your chosen candidate under strictly controlled conditions. I took the little dog up the road from the shelter - a soulless, inner city stretch of tarmac - until I found a scrub of green littered with a few reluctant trees. It was a windy winter's day. There were a few dead leaves swirling around and a good deal of litter. Sonia, who had walked like a robot in front of me all the way, suddenly had a change of character. She stopped dead having spotted a flying leaf and gave chase, in a quick and mad little circle of delight, lips curled back in an unlikely grin. This creature, until now an unattractive collection of troubles and needs, was giving me a glimpse of something else. Character. A sense of humour. Life. That was it. The dog was saved - or, rather, saved herself - and I was sold.
Of course, I had to confess my secret mission to the two back home. After a family summit meeting, we decided to adopt her. Sonia came home with us a couple of weeks later. She was re-named Muffin: double chocolate chip. Her life was transformed - and so was ours.
The next bit was tricky. Muffin was wild and woebegone. She had no concept of indoors and outdoors, no rhythm or routine to her life, no notion of where she ended and the rest of the world began. She ate erratically and pooed prodigiously - mostly on the carpet at the foot of the stairs or outside people's bedrooms, as if making some kind of scatological sacrifice to her new masters.
Although Tim loved dogs and had always longed for one of his own, he was a fastidious man and found all this mess unbearable. One morning, I found him halfway down the stairs, dog muck on his bare foot, bellowing at Muffin, who cowered beneath him by the front door, awestruck by his size and the overpowering volume of his voice. Tim was a quiet man. This outburst was uncharacteristic in the extreme. I had to step between the two of them and calm things down. This was the week before Christmas. The house was in turmoil.
Tim may have had doubts about Muffin but she had none about him. As with most of the humans who knew him, she regarded my (normally) gentle giant of a husband with a mixture of tenderness and awe and picked him as pack leader from the second she clapped eyes on him. Soon she became responsive, house-trained, devoted. He, in turn, learned to relax, and their bond was fixed for life - not the dog's, but the man's. They became an inseparable duo.
By the end of her first year with us, Muffin was thriving. Her tail, always an accurate barometer of canine wellbeing, metamorphosed from a piece of matted old rope to a waving, feathery plume. She put on weight. Her eyes sparkled. Her star was rising.
Tim, meanwhile, was getting sicker. In 2000, he started to work from home. Over the next three years he suffered a multitude of symptoms, due both to the cancer and the heavy medication used to control it. At first, he was still mobile, although he tired easily. He took the dog for long walks in the local wood. They played together - elaborate and interminable chase games with sticks and balls that exhausted them both and bored everybody else, but made them happy.
Later, when he was too weak to walk, Muffin lay at his feet and slept. When he vomited, she sometimes retched in sympathy. When he was in pain, she was a silent, sympathetic witness. In her role as companion - even some kind of simple soul mate - she never flinched.
In autumn 2003, Tim was admitted to the local hospice and died there in January 2004. Muffin was a frequent and honoured visitor. She was with us, on our last visit to see him, the night before he died. As we left, I took his left hand and placed it under the dog's muzzle. She gave one discreet lick farewell. Like him, she was dignified, accepting.
Denial and disbelief at a death are not confined to humans. Muffin looked for Tim constantly in the following days. Every time Molly and I came home in the car she would welcome and count us in at the door, one ... two ... and then run to the passenger door, tail waving high, for number three.
But, unlike humans, who find it easy to become mired in grief and hard to move forwards, dogs are pragmatic creatures. The love she had for Tim was quietly and quickly transferred to Molly and myself. She still had a big job to do and became the willing receptacle for all the tense and sorrowful emotions that a bereavement brings in its wake. She became exceptionally alert to distress - knew, from the quality of a walk down the stairs, from a fluttering of the hands, that tears were coming - and was there, like a shot, lying gently at the sufferer's feet, waiting for the storm to erupt, and willing it to quickly subside.
Four years on, a different, calmer life is established. Muffin relies on me for all practical considerations. For my daughter she reserves a special devotion - and a great sense of silliness and play. Her role in our small family is integral and much appreciated. She has formed a character as big and bountiful as the problems she presented when she first came.
But Muffin is certainly no saintly dog. She has no special powers. She is hairy, messy, noisy when visitors arrive, sulky when ignored and capricious with her appetites. There is a "princess" streak in her as pronounced as her skills in nursing and psychotherapy. Her strong attachment to us makes spontaneous trips away very difficult. She is a tie, no question. I grumble at her all the time: she glares back. Neither of us deserves a halo. Both of us, however, accept the mutual dependence.
The British are famous for their supposed devotion to their dogs and we do love to assign recognisable human emotions to the species with which we have perhaps the closest bond. I am guilty of this, too. Muffin, I feel certain, is such a gifted individual. In those brown eyes reside - surely - such depths of intelligence and wisdom?
In essence, of course, what she does so well is just to be herself: a dog. Our family pet. We miss the point when we ascribe too many of our own feelings to the dogs we own. They do not so much enter our emotional territory as simply share it and reflect it back to us, without judgment or blame. It is that atmosphere of acceptance - of wordless cheer - that is so deeply comforting, even transforming. This is the dog's gift to us.
Muffin is 11 now. She is getting a little creaky around the edges: her back end is going slightly, there are white whiskers on her muzzle. Still, she is playful. Still, life is fun. Always there is good faith between us. Loyalty and deep affection. That was the deal. We rescued her, then she rescued us. It is a nice example of the symmetry between animal and human and of a certain, special kind of compassion."

3 comments:

VioletsVintage said...

Such a wonderful story, thank you!

Rebecca Taunton said...

That really is a wonderful but sad story.

Winchester whisperer said...

What a dear dog!