Obituary: Marley

Marley was born, we believe on 7th July 2007 (7/7/07) and was ‘put to sleep’, aged 11, on 3rd May 2019.

Marley died on the day that news broke of the death of Peter Mayhew, the man who gave life to Chewbacca.  The coincidence was a fitting one: both were synonymous with a lifetime of faithful service and companionship, the best sidekicks anyone could ask for, whether you were walking in the woods or infiltrating an Imperial base on a forest moon.  One was described as a “walking carpet”, the other donated his fur to carpet several generations of birds’ nests.

It all started so improbably.  It was March 2008 and we’d heard from a friend that her colleague had an eight month-old golden Labrador pup that she needed to re-home.  Just as we had done with Sam, our first dog, three years earlier, I’d agreed to go along to “have a look” in the laughably naive expectation that such a measure would constitute no form of material commitment.  Just like the last time, we may as well have bought the dog bed on the way there.

He wasn’t badly behaved but he was young, restless and wilful, a little too much for this rather unadventurous middle-aged couple and their pension-age Jack Russell.  Having just built our house and deliberately carpeted it in the same colour as our black lab, this golden upstart was clearly the wrong colour.  He also had the wrong name – ‘Charlie’.  Obviously, there was no way we could have a house in which a child and a dog could share the same name.  No, it was a nice idea but not possible.  Again, logic seemed to be absent because by the Easter weekend, he was with us, subtly re-named Marley (after John Grogan’s ‘Marley & Me’, which I’d read the year before), nervously and deferentially trying to find his place in our young family.

My memory of his first day with us was at tea-time.  Helen had been watching a fly-on-the-wall show about an animal rescue team in Dallas and noted that they would often gauge the character of their intake by deliberately taking their food away from them.  She had a point, of course: we had a three year-old son and had to be sure that the newcomer’s temperament could withstand even an accidental provocation.  I put down his bowl of food and watched as he ravenously began to devour its contents.

“Now pick it up”, Helen ordered.  “Like they do on ‘Animal Rescue’.”

I hadn’t seen this part of the show but I’d like to think I know dogs well enough to be able to judge their nature fairly accurately so I went along with it.  Even though I was almost certain that he’d react perfectly to the test, as I edged my hand forwards to take away his meal, it still occurred to me that I didn’t actually know how he was going to react.  Slightly nervously, I removed the food.  The young dog went instantly from frenzied eating to silently pleading for the return of his meal.  The test had been comprehensively passed and we’d both gained each other’s trust.  

A week or two later, the aforementioned TV show was on and the latest resident was to be tested.  Meal prepared, placed on the floor, dog allowed to start eating, bowl removed -using plastic ‘hand’ on the end of a long stick, just in case….  I looked at a now giggling Helen.  “You kept that bit quiet!” 

Marley’s story (and this obituary) could easily have been written into finality only a few weeks later.  It was summer 2008; I was on my way to drop Charlie (still pre-nursery) off for the day, before driving to work.  At the time, Helen’s horse was stabled at home and she was feeding him before going to work.  I was just driving over Parbold Hill when my ‘phone rang.  It was Helen and her tone was urgent.

“You’ll have to come home.  Marley’s tongue is blue”

The inquisitive young dog had discovered a black plastic box, a supposedly tamper-proof container in which rat poison could be safely placed.  Having successfully opened it, he’d found a strange blue substance which must have looked interesting enough to eat.  Fortunately, he was so proud of his exploits, he’d decided to show Helen how happy he was.  If he hadn’t, or if Helen had decided not to hang back to feed the horse that morning, it could have been a very different outcome.

Naturally, we acted fast.  Within half an hour, we were at the vet, signing consent forms for antidotes, vitamin K, to induce sickness, to clear out his system and a full day of observation.  We were reasonably confident he’d survive but we were told to expect him to be affected by the medication for another twenty-four hours.  When I got home from work at six o’clock that evening, he bounced towards me with all the vim and vigour of a dog still pleased with himself for breaking into an ‘unbreakable’ container.  He seemed indestructible, an irresistible, if idiotic, force of nature.

Marley was always a team player, happy to play second fiddle to the more dominant Sam.  It didn’t take long for the older dog to impress upon him that the bit of bedroom carpet by my side of the bed was very definitely Sam’s night-time spot.  Marley’s response was simply to wander round to Helen’s side of the bed.  

Nocturnal politics aside, Sam always identified as Charlie’s dog, his protector and permanent shadow.  This left open the position of a similar companion for me – an opportunity that Marley was only too happy to fill.  Even a quick trip to get something from the garage or to take empty milk bottles to the end of the drive was a chance for Marley to pad along, dutifully, at my heel.

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Pursuing a tennis ball, mid-pounce

He was quite the athlete in his younger day.  Utterly fixated on catching and retrieving a tennis ball, we soon realised the most efficient way to meet his need to let off steam was to stand at one end of the field with a tennis racket and keep hitting it to the other.  Within seconds, he was back, ready to go again.  After ten full-length belts of the ball had been retrieved, in no time at all, I’d worked out he’d run a mile.  Only after another twenty or so repetitions, would he start to calm down.  

We’d find ever more inventive ways to harness his energy and enthusiasm.  I remember several times when I’d deliberately bounce the ball in such a way that I could photograph him leaping acrobatically for it.  There was also one occasion where Martin made a point of bouncing a ball in front of a massive puddle in the water-logged field, so the act of jumping for it would lead to him landing in the small lake.  The first I knew of it was when I received a photo of a sodden, mud-encrusted dog, absolutely focused on the out-of-shot ball, desperate to be asked to fetch it again.

As the pair matured, their tendency for hi-jinks finally diminished.  No more playing on the other side of the dual carriageway or disappearing to play in the mud a few fields away, they eventually succumbed to respectability.  Barbecues and birthday parties were their favourite times, a field full of kids to play with, with plenty of available food (either offered or unguarded).

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Partners in crime: Marley and Sam

Throughout his time with us, we’ve never had a doorbell, yet any similar sound on TV always made Marley bark as though someone must be at the door – presumably a throwback to his previous family.  We also wondered why similar depictions of reversing lorry alarms elicited the same response – until we realised one Thursday morning that, to him, it was a trigger that the bins must be being emptied.

He loved walking over the fields, crossing the motorway bridge and exploring the woods that lead almost to Appley Bridge.  Even in his final weeks, he was always giddy with excitement every time it became clear that we were about to go for a walk.  Tennis ball exploits aside, he tended more to be a keen spectator than a participant of garden football matches and, whenever the chance arose, was surprisingly reticent to show off his fishing-dog heritage in water.  We did once harness him to a sledge to see if he’d play along but he spent most of the time barking – probably protesting that the whole thing was beneath him.

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Reluctant sled-dog

At the age of eight and a half, his appetites and toilet habits suddenly changed.  He’d always been impeccably behaved in the house so clearly, something wasn’t quite right.  George, our vet, suspected canine diabetes and soon enough, the results confirmed it.  The symptoms were reversible but the condition was “life-limiting” and it would require him to be injected twice-daily.

As the aphorism goes, dogs are “98 percent wolf” and most, however domesticated, do not take kindly to being jabbed in the neck – understandably so.  If it had been Sam, the most ‘human’ dog I’ve ever encountered, I still think he’d have struggled and resisted in the way that dogs can only be expected to, which would effectively have been a death sentence.  Even life-saving treatment has to be weighed against extreme distress and the potential for biting injuries.  

Marley was different.  Possibly because he was the runt of his litter, he possessed a legendarily meek nature and always accepted his obligations without complaint.  His reward for compliance was the years it added to his life.  Without doubt, the biggest hurdle in owning a diabetic dog is overcoming the natural reluctance to believe that you can inject an animal so regularly.  You just have to – but it’s so much easier with a compliant dog.

Not only did he make the process as easy as it could be made for us, he also ensured that we could more realistically ask others to administer his insulin, which meant we could still go away for weekends and holidays with minimal effect.  To everyone who has ever stood in for us to inject him and allow us not to be tied by his condition, now is a good opportunity to say thank you.  He was our dog and our responsibility and it takes a lot to act outside your comfort zone for someone else.  Marley may have made it easier but you made it possible.

When Sam died, in 2016, we put our name on the Labrador Rescue register, expecting that it would take some time before a suitable dog would become available.  Less than a fortnight later, we’d been chosen.  Marley had probably just got used to the benefits of being the sole dog in the house when, unfortunately for him, his world was turned upside-down by the arrival of Hurricane Elsa.

Suddenly, this immature, fourteen month-old, neurotic pup was sharing his space, interrupting his routine.  For the first time ever, we heard him growl in frustration – at her persistent attempts to goad him into playing with her when all he wanted to do was lie in his bed.  In this instance, his benign nature probably didn’t help.  Sam would have had her up against a wall in no time, instilling his disciple in no uncertain terms.  Marley just wanted a quiet life and only complained as a ‘last straw’, to remove the irritation.  If anything, his tolerance only encouraged her mischief.

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Eventually, the relationship calmed and, with Elsa’s worst excesses (mostly) abated, Marley accepted the situation and was happy to play second fiddle again – as he always did.

Time and diabetes were beginning to conspire against him.  His eyes began to cloud, his legs weakened and his gait became more uncoordinated and wavering.  Despite it all, his appetite remained undiminished.  He loved to be outside but walking any distances took more out of him than before.  He slept a lot more.  This time last year, I would let him out and encourage him to lie in the sun, to rest with its warmth on his back.  Since his diagnosis, it had seemed realistic to make the assumption that each summer could be his last.  I remember hoping that 2018 would be a good summer.  It was.  I hope he thought so too.

At our three-monthly veterinary check-ups, George and I would monitor his weight, his progress, his fructosamine and glucosamine levels.  We were controlling the diabetes well but as he aged, it began to occur to me that he may not outlive his primary condition – that other factors may claim him before the diabetes.  In recent weeks, we talked about ‘the sign’, something that assures you it’s time to make the right decision.  As long as Marley was keen to drag himself along on a walk or bark his disapproval that five o’clock had passed and he’d still not been fed, his zest for life couldn’t be denied.  In both respects, this remained the case, even as recently as the Easter weekend, the eleventh anniversary of his arrival in the house.

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Enjoying a walk on Christmas Eve 2018

Two days before he died, he chose not to go on a walk and we allowed him his uncharacteristic reluctance, an unlikely anomaly.  A day later, he wouldn’t get out of his bed for his tea.  For a dog almost defined by his love of food, this could be no acceptable exception.  It was the sign we were waiting for.  His breathing was suddenly shallower and his visits to the water bowl were almost constant.  I suspected, needlessly, that his kidneys were beginning to fail.  The last words he heard were from George, from Helen and from me.

As we did for Sam and then Ben, we dug him a grave by the lawn and laid him to rest in the shadow of the rhododendron bush.  The memorials that mark their resting places reflect their lifetimes of service.

I remember saying once of the young Marley, when he arrived, in a flurry of uncertain outcomes, in 2008: “if he’s half the dog that Sam is, I’ll be happy with that”.  Of course he turned out to be so much more than meeting such a modest expectation.  In many ways he was the polar opposite of his predecessor and his marked differences removed the possibility of direct comparison, an unnecessary exercise at the best of times.  Marley was every bit Sam’s equal, in lots of ways, more understated but no less worthy of note.  Perhaps one day, we may even say the same of Elsa.

In the end, Marley was happy with being a dog, happy to be part of our family, happy in his routine and, ultimately, happy with everything else that life gave him, good or bad.  He was loved and he gave every appearance that he knew how loved he was.

That, to me, sounds like a life well-lived.

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Even when he was asleep, Marley liked to do things his own way.

Obituary: Ben

Ben wasn’t even our dog but, for well over a decade, he was part of our family.  He was as much a participant in our daily life, our annual celebrations and our most treasured memories as all the dogs we could call our own.

It hardly seems like much time has passed but it’s now over twelve years since Martin confided to me that he’d chosen a border collie puppy with which to surprise Vicky on Christmas morning.  Upon collecting him a few days before the big day, we all colluded in the secrecy, stealing clandestine visits to see this new ball of black and white fluff.

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Ben the puppy, a few days before Christmas 2006

Martin and I grew up with border collies.  If you’ve ever owned one, you can’t fail to be impressed by their high intelligence and strong work ethic.  Within weeks, Ben had been trained to do a number of increasingly complex tricks, demonstrating his obedience and a clear willingness to please.

Border collies are perfectly suited to their traditional purpose of rounding up sheep on remote hillsides and directing them into a specific holding area.  Naturally fast and agile, they also have deep reserves of endurance, combined with a level of mental commitment to achieving an objective that you’d expect of an Olympic athlete.  Other breeds outwardly enjoy fetching balls and waiting for the next one to be thrown.  With Ben, a session of ‘fetch’ was more akin to watching a highly-trained operative at work – enjoyment seemed to be a secondary consideration to simply completing the task as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  You had to assume he was enjoying it, or he wouldn’t keep doing it, but it was clear he had little time for pointless tail-wagging when there was the serious business of another ball to retrieve.

He would transfer his highly-motivated, highly-disciplined approach to all aspects of his life.  When told it was time to go in, there was no sense of objection or ‘just one more’ lingering in the field, like most dogs would; he’d diligently trot to the back door and wait to be let in.  For Ben, clocking off one job did not mean switching off his default, obedient setting.

As you’d expect for such a focused individual, he was happiest when accompanying Martin wherever he went.  For most of his life, he was able to, from a standing start, spring into the back of a Range Rover and then settle straight down until he was next required.  Unlike our dogs, whose life in a secure, extended environment had inevitably blunted their ability to be ‘street-wise’ beyond the gates at the end of the drive, Ben had that rare ability to combine the best of both worlds.

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Ben and Sam, his first companion, in 2009

As Max and Abi came along and grew up, Ben found he was being asked to divide his focus to include additional family members – now with slightly different expectations.  Young children are more prone to spending time petting a resting dog and Ben accepted the unfamiliar extra attention and allowed himself to be a regular pet as well as a ball-retrieving team member.  He’d also indulge in games that didn’t require his fetching talents, circling and intently observing games of three-a-side football as if we were merely six unruly sheep who consistently defied his control.  When it snowed, we’d tow each other around the field on sledges and, while the whole thing must have made absolutely no sense to him, his work ethic decreed that it would always be necessary for him to run behind, as closely as possible for as long as he could.

As I’ve noted previously, it seems the cruellest long-term effect of incorporating dogs into a growing family is that their physical prime occurs when their young human companions are well short of theirs.  As the wheel of time turns and the kids’ speed and energy increases, the canine life-cycle means that they will eventually fail to keep up.  Even an intelligent animal who develops an ability to pace their exertions (as Ben undoubtedly was) will only be able to delay that inevitable day for so long.

The addition of a variety of smaller, furrier companions provided him with a less strenuous outlet for his livestock-wrangling instincts.  Rabbits, guinea pigs and, latterly, a pair of degu all required, in Ben’s mind, unflinching observation lest they break free from their cages and terrorise the household.  Not on his watch, they wouldn’t.

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Ben in his favourite place, waiting to chase another ball in the field

In his final year, Ben found he had a room-mate, another border collie: younger, faster, more headstrong, more unruly.  It’s a testing time for any older dog: a trial of both patience and ability to adapt.  Ben graciously allowed Meg into his house, delegating fetching responsibilities under his watchful gaze and tolerating her youthful boisterousness.  We’ll never really know if Meg has allowed herself to be influenced by Ben’s stoic example as she has grown from young pup to ebullient adolescent.  When she acts on her best behaviour, it’s easy to believe that perhaps she has.

Over the years, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had begun to take their toll on Ben’s health, particularly the ability of his heart to function as fluently as it once had.  Naturally, his exertions became rationed for his own good as his condition was managed.  His quality of life was undiminished but, for his own good, his capabilities had to be thought of as reduced.

While he was as keen to participate, we let him but we knew he couldn’t be exhausted.  Similarly, he knew how to pace himself and his condition caused little concern until very recently, when, uncharacteristically, he chose not to take part in the ball games.  For such a driven and disciplined dog, it was the clearest message he could give that he knew his lifetime of service was coming to a close.

Today, his message was heeded and, after consultation with the vet, the decision was taken.  We buried him by the front lawn, in the shadow of the rhododendron bush, next to Sam.  It’s a cliché but it’s true: there’s always sadness at the passing of a loved one but you have to load the other side of the scales with the gratitude that they enriched your life and, hopefully, you enriched theirs.

Rest well, ‘Benny Boy’, you’ve worked hard for it and you earned all our affections.

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Archived: Marley & Us

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:16

It’s the usual friend-of-a-friend story: We got him after Easter from a couple in Crosby, Liverpool. He was giving the lady allergic reactions and, much as they loved him, they decided to give him up. Having seen him and decided that he was just the kind of dog we liked (not that we were looking for one) – a golden version of Sam, not over-bred, still a pup and with a strong personality.

There was only really one problem. At his previous household, he’d gone by the name of ‘Charlie’. If we were going to have him, we couldn’t possibly duplicate a name. With the addition in the last year of two horses, and a dog and a child next door, the number of new names to remember was bad enough without the potential for confusion that this created.

We even considered not taking him, but in a moment of lucidity, I remembered a great book I read on holiday last year, called Marley & Me (look out for the film in 2009 starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), about the life and love of a golden lab, which really touched me. As the name rhymed and the book was so appropriate, it struck me that the best thing to do for all was to change his name to ‘Marley’.

Once I’d realised that, it seemed pre-ordained that we should get him and in the end of March, we did. After an interesting couple of weeks in which he and Sam discovered the boudaries of acceptable behaviour, they have become inseparable, which is great to see.

At 9 months, he’s still a mad puppy, although he’s nearly fully-grown. If he makes half the dog that we have in Sam, I’ll be happy. He comes when I whistle or shout him and he doesn’t beg at mealtimes. Already, he’s become a member of the family. I’m sure that within a month or so, we’ll begin to wonder what we would ever do without him. That’s the point at which we know he has really made an impact on us.