I like the approach of winter, although to be honest, did it not involve pretty colours and the reasonable expectation of a sunny day here and there, summer’s end would be harder to take. The dog, on the other hand, is unequivocal, and is a big reason why last winter’s extended stretches of negative double-digit temperatures were bearable. He loves the chill and you can’t help but share his pleasure, especially when snow is thick on the ground. He reverts to frenzied, loopy puppyhood, cavorting through fresh powder as if he’d never seen the stuff before; my joke—apparently now lamely old-school, terminologically speaking—is that snow is his drug of choice.
He’s getting old. Big dogs don’t last that long, and he’s seen nine winters now. His hips are too loose and his rear paws drag when he’s tired, but he’s always game for a walk. We’re not sure how much pain he’s in; dogs in general tend to be stoics, and Malamutes are relatively expressionless by nature, so it’s hard to tell what he feels.
A couple of years more, at best. You know this from the start, and you’re philosophical about it, but imagining the day when the animal you love is gone isn’t easier for the fact that you know it’ll happen. Expectation of loss is built into your relationship, and the attendant melancholy only serves to make you appreciate it more.
This dog and his master—my son Mike—are the canine/human version of each other in many ways: Long-limbed and imposing, introverted, self-contained (except in snow, where the man also finds some thrills) and stubborn, in a nice way. An idea is only good if they thought of it themselves, and should you suggest a route to pursue or a behaviour to adopt, you’d better make it worth their while. Letting go entirely is generally the best approach.
A Malamute was chosen—not by me, in fact the very idea of a dog was vigorously discouraged by me—for reasons of the breed’s psychological characteristics. Chill, self-possessed and disinterested in other living things—cats, squirrels and jackrabbits excepted—a Mal is at the opposite end of the behavioural scale from, say, a Labrador, for whom anything that moves is a potential BFF. Neither does the breed have even a tenth of the nervous energy and demanding nature of a Border Collie. In short, a low-needs dog whose personality and size, as it turned out, almost perfectly matches that of his primary person.
He fills the back of my Yaris to capacity, leaning against the seat with his head turned awkwardly to the rear, nose resting on the headrest. I worry about getting rear-ended by a driver distracted by the stare-down of an enormous dog who looks like bit like a panda in negative. I worry that he doesn’t wear a seat belt. I worry that his drool will permanently stain the headrest. And a few weeks ago, I thought he might explode and die there, on the back seat.
Two-and-a-half pounds of raw bread dough were missing from the countertop when my husband and I got home late from an impromptu dinner out. In fact, we didn’t even notice it was gone until the empty bowl was found on the floor behind the kitchen island, and a quick calculation suggested ingestion had taken place about two hours prior. Never mind why it was left on the counter, or why the dog was inside when we weren’t at home—there are reasonable explanations for both. He’d stolen fresh loaves before, but I never imagined he’d go for the raw stuff.
He whined to be let out. This is not a dog who ever whines or says much of anything, so it was clear he was feeling a little off. I took him onto the front lawn and reamed him out. Goddamn dog. Now there won’t be bread for breakfast. Goddamn you. There would be sloppy poops to deal with, although none were immediately forthcoming. Bloody hell. The neighbour appeared in a dressing gown at her front door, wanting to know what was up. She had a story about the turkey dinner her dog had gobbled up, and its apocalyptic aftermath, and sympathized with both of us. Just then my upstairs tenant burst through the door with her cell phone screen aimed at me. “I just googled ‘dogs and bread dough’ and look what I got,” she said, breathlessly. “It can be FATAL!”
The last time I’d made a midnight run to the vet clinic, after it became alarmingly obvious that the dog was way too thirsty, he’d spent a day hooked up to an IV and had a battery of pricey tests that showed his kidneys close to giving up. The source of the problem was never established, although antifreeze was suspected. He recovered and was not allowed in the garage again.
Bread has been his favourite thing ever since somebody forgot a sandwich loaf on the counter when he was two. Since then he’s had his fair share of sourdough and artisanal boules, waiting patiently until the kitchen is all his and then sneaking away to his favourite consumption site, the living room carpet. Until recently the shelf high above the counter was out of his reach, but despite his arthritic hips and advanced age he managed to retrieve one of two loaves cooling there. Bread has never done him any harm, other than make it tricky for whoever has to scoop up the result the next day.
But a massive blob of sticky dough damming up his intestines was an urgent matter. I raced to the nearest animal hospital, only to be told the vet wasn’t in a position to deal with an emergency. Back in the car, speeding across town to what I later learned was the most expensive clinic in the city, I feared he was in silent agony, and ran a red light. My son met me there, grim-faced.
Uncooked yeast can have a similar effect as alcohol poisoning, said the vet. And the neurological damage is permanent, by way of changes to temperament and behaviour. He ticked off a bunch of other unfortunate side effects, including severe stomach distention and intestinal obstruction. In the latter case, surgery would be necessary to save his life.
Meanwhile, an injection to try to induce vomiting, X-rays, blood tests and an IV just because. Close observation, of course. The clinic manager would come and talk to us about fees.
It was approaching one in the morning. The manager, a slip of a thing in her mid-twenties, twirled into the consulting room, charts in hand. Facing her were two worried and dispirited people—one of whom felt crushingly responsible—who both loved a very sick dog, but there was no sign she thought the occasion was anything but happy. I felt she would have been better employed at a spa, or maybe a bridal shop.
She chirped her way through a daunting list of tests and procedures, with a recommendation that Noa be left in their care for the next 48 hours. That would make it $2500 (CAD), payable in advance. Nope, said my son. I don’t have that kind of money.
Oh that’s no problem at all, she trilled. I’ll just make up another invoice for a 24-hour stay. That’ll bring it down to about $1500, OK? She might even have winked. And what colour would you like for your toenails? The only thing holding me back from excoriating her was the presence of my child, for whom I will never stop trying to set a good example. Also, I didn’t want to make it any harder for him to maintain his stoicism.
We went into the examining room to say our awkward goodbyes to the dog, pretending it was only ‘good night’. Mike camped out in the parking lot, bracing himself for the call signalling the end was near. I went home and cried.
But Noa was still alive the next morning, and the vet tech reported that he’d had a short walk and a small poop. They were giving him ice cubes to try to kill the yeast, which seemed like magical thinking to me. It would be best, they said, if we left him under observation for another day.
Mike figured he could handle feeding his dog ice cubes and keeping an eye on him for a lot less money. We checked him out around the 12-hour mark, and to my surprise, the clinic refunded half the fee. He was quiet on the way home and immediately upon exiting the car, spurted brown goop on the neighbour’s lawn. By the third day, he seemed pretty OK, normal on all counts.
On day six, while on a stroll along a trendy avenue lined with restaurants— drawing the usual attention for his appealing combination of adorable but wolfish—he let go, right there on the sidewalk in front of a patio packed with diners, with an epic bout of diarrhea. Truly phenomenal. It perked him right up.
I’m relieved he survived. My guilt over setting up an opportunity for him to eat his way into doggie heaven was already heavy, but his demise would have put an end to my bread-baking future, the association just too awful.
There is now a designated empty shelf in the pantry for rising dough, and as long as I remember to shut the door, we’re all going to be OK.