Last week I had to make the hardest decision for the sweetest natured dog I’ve ever known, and I’ve had quite a few. Taja was 17 years old, a marathon effort for a chocolate Labrador. When she arrived as a puppy we weren’t emotionally prepared; still grieving over Khan, who’d been hit by a train down near Remuera station. But rural relatives couldn’t keep this skinny, timid little bitch, so how could we turn her away?
Dogs do that. They take over your heart. The kids begged to let the puppy stay. They promised to take her for walks, clean up her house-training mistakes, feed her every night, and wash her when she’d rolled in muck.
Somehow it was always me who ended up the sucker, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you have a dog for 17 years, the family memories go back a while.
A stand-out was the time, about 14 years ago, when Imogen had pet day at Remuera Primary, and decided to enter Taja as best-dressed. So we popped Taja in a pink ballet tutu, tied a big pink bow around her neck and took her off to school. Her initial doggy gloominess rapidly gave way to pure, unadulterated love when she spotted Mark Leishman’s Golden Labrador, Dexter the Wonderdog. Taja danced around, up on her hand legs, twisting and turning, like a true ballerina. Boy, was she glad she was in a pink tutu, standing out from the rest of the crowd, trying to get Dexter’s attention.
Sad to say it was unrequited love. Dexter totally ignored this silly teenage wannabe sleb in her pink tutu, raised his muzzle disdainfully, and looked the other way. Not that Taja got the hint, shameful slapper that she was. She rolled on her back, waved her legs in the air, exposed her private parts in absolute desperation until she was dragged away, upside down, in disgrace.
But she did win the prize for the best dressed dog.
When I lived in Remuera, each morning she walked with me over Mt Hobson, and made friends with every dog she met. Her favourite times were riding with the kids – through vineyards in Kumeu, and latterly, with me across the Martinborough hills. In the last few months, however, as her arthritis got worse, I guiltily sneaked out riding without her. Taja’s famous stoicism, and stubborn streak, would have driven her to clamber across the Southern Alps if it meant being with me.
She never complained, never hurt anyone or anything, and was the best behaved dog. The kids taught her to look away when anyone was eating, and never to take food from little children’s hands. The only disapproval she ever voiced was the classic Labrador sigh, always expressed with head resting between paws, eyes trained firmly on you with that long-suffering look.
The ducks stepped across her while she slept. The hedgehogs ate her dinner while she watched them help themselves. Occasionally, just because she could, she chased the cat all of two metres.
But on Tuesday she couldn’t get up and her eyes told me she’d had enough. Just one more day, I wanted to ask of her. Give me one more day. But owners have to make that terrible decision for our pets. We cuddle them, and end their suffering.
There were many people to tell – London, Sydney, all over New Zealand – Taja touched hundreds of lives, and messages flowed in from dog lovers. Everyone who knew her, who looked after her for me, truly loved her. What person, in honesty, could ever have that said about them?