The Passing of My Best Mate by Bill Collidge
A long, long time ago somebody coined the phrase “a man’s best friend is his dog”, I don’t know who that man was but I do know that he knew a great deal about life, love and the dogs of this world.
My best mate came into our lives in the mid nineties.
I came home from work one day to find that somehow we’d become the proud owners of a gangly, big-footed, lop-eared bundle of black and tan puppy, a mixture of German Shepherd and Red Kelpie who had a sparkle in his eye and a total disregard for anything more involved than the simple joy of life and the pursuit of puppy happiness.
I took one disapproving look and laid down the ground rules – “He stays outside and the first time he craps in the house or digs up the lawn – he’s gone”.
Well that lasted all of about twenty minutes, the first night he stayed inside, camped on a rug in the laundry and left wet spots all over the floor. From that night on, he was an “inside” dog.
The lop ear just hung there at right angles over his forehead looking for all the world like a radar antenna every time he turned his head, and that was where he got his name – Radar.
Over the coming weeks he wriggled, licked, nuzzled and frolicked his way into our hearts with an enthusiasm that knew no bounds, gradually insinuating himself into the “pack” at as high a level in the pecking order as he possibly could and given that he had to compete with two pre-adolescent sons and an old grey cat, that was a pretty good effort.
It soon became obvious that he was from working-dog stock. There weren’t any animals that could be rounded up, apart from the moggy who wouldn’t play the game, so every waking moment was singularly focussed on anything slightly resembling a ball that could be caught, tossed, thrown, chewed, gnawed, slobbered on or just hung on to.
The cat treated him with utter disdain. She occasionally reached out with her back arched and claws extended and rapped him over the nose with a spit and a hiss. This didn’t deter him from trying to engage her cat in games that demanded she surrender and be “rounded up” but he never quite got the message.
After a while it was a matter of simply giving the cat a thorough teasing until it bolted out the cat door and stayed outside until he was ready to let it back in again, sort of like “the game stops when I blow the whistle….so get used to it”
In the end the cat met her demise at the wheels of an old series II Landrover. She was old and tired like the truck and laid down under the wheels in the warm afternoon sun one day and wound up having to be buried under the palm trees.
The family was quite upset but the dog took it in his stride and moved up a notch in the pecking order. I don’t think it bothered him that much at all.
Time marched on and the dog grew into a glossy-coated, well-muscled bundle of energy who loved life to the limit and lived for a game, any game at all – as long as it involved him and his humans and was just simply fun.
He took to sleeping anywhere he could be in close proximity to the family. I could reach out of bed in the warmer months and touch him on the head as he lay beside the bed in our bedroom. In the colder months, and I could always tell when the seasons were changing by where he slept, he’d jump up onto the bed and lay across my feet.
Sometimes he’d wriggle his way up the bed between us and sprawl flat out, taking up more than his fair share of limited surface area and snore and snuffle his way through the night.
He’d dream of chasing something or rounding up something and whine or yip in his sleep as he dream-ran across the paddocks.
He’d sometimes slink out of the lounge room and creep down the hall and jump onto the empty bed and stretch out when he thought no-one was looking. When it came to bed-time for us, he’d look up as if to say, “I was only warming it up for you……………”
If he wanted to go out during the night, he’d simply get off the bed, walk around the side and paw the bed until one of us got up and let him out. If he wasn’t asleep in the bedroom and wanted out, he’d go to the back door and paw the glass and I can still see the scratch marks today.
If the glass door was open and the new screen door was shut, it’d be a scratch at the screen. He did this so often over the years that he eventually wore a hole in the bottom right hand corner of the stainless steel wire mesh and that really ticked Leonie off.
The only time he made a blue and left a puddle on the floor was when he couldn’t wake us up to let him out, and that wasn’t very often.
He knew his job was to keep the house safe and made a point of letting everybody know that he was doing it.
He’d bark at the smallest noise outside regardless of the time of day or night and quickly gained a reputation around the neighbourhood of being a relentless “guard”. Some neighbours didn’t appreciate it that much but when I explained in answer to their complaints, that he was keeping the evil-doers away and providing early warning, they seemed to accept it.
All visitors got the same reception, a deep-throated bark and a rush to the gate or door. All the boys who came over to visit gained a healthy respect for him, some were even a little scared but he never bit any of them.
If a visitor came to the front door, it’d be a series of barks followed by a couple of menacing growls. This worked wonders on wandering missionaries and charity collectors – they never seemed to want to come inside and go through their collective routines and I can’t understand why.
One day I came home to the news that somebody had broken in. I went to the front bedroom and sure enough, the lower glass pane in the window had been smashed – but the glass was outside.
I looked down and spotted a small cut on his right front paw and a snick on his nose. He looked as guilty as a rabbit and when I questioned him he put his head down, turned away and went to slink off outside.
It turned out that the electricity meter man had crossed our lawn from next door on his way to our meter box and the dog wasn’t having any of that and went for him through the glass – he was just doing his job.
Late on a really hot summer night, I was asleep on the couch after a hard day, a beer or two and a bit of TV. The boys were asleep and Leonie was in bed. The dog was asleep on the floor in the bedroom. I heard a noise in the kitchen and got up off the couch just in time to hear the side door shut and footsteps in the fern-house.
The dog raced down the hall and across the kitchen in pursuit of a burglar who’d snuck in the unlocked back door, grabbed Leonie’s purse and bolted.
Luckily for the burglar, the dog never caught him before he had hurdled the gate. I thought for a second or two about letting him out but then thought better of it. It would have been a matter of him ripping the burglar’s leg off or being injured himself.
I reckon the burglar would have had to change his underpants because there was that distinctive smell in the air that usually accompanies someone soiling their pants. After that the dog slept very lightly and we never had another problem. We never locked the door when he was in the house.
Next he took to playing “grab the socks”. I’d go to work in PT gear in the mornings and take a fresh uniform on a coat-hanger along with a pair of clean rolled-up socks in my echelon bag. I’d drop the bag on the floor in the dining room ready for an early start and he’d sneak in, nuzzle deep into the bag, grab the socks and come into the lounge room and stand there, socks in mouth, inviting me to chase him.
We’d do the “chase-me” bit around the house and eventually he’d give them up, usually all slobbery and ready for the washing machine again, ending with another trip to the sock drawer to replace the soiled ones and putting the bag up out of reach or doing the zipper up.
If I didn’t go through the chasing routine and ignored him, he’d toss them around the floor until they unrolled and we’d play the “I’ve got one of your socks, so come and get it” game.
Army socks were the best; they were bulkier than the other ones and always smelled of my old boots. This game would last up to twenty minutes or so and then he’d find something else to do or simply tease the cat for a bit if light entertainment.
He took to riding in the front of the truck every time I went out. I’d rattle the keys and he’d be at the door, pawing for all he was worth. He’d sit up in the front seat with the window down and his head sticking out with the wind causing his ears to just about beat his brains out.
He loved cyclists. He’d spot them up front and his ears would go back and he’d crouch down until we were right up alongside them. He’d launch up with a frightening series of barks and growls and many a cyclist would career off the road into the kerb with eyes like dinner plates, elevated pulse rates and dirty underpants.
The dog would just look over at me and I swear he’d grin as if to say “did you see what I did to that poor bugger?” and he’d wag his tail and wait for the next one.
I’d park the car in the car park and leave the windows down. I could leave my valuables in plain sight knowing that if anybody tried to take anything I’d come back to the car and find an arm on the front seat.
Whenever we parked, I’d get out and he’d move straight over into the driver’s seat as if he knew that whoever sat there was in control, and if it wasn’t me because I was out of the car, then obviously it was him and that’s the way it was supposed to be.
He’d tease the other shoppers who happened to have their cars parked alongside ours. He’d spot them coming back to their car all loaded up with their shopping and not paying attention. He’d crouch down a bit and wait until they got up alongside then stick his great big head out the window and give a couple of loud barks.
This did give some shoppers – those who didn’t have dogs of their own – some scary moments, but he reckoned he was just letting them know that this was his car and they shouldn’t get too close because his human had left him in control.
We’d go to Bunning’s on a Saturday or Sunday and more often than not, there would be a community group running a sausage sizzle and the tangy smell of BBQ sausages and onions wafted on the breeze. He knew straight away that he’d be in for a treat.
I’d duck over to the stand and ask for a couple and tell them not to bother with the bread, mustard or onions. This would draw some quizzical looks and I’d have to explain that they weren’t for me but for my dog and that we’d better let them cool down a bit before I gave them to him or he’d scarf them up on the back seat. I’d just pay up front and pick them up on the way out when they’d cooled a little.
Then it was over to the truck. He’d jump into the back seat because he knew he wasn’t allowed to eat in the front seat. I’d wind the back window down and we’d spend the next ten minutes going bite for bite on the sausages. These outings became almost a ritual for us on the weekends and he loved them because he got a treat, I loved them because I could see he got so much pleasure from them and it made the shopping a bit of fun.
As the boys grew they took an interest in all things natural. We’d spend weekends out the back of Canning Vale in the bush, before the houses were built there, hunting snakes and lizards.
The dog lived for a trip to the bush and would run until his feet bled. He’d want you to throw something so that he could show you how clever he was by bringing it back. It didn’t matter what it was just so long as you threw it. He’d chase anything that moved.
If you didn’t throw anything for him, he’d find something and bring it over, drop it at your feet and stand back poised to run with that silly grin that said, “come on, throw it, you know I’ll bring it back”.
I remember one time he couldn’t find a reasonable stick so he picked up a dead sapling about six foot long and weighing about ten kilos. We’d wandered off ahead a bit and he came running up behind and as he passed me, the sapling, hanging out about three feet each side of his grinning mouth, caught me behind the knee and dropped me. We had a bit of a discussion involving his questionable parentage and the likelihood of him surviving much longer if he kept this up but it didn’t seem to matter that much because he did it again about five minutes later. I learned to keep a closer eye on him after that and he never caught me again.
He often amazed me with his ability to focus. One time up in the hills I’d been throwing rocks for him to fetch. He’d dash off and scoop them up and run back and drop them at my feet.
I threw one into a deep part of the creek. When I say deep, I mean about a metre and a half, certainly too deep for him to stand. He raced over and launched himself into the water, swam out a couple of yards and duck-dived under and brought the rock up, swam ashore and dropped it in front of me.
I couldn’t believe what he’d just done so I threw the rock back in and off he went again. After repeating the trick about half a dozen times I figured that it was about time to let him dry out before the trip home.
He did this on several occasions in the bush and a couple of times at the beach – the only trouble with doing it at the beach was that he swallowed quite a bit of salt water and that went straight through him, usually on the back seat in the car on the way home, much to the discomfort of the boys in the back.
After a day in the bush he’d just curl up and sleep in the back seat with the boys. I’d drive home and the three of them would have to be woken up when we pulled into the driveway.
As he grew older we became closer than ever. We grew to understand each other’s moods and feelings. Sometimes he’d want to chase the ball and I’d want to read the paper so we came to an arrangement.
I’d sit at the back table and read the paper while ignoring him and he’d come over, reach up and spit a dirty sodden tennis ball onto the paper that was spread out in front of me, leaving a dark soggy streak across the page.
I’d grab the ball, ignore him, throw it across the lawn and go on reading as if nothing had happened. He would race over, grab the ball, slobber on it some more, bring it back and spit it back onto the paper all over again, and neither one of us was prepared to give in.
I used to flick the ball up close to him by pressing down on it with the toe of my boot onto the brick-paving. The ball would pop out and scoot between his legs. He’d scrabble around a bit and eventually come up with it. One day I caught him flicking the ball up the same way, by pressing down on it with his paw. The ball would pop up a couple of inches and he’d catch it and drop it then step on it again – he was pretty quick to learn if it involved playing a game.
He always wanted to help with whatever I was doing out in the garden. If I was digging or potting plants, he’d be off in the garden helping or so he thought, by digging all the dirt out of the garden bed onto the lawn, there’s quite a mound out beside the BBQ where over the years he’d pushed the dirt out and I could never get it all back in again.
If I was trimming the grass around the sprinklers, he’d trot over and drop the ball right in the middle of where I was working. A couple of times he came close to getting his nose trimmed with the shears but it didn’t seem to bother him. I’d just flick the ball out and he’d bring it back and drop it right back in there.
If Leonie was hanging out the washing it became a routine of peg a towel on the line, throw the ball and grab the next bit of washing before he dropped the ball onto the clean washing in the basket at her feet. More often than not the soggy ball landed fair and square on a shirt or a piece of girly underwear – he didn’t discriminate, he just wanted to help.
I’d come home from work and if he was out in the yard he would sit quite still until I got in the gate, then he’d run over, prance around a bit and nuzzle up alongside as if to say “about time you got here, I’ve been waiting all afternoon”.
I’d go inside and get changed while he hunted up a ball. When I came out he knew it was that time of the day that I’d sit and have a cup of tea and a smoke while he did some serious running after the ball. When I threw the ball he’d streak across the lawn and gather it in so effortlessly, sometimes catching it on the full but never letting it bounce more than once in any event.
He’d sniff around for the spot where the ball first hit the ground and follow the track backwards as if he was just making sure that he had the right ball. He’d trot over and dump the ball at my feet, stand back with one foot off the ground, toes pointed like a gun-dog with a look of utter concentration on his face, never taking his eye off the ball for an instant.
At tea time we’d go inside and I’d sit down. He knew that if he came around the side of the table one of us would pass him a tasty morsel from one of our plates. I guess it didn’t take long for him to work out who was the “softest touch” of all and he seemed to end up beside me every time.
In the end it was a case of leaving any scraps on one of the plates and letting him have a crack at it. I have to say that big pink slobbering tongue did as good a job on a plate as the dishwasher, there certainly wasn’t any evidence left after he’d finished.
His favourite time of the day was when Leonie was breaking up a roast chicken or preparing meat for cooking. He knew that he was bound to get any off-cuts or leavings and could sense when the action was going to take place.
He’d hear the rattle of a knife on the cutting board and simply materialise. A couple of barks if you weren’t doing it quickly enough and he’d sit and watch your every move until he got his dues.
All the cats in the neighbourhood knew their limits of exploitation and wouldn’t dare to cross the fence-line. The Magpies, Doves and Mudlarks had a pretty good idea of their spot in the food-chain as well. The only birds that were game to take him on were the Wagtails and they’d swoop in chattering and carrying on but he’d not take much notice.
The Doves were easy though. They were timid and shy. He’d wait until there were a dozen or so fighting over the seed in the bowl on the fence and he’d rush over, prance around and woof a couple of times and they’d be off. He’d strut back wagging his tail with a grin on his face as if to say, “I fixed those blokes up – what do you want to do now?”
The boys grew up and moved out of the family home leaving just the three of us. I think we grew even closer then, we didn’t get out to the bush as much and he got a bit of arthritis in the back legs but refused to slow down at all.
It took both of us a little longer and a bit more effort to get up and sit down and get in and out of vehicles now but he wouldn’t give up and kept after the ball, just dropping or missing one or two occasionally.
Then the cancer came.
It started out with a couple of lumps on his side and one under the eye. The ones on the side just stayed there and didn’t do much; they were just like a bit of fatty tissue under the skin so I didn’t worry about them.
The one under the eye was different and it grew into a dark malignant growth about the size of a peanut. We went to the Vet who decided it’d be best to have it cut out. A quick operation and a day or two in the clinic and home he came with a “bucket” on his head and a bottle of pills.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more forlorn look on a dog’s face as his with this great shroud hanging around his neck, getting in the road of everything; legs, doorways, walls, steps, chairs, beds and lounge suits. The only thing it didn’t get in the way of was the tennis ball. It acted like a scoop so that every time I threw the ball he was assured of being able to catch it. A few weeks later the wound had healed and the bucket came off and life seemed normal again.
He still kept up the guard-dog act and barked or growled at noises in the night, passing joggers, neighbours out for a walk, other dogs, cats, birds and any visitors and we never locked the door when we went out – because he was there on watch.
We both started to slow down a bit more, him with his back legs and me with my knee. It didn’t stop us mind you; it just slowed us down a bit.
I’d throw the ball and after about ten or fifteen sprints across the yard he’d want to have a bit of a rest and a drink. He’d wander over to his bowl, drop the ball into the water, have a drink, pick the ball up and bring it over for the next throw, all dripping with a mixture of bowl-water and slobber. After each session he took a little bit longer to recover. I started limiting the sessions to about ten throws at a time and he seemed happy with that. Along with a bit of close in stuff with the toe of my boot or shoe, combined with his own ability to flick the ball up, we got on pretty well.
The cancer came back.
It had been identified as malignant earlier on and we got pretty worried. This ugly growth under his eye grew larger and larger so it was off to the Vet again.
He never minded the going to the Vet, it was a bit of fun – you had a ride in the truck, a chance to smell all those wonderful smells left by the hundreds of other dogs that’d been there before you and the opportunity to mark somebody else’s territory – what more could a dog ask for.
There was a down-side of course, I mean no bloke likes the idea of somebody sticking something up the backside, even if it is only a thermometer and he made sure that the Vet knew it too.
I used to have to hold his head for that one but he wouldn’t look me in the eye – I think he was a bit embarrassed about the whole thing and I think that he thought that I thought that he might be enjoying it!
The Vet sent us off to a Dog Ophthalmologist who took one look at him and gave us two options: one – take the eye out or two – cut the growth out, take a strip of skin from the jowl, invert it using the inside of the top lip as the lower eye-lid and sew it back on.
This worked a treat and home we came a few days later with another packet of pills and yes – a bucket over the head.
The surgery was a success; the only trouble was that the strip of skin didn’t match. He ended up with a black stripe down the side of his tan cheek looking like a Jewfish.
Life became a bit slower now, a couple of bouts of surgery, the arthritis kept on, we were both working pretty hard and the boys had left home.
He took to sleeping more and playing less and I knew we were in for some hard times. He couldn’t get up onto the bed any more without being helped and it looked painful when he went to lie down because of the awkward angle of his back legs.
We still had a couple of throws every day and he still pranced a bit but not as much as he used to. It didn’t stop him doing the guard-dog bit though!
I realised then that it was a matter of time and that after fourteen years as part of our family and being my best mate there was a real prospect that we may lose him.
I guess I didn’t want to face the reality of having to make the hardest decision of my life – to put my best mate down.
He’d sleep most of the day now, on his rug in the kitchen. When I got home he’d lift his head, see who it was and struggle up onto his feet and head for the back door and the ball.
I’d given up smoking and he couldn’t quite work out why we didn’t sit outside so much but we would have a couple of easy sessions with a couple of throws and he kept his end up and brought the ball back each time, albeit a bit slower nowadays.
The cancer returned with a new vigour and he developed a lump on the side of his face, near where the others had been cut out. We knew that it was no use and we both just accepted it.
The lump grew and grew. It didn’t seem to bother him that much at first and I don’t believe it caused him any pain, but I knew the end wasn’t far off.
He took to sleeping outside most nights in the hot weather over the next couple of weeks and I reckon he was more comfortable lying on the soft cool grass.
I suppose I really wanted the Great Dog God to come and take him while he slept rather than have to do the awful deed myself
I got up on the Friday morning and went out to make a cup of tea and there he was lying on the back step. His eyes were bright and his ears were up but he couldn’t stand.
I helped him onto his feet and he staggered inside and went straight to his rug and lay down. I had this terrible feeling of impending doom. I gave him a pat and talked to him. He wagged his tail a couple of times, licked my hand and put his head down on his paws.
I told myself he’d be alright after a bit of a rest, prayed that he’d get better, and headed off for work.
Later in the morning, Leonie rang and told me that he couldn’t walk but had managed to drag himself across the floor near to the hallway and couldn’t go any further.
I decided then that this would have to be the day and came home straight away only to find him where he’d been most of the morning. He knew something was up.
I couldn’t bear to see him like this and called the Vet, having made the decision to end it there and then.
Right up to the end he was the guard-dog, giving a desultory “woof” as the Vet came to the back gate, just to let me know he could still do his job.
There was nothing else for it, I had to face it, the terrible time had come.
The Vet suggested that we give him a sedative to settle him down before she administered the fatal injection that would end his life.
I felt like somebody had reached into my chest and was tearing my heart out. Leonie was crying and so was I.
He started to doze off and I realised that I needed to say goodbye while he was still conscious.
I leaned down close to his muzzle and thanked him for all the joy he’d given me over the years and he knew what I was on about. His last conscious act was to lift his head an inch or two off the floor and lick the tears from my face as if to say, “don’t worry about me, I’ll be alright”.
My heart broke.
We lifted him off the floor and moved him over onto his rug where the Vet administered the final injection. He was just about gone. I was leaning over him sobbing and I looked down – his eyes were still open and the light in them was fading fast.
Leonie went to close his eyes and two big tears rolled down his cheek. She did it a second time and two more rolled down. He knew it was our last moment together and he was crying for us, for the sadness of not being able to be with us any more, for not being able to look after us and for the pain we were going through. He was saying sorry as if it was all his fault.
We buried him wrapped in his rug in the garden bed that he used to enjoy digging up, accompanied by the ever-present tennis balls that he loved,
Wills helped with the digging and cried while he was doing it, he was his dog too.
John came over and shed a tear also, he was his dog too.
John just about summed it up when he put his big arm around my shoulder as I cried when he said quietly, “he was the best dog ever”.
I planted a tree over his grave. A small Poinciana or Kimberly Rain Tree that I’d grown from a seed I had picked up a couple of years ago on a trip to Fitzroy Crossing up north.
The tree will grow and spread its branches over him and keep him cool in the summer shade and dry in the winter rain and protect his final resting place.
All I have left are his collar and tag, a small tuft of fur from under the sideboard that was missed by the vacuum cleaner and a host of memories of “the best dog ever” and if I hold the collar up close, I can still smell the comforting furry dog smell of him on it.
There are signs around the house that will keep reminding me for years to come; the scratches on the glass door, the scratched paintwork on the front door, the several footprints in paint on the garage floor, the mound in the lawn and his empty food bowl in the fern house.
I come home from work and expect to see him sitting there ready to prance across the yard and nuzzle my hand – but he’s not there.
I walk into the house and expect to see him lift his head off his paws while lying on his rug and quietly wag his tail – but he’s not there.
I lay in bed the other morning in the dark, straining to hear him at the door, Leonie was awake and I’d held her as she cried softly. She said in a small voice – “I just want my dog back” – I too just want my dog back.
My heart is broken.
The house is quieter now and feels somewhat empty, but if I try, in my minds eye, I can see him trotting down the path with that look of expectation on his face and his tail wagging from side to side.
Each night before bed I go outside to the garden bed where he is buried and wish him well and thank him for being My Best Mate ever.
I started out just making a few notes and ended up writing this story – I don’t’ know why – I guess I just wanted to capture forever his indomitable spirit and have something to look back on in later years when the memories start to fade and the mind begins to wander.
In Loving Memory of Radar – My Best Mate
1995 – 14 March 2008