Shiloh, with Yours Truly and Olivia, Isle of Wight, summer 2008
Every time I peeled a carrot he’d come bounding into the kitchen and look up at me, waiting for the peelings, then watching me as I gathered them up and dropped them onto the mat by the back door. Then he’d scoff them, as fast as you like. It seemed to me as I watched him do this so many times over the years that he must have thought they’d vanish if he didn’t gobble them up quickly enough. What’s more he seemed to have a second sense as far as carrots were concerned. He might be sleeping on the mat by the front door, or on his own mat in the dining room, or under the table. He might even be outside if it was a warm day, sitting on the lawn or by the table on the patio. No matter where he was in the house or garden he knew instinctively when a carrot was taken from the fridge and about to be peeled, and there he’d be, looking up expectantly, licking his chops, his tail forever wagging.
If I was cooking and didn’t have much to do for a few minutes I’d lean against the sink and daydream, and there he’d be. He knew it was the perfect opportunity for a head scratch, so he’d rub his nose against my knee and look up expectantly and when I looked down and began to stroke his head or play with the loose skin beneath his jowls or scratch behind his big floppy ears he’d make a sound that I guess is the doggy equivalent of a cat purring, a sigh of satisfaction, an acknowledgement that all was well in his little world. He felt safe and secure and loved and he wanted to thank me.
I’ll be peeling another carrot or leaning against that sink again later today or tomorrow but for the first time in 12 years and six months he won’t be there watching me. Shiloh, our chocolate Labrador, passed away last night here in our house shortly after 1am. It was old age that did for him in the end, not the strained ligaments in his back legs that we thought might see him off a few years ago, nor the sores on his front legs that came from sitting around too much when he was too old to get up and move around a bit, nor the loud, hacking cough that sounded as if he was clearing his throat and was probably caused by eating grass on the village green.
I’d gone to bed but Sam and Lisa were with him at the end. I thought he’d last a few more days, especially as yesterday afternoon Sam took him on to the green for what turned out to be his final mooch around, and he ate his usual meal at six. The vet had told me a week ago that the coming of the end would be marked by a loss of appetite and a complete inability to walk, so when the end did come it was a bit of a shock to me. Sam seemed to sense it though. When I went to bed I said goodnight to Shiloh and gave him a pat. Sam, who was sat on the floor stroking him, said I really ought to be saying goodbye. He was right.
Lisa woke me just before 1.30. “Shiloh’s gone,” she said through her tears. “It’s all over.” I went downstairs and there he was, on his mat, on his side, perfectly still, his eyes open but unseeing, his tail no longer wagging. Lisa said he’d had a seizure that lasted about ten minutes, not nice to watch, and then he’d jerked his head to and fro, offered up a deep sigh and suddenly he was gone. I wept as I wrapped him up in an old duvet cover and with Sam’s help placed him gently on the floor of our garden shed. We all of us had a brandy to help with the sadness that sudden bereavement brings.
I wept again when I went to the vets this morning to ask about the procedure. Telling the girl in the reception area was heart breaking, and I had to turn my back on her to gather myself. I was asked to take him to another vet’s office in Dorking so we laid him in the back of the car, still wrapped in the duvet cover. Sam gave his lifeless body a final stroke. Lisa came with me. I wept again as I told the vet in Dorking that we wanted his ashes returned to us so that we might scatter them on Leith Hill where we’d walked with him 100 times or more. I reached into the duvet cover to give his tummy one last tickle and watched as the vet and two assistants carried his body away, and we drove home in silence, both of us knowing that if we said anything we’d break down again.
We adopted Shiloh on a Sunday in August of 2006 from a farm in South Wales, driving from Shepherds Bush across the Severn Bridge to Usk to collect him. The farmer’s daughter bred chocolate Labradors and we were given a choice, a girl puppy or a boy puppy. They looked identical and Sam and Olivia couldn’t make up their minds, so we asked to see their parents and into this big untidy but ever so homely Welsh farmhouse kitchen, warmed by a huge old Aga, bounded their mum and dad. The dad, whose head was the size of a football, impressed us the most so we opted for the boy puppy, placing him in a cardboard box and taking him back to London with us. That night Olivia slept downstairs on a couch next to him lest he woke up whimpering because he didn’t know where he was. Four days later, as planned, we moved to the Surrey village where we still live, and where Shiloh would spend all but the first three months of his life.
In the cardboard box on the way back from UskShiloh was the first dog we’d owned as a family. Initially timid, he grew into a big, proud and fine-looking Lab with a glossy coat that really did look as though it was made from chocolate. He was fearless but as gentle as a lamb, fast and strong yet never one to pick fights with other dogs. Curiously he seemed unnerved by small dogs that yapped at him but unphased by bigger dogs or other animals. He barked only rarely, usually when someone was at the front door. He became our burglar alarm.
He liked children and they loved him. Local children waiting for the school bus in the mornings liked to pet him and he made friends in the village. Parents knew he was a safe dog. He was loyal to a tee, scampering back and forth on walks to the extent that he walked twice as far as whichever of us was with him, and he always came running when we called his name. Shiloh became abbreviated to Shi. He never quite got the hang of fetching balls. He’d run after one as fast as lightning but when he found it he’d stay where he was, as if the object of the exercise was not to return with the ball but to remain with it so we’d know where it was. He made us laugh.
Like all Labradors he had a limitless appetite. He’d eat pretty much anything all the time, including – once while I was walking him – a dead snake that got stuck in his throat. I can therefore state from personal experience of both situations that wrenching a dead and slimy snake from the mouth of a hungry Labrador is as character building as driving Keith Moon’s Rolls-Royce at night with its owner in the back, out of his head on brandy while The Beach Boys are playing at full volume.
For many years I’d get up quite early on Sunday mornings, bundle him into the back of the car and take him to Newlands Corner or up Leith Hill, usually with my iPod in my pocket and earphones clamped to my head. Off with the leash and away he’d go, sniffing his way ahead of me, running back to me if I called him, panting, eager, always alert, that tail wagging away, a look of joy of his handsome face. In his prime he’d draw envious glances from other dog walkers. I was so proud of him. I loved the way he leaped up into the back of our car, a Honda Stream with a hatchback door that is quite high off the ground. He didn’t really need to take a running jump either. It was sad when in this last year or so he lost the strength in his back legs and was no longer able to do this, but we managed to get him in somehow. Then, as usual, he’d sit up in the back with his head between the rear seats, as close as possible to whoever was sitting there. This was the way he liked to travel, and we took him away on holiday with us sometimes, to Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and South Wales. He came with us to Brighton and Lancing many times, and liked nothing better than to wade into the sea after a tennis ball that he’d drop on the beach. He always seemed excited to be going away somewhere with us, loved being part of our family, to be with us, and we loved him back for it.
Every Christmas Day the four of us and Shiloh would take a walk somewhere locally and when we found a spot with a nice view we’d set up a camera and take a picture, hopefully with Shiloh looking in the same direction as we were. Many of these pictures appeared on Facebook over the years. It was a struggle getting him into the car this last Christmas but I’m so glad we did. We took some pictures at Friday Street, in the same spot as we’d taken pictures years before when Shiloh was two or three years old. We have a little movie of Sam walking him near the Stephan Langton pub.
Sam with Shiloh, Friday Street, Christmas 2018
‘Walking him’ became a bit of trial recently. It is generally accepted that one human year is the equivalent of seven dog years and this means they grow up quickly and grow old quickly, and Shiloh’s rapid decline over the past few months was hard to watch. A walk to the petrol station with him to get my newspaper in the morning once took ten minutes but was now stretched to almost 30. I hated dragging him on his lead but when I stopped he stopped. Two weeks ago I stopped taking him and instead Sam, Lisa or myself took to sauntering out on to the green with him and letting him sniff around in the undergrowth under his own steam. He stopped taking an interest in other dogs too, and when I saw them running after a ball or a stick I thought back to when Shiloh too ran like the wind. He didn’t seem to mind though. He was happy to mooch around, glad of a change of scenery for 20 minutes. He was eager for a walk until the very end, still wagging his tail.
That rapid decline was there to see not just in his legs but in his eyes which became rheumy and unfocused. Though he never lost his sight, I think he had difficulty getting his bearings. Sometimes on the green I’d take off his lead and he’d just stand there, wondering what to do, a bit lost on a patch of land he’d explored 1,000 times before. Labradors tend to look sad even when they’re not, but there was a deeper sadness in Shiloh’s watery eyes that we recognised but could do nothing about. Other dog walkers noticed it too, and asked me how old he was. When I told them he was well over 12 they knew – as I did – that he was reaching his time. I think he knew it too.
So Shiloh, our faithful pup – Lisa always called him ‘pups’ even when he clearly wasn’t – has taken his leave of us and I’m glad now that it happened in the house he knew so well, surrounded by two of the four persons who loved and cared for him, and whom he loved and cared for more than anyone else. In a week or so Lisa, Sam, myself and, in spirit, Olivia (she lives in New York now) will take his ashes to the top of Leith Hill, to a spot where he once gobbled up a tasty ham sandwich that a careless but rather pissed-off hiker had left unattended, and watch as the dust from Shiloh’s remains flies up and away into the wind. And we’ll all of us weep one final time for our dear departed friend.