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In which I face up to passing of canine pal


'Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware of giving your heart to a dog to tear." So goes Rudyard Kipling's caution in his poignant poem, The Power of a Dog.

The poem is framed and mounted on the wall in the Sandymount Pet Hospital, where Dick Lavelle is practice principal.

I could write an entire column on Dick (indeed a book if I took the time to collate the tributes I've heard made about him over the years) but I'll keep it brief: the man is a saint and anyone with a dog should consider making him its medical guardian.

Reno, our Japanese Spitz, became a patient of Dick's during his last days.

Though Sandymount isn't our locale, we made regular journeys to Dick's practice because we knew Reno would be in the best hands at a time when he needed it most.

During one of the visits, Dick told us that Reno would "get an Indian summer out of it".

None of us quite knew what that meant (particularly given that he made the pronouncement in November) but we didn't ask for elucidation – euphemisms and imminent death go hand-in-hand.

And so we passed on the verdict to our nearest and dearest with an authority that would suggest we knew exactly what Indian summer meant – and that they really should too.


I often wondered if Reno knew he was coming to the end. I snuck glances at him in the park to see if he was more . . . reflective, but unless dogs come to terms with their mortality by sniffing other dogs' bums, he seemed remarkably unfazed.

We were the ones doing the reflecting. He had been part of so many chapters, those same four paws padding steadily behind us through all our trials.

We remembered the day we got him. The woman selling the litter met us in a car park in Wexford.

We were only planning to get one dog – his brother who we later called Vegas – but when the woman opened her boot and a fluster of flapping, yapping puppies sprang to the front, we couldn't help but notice a considerably smaller, trembling ball of fluff tucked into the corner.

It was difficult to make out his features as he was covered in his own vomit at the time.

But it didn't matter. We all implicitly knew that we were taking the runt.

His teenage years weren't easy. Reno was limited in a lot of ways.

He was slow, dim-witted and in the early days we were concerned that he might be suicidal.

He had a habit of dunking his entire head into his water bowl and keeping it there until we worried that he was drowning.

We were still trying to toilet train him last year – though my mother reminded us that he was probably incontinent at that point.

His brother had him tortured. I know it's wrong to speak ill of the dead but Vegas was a bad bastard.

Reno just wanted to smell all the lovely flowers; Vegas wanted to chew them up and spit them out.

Fluff regularly flew and I'm surprised we all still have 10 fingers when I consider the vicious dog fights we broke apart.

But Reno just kept on plodding on.

While he might have had difficulty understanding that you couldn't, say, walk through glass, he was gifted with an extra sensitivity and a heightened intuition.

He just knew things. Before my sister-in-law went into labour, she was woken up by Reno who had made his way into her room. His big brown solemn eyes told her it was time.

When I'm in a good mood – and on my own – I have a habit of singing to myself.

In better times I'd look across the room to discover that I, in fact, had an enthusiastic audience of one.

Reno's eyes would be all adazzle, his mouth turned up into what looked like a smile. I swear it was as if he was saying: "It's good to see you happy, pal."


When I interviewed the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, I brought Reno with me.

He told me that Reno should become a therapy dog, that he was a born healer. "I know!" came my not-so-humble reply, "I know."

All dogs are healers, though. They help us find compassion and harmony. They lead us on the path to the simple life. They show us – and teach us – unconditional love.

We labour under the delusion that we are their masters because we can get them to sit and beg (beg!) and heel, but really these magnificent, spirited creatures help us master ourselves.

They are our teachers. Crucially they help us understand death as a natural part of the life cycle. They show us the way through.

Reno died during the night. To paraphrase Kipling, "his whimper of welcome was stilled (how still!)"

The vet who gave him the injection said he went very quickly.

I almost asked her if he said anything, but then I remembered that dogs can't talk.

He was 84 years old (in dog years.)