Please indulge me: this post isn’t anything to do with language per se (unless dog body language counts?!), but the tale of a much-loved dog and the impact she had on our lives. I’ve written on a couple of occasions about the importance of dogs to my freelance lifestyle, not least in a post about the translator’s best friend, and more recently about Poppy’s diagnosis with vestibular disease in October last year. It is with huge regret and sadness that I now have to report that Poppy passed away just over a week ago, her body finally giving up the fight against her various ailments. And while I’m still indescribably sad to have lost my little shadow, I feel compelled to record her story for posterity. She may have been small and feisty, but she made a huge difference to our lives.
Poppy came into our hearts towards the end of 2005; we’d not long since had to downsize from a big house in the country to a much smaller house following a traumatic divorce and I’d promised my two sons, then aged 13 and 16, that we’d get a new puppy once we were settled into our new home. We already had Sally, our faithful bearded collie/collie/lab cross, but she was not only traumatised by the divorce, but also well on the way to becoming a grumpy old lady at the grand old age of 10. I sensed that a new puppy would give us all something to look forward to and fuss over, especially as my boys’ father was embarking on a new family life with a new baby. As luck would have it, one of my elder son’s schoolfriends was looking for homes for puppies in the next village, so we went to look and were smitten straightaway with Poppy, then christened Dash due to the marked white blaze on her forehead. Both parents were sprollies, springer spaniels crossed with collies, but we always felt that there was very little collie in Poppy: she was a typical, highly strung, ultra-sensitive and highly intelligent springer through and through.
As the runt of the litter, Poppy was undoubtedly the smallest, and right from the start seemed to struggle to get her fair share of food. Even when we brought her home, she made a meal of eating her puppy food, often regurgitating it several times – sounds horrendous as I write it, but we all got very used to it! After several trips to the vet and a referral to Cambridge Vet School, she was eventually diagnosed as having a faulty pharynx, which meant that she couldn’t tell when she had food at the back of her throat and ended up taking too much in and having to spit it out and start again – poor Pops. Even then, the vet nurses confided in me that she hadn’t responded at all well to the anaesthetic during their investigations, but she pulled through and resumed normal bouncy service. However, I had strict instructions to put her bowl on a footstool (IKEA’s trusty Bekväm model was just the job – with her front paws on the step and her bowl on the top, gravity helped her funny throat to cope). We also had to give her gravy-rich tinned food that she could swallow much more readily than the dry dog foods that all the vets recommended at the time. Strange noises notwithstanding, she coped brilliantly – and, strangely, never, ever choked when we gave her morsels of leftover roast dinner…!
Poppy really cheered us all up with her feisty, funny little ways: she adored Sally (and Sally soon resigned herself to the fact that her little tormentor was here to stay and adored her back, regaining a lot of her youthful vigour in the process). When she wagged her tail, her whole body wagged with it – but when I entered her for the waggiest tail competition in a Blue Cross dog show in Northiam, she was so overawed by the occasion (all those people!), that she tucked her tail firmly between her legs and refused to cooperate! Sally meanwhile won best golden oldie with her supreme confidence and timeless beauty…. One of Poppy’s favourite games as a pup was what we called springing practice where she’d jump up and down, all four paws off the ground at once, on a beanbag. She adored toys, especially her teddies, and always had to have something in her mouth at all times – another typically springer trait.
She was also remarkably easy to train, in marked contrast to Sally who’d been a complete nightmare, forever escaping over the 6ft dry stone walls in our Scottish garden and refusing to come when called. Then again, we were novice dog owners when we first got Sally and made the never-to-be-repeated mistake of playing chase with her, which meant that she always thought you wanted to play – as my sister and her partner found out on a walk to the beach with her one day, when she just wouldn’t allow herself to be caught! Whenever she saw my sister’s partner after that, she’d crouch down ready to play :-). With Poppy, Sally herself was by this time an excellent role model and soon gave Poppy short shrift if she strayed off the accepted track. And even as a pup, Poppy was very much my dog, and determined to stay close by my side at all times.
We took her to obedience and agility classes over in Plumpton, quite a trek, but there was nothing closer to home at the time, and she adored it. Focussed completely on me throughout, she did everything she was told, and came top in her end-of-year test. The agility was just up her street too, with jumping and weaving through poles particular favourites. It took her a while to get used to the tunnel, but she got there in the end, and she refused point-blank to do the seesaw – far too scary!
Her favourite thing of all, though, was tennis balls – she adored chasing balls and would never tire of retrieving them for us to throw. Long walks and water were up there too; like most spaniels, she adored water and would launch herself into ponds or streams with a splash the minute she saw you with a ball in your hand. In later years, when I was trying not to overtire her, she would often look round at me for the ball to carry if she saw other people or dogs coming, just to give her moral support in case they proved to be scary! Another Poppy trick as a puppy was to post balls down the gap between two of my kitchen cupboards and then dance around excitedly, waiting for me to notice and get down on my hands and knees to extract them – quite what she got out of that I’m not sure, but she repeated it time and time again. When I had the kitchen floor relaid, we found no less than 7 balls of all sizes languishing in the corner, obviously out of reach…
Poppy had her naughty side too: she was a lean, mean hunting machine when the mood took her. Woe betide any rabbit or squirrel she managed to catch – and she could be very quick off the mark! She once bowled over a wobbly line-up of ducklings heading precariously down to our local reservoir, and on another occasion I found her excitedly wreaking havoc outside a fox’s den with a litter of very new fox cubs; I can only assume the vixen had been killed or was off hunting as they were very young to be out on their own.
Deep down, she was also a very timid soul: when she was only a few months’ old, she managed to squeeze through the hedge separating my front garden from my neighbour’s when I was out gardening one afternoon. The first I knew of it was when I heard my neighbour, a burly, 6ft-something chap, screaming at the top of his voice. Peering over the hedge, I saw Poppy at his feet, obviously petrified at this giant screeching at her, a wailing toddler on his shoulders, and another child shrieking at the door. I knew he was petrified of dogs, but a 4-month-old bundle of fluff?! Needless to say, I rushed around to take her away, apologising profusely, as she clearly shouldn’t have been in their garden, but from that point on, Poppy became extremely sensitive to people’s emotions and body language – and she became a barker. If she as much as sensed that someone was frightened of her, or nervous, she would bark in anticipation. Great as a guard dog, as she sounded much fiercer than she actually was, but less than ideal at the allotment, when territorial barking was her modus operandi…
This became only too apparent when we had to have Sally put to sleep at the ripe old age of 15. I hadn’t realised quite how affected Poppy would be, but she pined dreadfully and started to howl when I went out and left her on her own, even for relatively short periods. I consulted a dog psychologist and reverted to going out for a few minutes and coming back in, not making a fuss of her when I reappeared. I bought a dictaphone and set it to record when I went out so I’d know how long she managed before howling, but she rarely managed to last more than a couple of hours! These days, of course, you can probably get cameras that link to your phone, but that wasn’t an option at the time. The only solution was to get another dog, hence Leo’s arrival in December 2011: complete transformation! She adored him unconditionally from the outset and the howling stopped immediately. She was never meant to be an only dog…
You might have thought that she’d become the alpha dog after Sally’s departure, but while she was always in charge of Leo, she preferred to maintain her little sister role in the pack when I walk with my friend’s two dogs. However, she always gave my son’s working cocker, Ollie a hard time whenever he arrived, making it absolutely clear that she was going to take no nonsense from a whippersnapper!
She was a truly loyal dog, loving family and close friends with all her heart, but always slightly wary with people she didn’t know as well. One of my friends loves to tell the tale of how she always barked whenever he came to the door, but when he was repairing the guttering over my conservatory on one occasion, she was so surprised to see him climb in through the bathroom window that she didn’t bark at all!
As well as her faulty pharynx, Poppy had her fair share of trips to the vet: she tore herself open on barbed wire or other sharp objects on numerous occasions and had to be stitched back together, with lead walks only, until she recovered. She once managed to aspirate water into her lungs when chasing a ball on a very warm day and had to be rushed to the vet’s, ending up with pneumonia. She was a remarkably resilient little thing, right up until her recent diagnosis with vestibular disease, although she was doing really well with the help of acupuncture, Chinese herbs, homeopathic remedies, and a new raw food diet (as I described here).
I finally had my long-awaited knee operation on Christmas Eve and my younger son and daughter-in-law came home from their world travels on New Year’s Day, so Poppy spent the first six weeks of this year in her favourite place: at home with her pack to cuddle at all times. Snuggled on the sofa next to me, or curled up on my bed with the people she loved in earshot, she was in her element. Plenty of people to walk her, usually just one gentle walk a day by that time, but never abandoned on her own.
My son and his wife were set to fly out to Boston on 10th February, which was sad for us all in many respects, though obviously exciting in equal measure for them – all my empty nest thoughts returned with a vengeance, even though I should be used to it by now! And funnily enough, it was saying goodbye to Poppy that really set my son off (and us all in turn) – I think he knew he might not see her again, whereas with modern technology and relatively short flights, we humans can keep in touch quite readily.
To cheer myself up, and console myself for not being able to ski for yet another winter season, I’d booked a holiday to my favourite hotel, the Vitalhotel in St Wolfgang in Austria, a couple of weeks after Alastair left, for a spot of rest and relaxation in the mountains. I took Poppy for acupuncture before I left so she was as strong as she could be, and she was fine when I left her and Leo with my friend and dogminder on the Wednesday afternoon.
Unfortunately, my friend contacted me on Sunday to say that she was worried about Poppy as she wasn’t eating, although she’d been full of beans the first few days. She called again on Monday to say she’d contacted a close family friend to take her to the holistic vet, as she really wasn’t well. She had more acupuncture, seemed to perk up a bit, but still wasn’t eating or drinking much, so ended up in the conventional vet’s on a drip on Tuesday evening. I couldn’t get a flight back from Salzburg until our scheduled flight on Thursday morning, but kept in close contact with the vets, who said she was very unwell, but not in too much pain and stable. On arriving back in the country, I dashed straight to the vet’s in time to see a very poorly dog. She lifted her head the minute I entered the room and gave an infinitesimal wag of her tail, so I know she knew I was there, but the next thirty or so minutes were simply a matter of stroking and soothing her before the inevitable.
I’m so glad I got back in time to be there for her at the end, but I also feel incredibly guilty that I wasn’t there for her in those last few days, even though I know she couldn’t have been in better hands and it probably wouldn’t have made one jot of difference. She’d been on borrowed time since her diagnosis in October, when I honestly thought I’d lost her anyway. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier when the moment finally arrives, even if there really was no other decision to make on that Thursday morning.
Rest in peace, Poppy – we’ll miss you so much, but I know you had a wonderful life with us, just as we experienced such joy sharing our lives with you.