Updated: Jun 2
On this day 6 months ago my dog died.
Grieving a pet is an odd experience. It feels self-indulgent: with all the problems in the world, why cry over the death of an old dog? (So, in that first week when I couldn't tell anyone the news without tears, I'd be saying sorry between sobs.)
Ridley has no grave, no memorial. It is, in some ways, as if he had never existed. So I'm writing this blog post, not to sing his praises in public, but to create a brief record, above all for myself, of what he meant to me and to my family.
Ridley was just six weeks old, when I – having just moved to Canada with my then wife – adopted him from the British Columbia SPCA shelter in Victoria, Vancouver Island. We knew nothing about his background or breed* – we had only a photo of his mother (right), who didn't much resemble him! He was all fluff and paws as we tucked him on an old towel in a recently emptied removal box.
The shelter had called him Hercules – far too brutish a name for his timid nature, which was immediately apparent. (Living amongst students on a college campus, timidity was what we had wanted; given a choice of two from the same litter, my ex-wife cleverly chose the pup that hung back.) We briefly toyed with the name Zadok – Handel's Zadok the Priest was the one tune that seemed to calm him down as he drove from the shelter to his new home with us – but didn't fancy calling that loudly across the park... He was named Ridley after the beer local to the part of Essex where I grew up.
Vancouver Island was the perfect place to bring up a dog, with abundant open space, deer to chase through the woods, and rotten shellfish left on the beach by the otters (I won't miss his wind after eating that). Perhaps best of all, there were already other dogs on campus, and he instantly found his place in the pack.
My marriage didn't work out – but among the many wonderful things my ex-wife did for me, surely the best was recognising that Ridley and I could not be parted. And before I left Canada Ridley and I, together with two friends, drove our little Honda Civic to the Arctic Circle and beyond. An epic trip I won't attempt to describe here, but Ridley was the perfect travel buddy.
Bringing Ridley back to the UK, via the delights of Air Transat and the Gatwick Airport Animal Reception Centre, was a bureaucratic challenge like nothing I'd ever attempted, but of course it was worth all the hassle and expense. And he soon settled into life in Cambridge. He found new walks and made new friends (even if some of them were less receptive to his advances than he'd expected...)
He hiked up hills, lay down in streams (he never liked swimming but was happy within his depth), chased sticks (but would rather play tug-of-war or just chew them up than drop and fetch), and tried his luck with the local squirrels and rabbits (he never caught any, though he did have a couple of close encounters with my mother's chickens). He always wanted to make new friends (even if they were sheep!), but never strayed far – on most walks he would happily stay just ahead, his little ears flapping up and down as he trotted with his elegant, almost equine gait.
Even better than the Common, though, was the pub. Even mention that word and he would be at the front door, whining. And no wonder, because the staff and customers at the Empress were among his biggest fans (They knew his name long before they ever knew mine.) He dined royally on pizza crusts and sausages. Even after I turned vegetarian—which must have been a sad day for Ridley—I'd buy the occasional pack of pork scratchings for him. He was just the right height to stand resting his head on the table, eyeing up crisps but never begging or being bothersome. And if I made him sit and wait while holding a treat in front of him, he would turn his head away as if looking at it might make the temptation unbearable.
People loved him because he never caused a fuss. He could be a little restless when he first entered a room, or someone arrived at the house, but within minutes he'd be lying on the floor again (ideally, right in the middle of it) – a quiet, calming, surprisingly unobtrusive presence. Unless, of course, he was lying right where you wanted to put your feet – which was quite often.
He loved to snuggle up on the sofa but was polite enough to know he had to be invited up; when I started a new relationship, with the woman who's now my wife, he quickly realised it meant more sofa time for him – though he did find the most comfortable spot was between the two of us!
Unsurprisingly, he was a brilliant therapy dog, first for patients at the Arthur Rank Hospice and later for students at Girton College. But his unflappability and calm were most evident when my wife and I had our two children. Despite being a muscular giant with Rottweiler jaws and sharp teeth (very clean later in life, as I subjected him to the indignity of a daily brushing – so he never had bad breath), he was gentleness personified as the babies and toddlers pulled his fur and ears, invaded his bed, and dropped toys in his water bowl.
He would even stand patiently aside so our elder son's stuffed Doggy could have a turn at his food. I couldn't possibly count the number of nervous children for whom he lay patiently in the park so they could overcome their fear of dogs to stroke the white patch on his chest or his silky ears, or the number of adults who told me that they normally disliked dogs, but would make an exception for him.
He slowed down in old age, of course – but even as a twelve-year-old, he still had his bouncy moments, as this video shows. However, he did develop a slightly more rebellious streak: having been infallibly obedient throughout his life, it was as if he had decided for himself that it might not really be necessary to follow my commands to the letter, as long as he abided by their spirit – as he invariably did. And he still loved having his haunches rubbed: he would stand with his tail towards us, look over his shoulder expectantly, and grunt appreciatively when we complied. In fact, apart from occasional encounters with cats or on the rare occasions he was taken by surprise when someone came to the door, that grunt was the only sound he made.
He was in such good health that his death was sudden, shocking. Although I'd been thinking about it in morbid moments for years, when it came I was utterly unprepared. At 2 o'clock on 10 November he seemed fine; by 10 pm he was dead.
As the out-of-hours vet put him to sleep I had no time to think about whether we wanted the ashes or what we might do with them. I felt relief that his pain (from a presumed ruptured hemangiosarcoma) was over quickly – but massive guilt that I hadn't realised immediately that it was so serious, and had wasted my last few hours with him. All I had left was the pawprint the vet kindly made after death, and his collar tag I added to my keyring.
And the memories, of course. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think of him less as the adolescent at the top of this post, and more as the greying – but still undeniably handsome – old gent pictured here.
Yet for me he will always be my tiny puppy – the little fellow trotting along the shores of the Pacific behind me, still in the heart of the big old boy who patiently waited outside play areas and school.
I'm not over him yet, and I don't know that I should be. My sons, too, still talk about how much they miss him. Just this afternoon, the elder (7), who appeared largely indifferent to him in life, suddenly burst into tears and sobbed "I want to cuddle Ridley." It's clear, then, that even if he lacks a grave or headstone, he remains a substantial presence in our lives. That's surely as it should be.
* Edit 02/06/2022: I shouldn't downplay how often people would stop me in the park or the street to ask what he was. (The answer "a dog" was only amusing for a while...) Mostly I asked people what they thought. The crowdsourced consensus was that he was part Labrador, part German Shepherd and part Rottweiler. The soft ears and sweet face of a Labrador, the thick coat and dependability of an Alsatian, and the small ears, black/tan markings, loyalty and incredible bite strength of a Rottweiler. None of those breeds are usually as tall as Ridley ended up, but someone told me that dogs neutered very early (as Ridley was, at the shelter before they gave him to us) often grow longer legs. I always wondered how much the early neutering and consequent lack of testosterone contributed to his gentle nature.