As far as ways of losing your dog go, it was pretty untraumatic. She was sitting in her usual spot, looking at the cat, getting pats and loving words. Then she went to sleep and it was over. We wrapped her in a blanket and put her in my car, and spent the rest of the day being aimless and trying to avoid glancing out the door to where she'd normally be sitting.
On Sunday I took her out to Tinui and buried her.
The thing I expect to see when I look out the door. I took this photo on Saturday morning.
John and Deirdre Bartlett bred First, back in 1999. I'd been learning to train dogs and they felt I was ready for a pup. When Last and Vamp produced a litter of 7 on the 1st of March, I went down the same day and picked out my pup. I chose her because she was the one in the litter with the least white on her - all the others were more than half white, a thing that John and Deirdre said they preferred because "They're easier to see from a distance when your eyesight's going." Six weeks later I carried her home in my arms. The first night she was afraid, being separated from her brothers and sisters for the first time, and she cried so I sat out at the kennels with her in my lap till she relaxed. From then on she was Mah Dawg, and the rest is history.
John and Deirdre were pivotal in my life going from where I'd been to where I am. What they gave me, above training and friendship and First, was A Go. They let me try and encouraged my ambitions and supported me in building my confidence. My time at Tinui is when my life changed, and in a large part that is to do with them. So when the time came, taking First back to Tinui and burying her on their farm was the right thing to do.
They have a dog cemetery, being dog people. At any given time they have up to 15 dogs, and they are no strangers to losing them. Their old cemetery was full and they are in the process of shifting from the second house to the main house - Deirdre has lost both her parents in the meantime too - and part of this was starting a new dog cemetery. First was the first to go in there. It's below the house in a small grove of trees, with a view out over the valley where she did most of her training as a pup. I couldn't have picked a better place. I left her collar with its rainbow of tags hanging on the fence by the grave, and went to catch up with John and Deirdre who I haven't seen since I left Tinui*.
John had a quad accident in 2008, a bad one in which the bike flipped over and pinned him for four hours, damaging his spine. He spent four months in Burwood spinal unit learning to walk again. Now, he walks with a cane and is a bit slower than before, but he's back to dog trialling and judging and while I was there he took off on his Rhino to fix a water line. He's doing all the farm jobs he did before. We talked for a couple of hours about his accident and rehabilitation. I found myself remembering why I have such liking and admiration for the man. He's always been a deep thinker and his perspective on what happened to him, how he felt through that time and how he feels now, is an inspiration. John, if you're reading this - it's what I'd like to say to your face but know it would embarrass both of us too much.
Meanwhile Deirdre has taken to endurance riding. She has two horses, both Arab derivatives, and we went for a 'short ride' - about an hour and a half and covering around 10km. Endurance rides go for a long time (up to 16 hours) and the horse I was riding is in training for his first 100 mile ride at Easter. Part of the training is that the horses learn to grab food where they can get it, including grabbing mouthfuls of leaves off overhanging bushes in passing. Horses normally graze for 75% of a day (they are inefficient digesters), so on a long ride if they didn't eat they'd go downhill really fast and be vetted out. Anyway, this horse had mastered the art, so we'd be cantering along and there'd be an overhanging punga tree, this horse would open its mouth and aim for the bush, grabbing a great chunk and breaking it off, chewing and swallowing it, all without missing a beat. It was disconcerting.
Deirdre and I always got along well and it was really neat to hang out with her on horses and catch up with the ease of conversation that comes from just being the same sort of people. While she ribbed me about my sentimentality in what I'd chosen to do for First, she also took me to the cemetery and looked the other way, busying herself with other things while I did what I needed to do, with no judgement. That was priceless.
They are just genuinely good people. John mentioned how my life has changed so much and how they are still doing the same thing they've always done. I was all "But why would you want to change this?"
And I almost came home with another dog. They had a wee bitch there named Trip, who is about 10 and ready to retire from station work but not ready for the cemetery yet. John and Deirdre rehome their dogs at that age and the dogs get to enjoy a cruisy retirement. They offered me Trip and I was torn about taking her. In the end I said no because I don't really think my lifestyle of full time work and sporadic contact with sheep would be a good place for a dog that's come straight off a farm, and also because I'm honestly not sure if I'm ok with having another dog right now, especially one I'm likely to lose in a couple of years. But oh man it was hard to turn down. She's a lovely dog. Deirdre assured me they have other irons in the fire for a retirement home for Trip. But yeah. ;-/
* I am hopeless at keeping in touch with people - I think this is to do with moving so much as a kid. We never went back and I got used to people disappearing from my life because I'd moved on. I think it's worth me trying to change this because some people, and John and Deirdre fall into this category, are pure gold and I shouldn't let them slide so easily.
And then I got home and found this in my inbox, sent to me by Happy, who was prone to the occasional abduction of my dog for wandering round Wellington's hillsides:
One of my Things is that after a dog is gone, I draw a portrait as a memorial. Little-known fact: Tats is very very good at photorealist pencil drawings. I've been looking for a good picture of First but none of the ones I have quite work to express the way I see her in my mind. This one really does. Thank you.
So yeah. The end of an era, well marked. I am sad but satisfied.