We don’t deserve dogs

A couple of weeks before Christmas we had to make the difficult decision to have our Border Terrier (BT) put to sleep. Terminally ill, he had lost his essence and his verve; he was a poor imitation of the lively, loving dog we knew and loved. Conscious that Christmas is a tricky time anyway, with the potential for intense feelings of loss, we didn’t want BT’s death tied up with that. We wanted to preserve the memories of him in happier times, before he was in pain. We also had no idea how Little Chick might react.

I have written before about the difficult relationship I have with our dogs, especially since Little Chick. As fraught as it was, it was always a loving relationship and BT’s death hit me hard. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler was hit hardest: partly due to her compassionate nature, partly due to her role as their primary carer and chief walker. Little Chick has always been quite ambivalent towards the dogs, though expressed favouritism for BT in his final days (possibly because we spoke of him more than our other dog, a female West Highland Terrier).

We were keen to be factual with Little Chick. I’m a bugger for flowery language but I knew that euphemisms were more likely to cause confusion and false hope. Bluntly (though hopefully not brutally), I explained that BT’s body no longer worked. We tried not to place too much emphasis on age, since his concept of age includes that we are ancient. We didn’t want to worry him that we might imminently shuffle off our mortal coils, especially since I have a landmark birthday this year.

As heart wrenching as BT’s death has been, there has been one positive. And it’s a big one. Little Chick and our other dog, let’s call her Westie, are now able to spend more time together. Westie has a much calmer temperament than BT and is more accepting of cuddles and fusses, even actively seeking them. She has buckets of patience, which she has shown as she and Little Chick learn to live in closer proximity. I have been able to enjoy more time with her too. I was overwhelmed by two dogs but am more confident with one. I have enjoyed cuddles and walks that weren’t possible with BT (and his jealousy issues). The whole dynamic in our home has altered. Westie has become something of a therapy dog for Little Chick and I, at a time when we both need unconditional acceptance and someone who is pleased to see us. And she seems to be reaping the benefits of greater attention and freedom. Many of her negative behaviours, learned from BT, have vanished. This sounds like I am glad BT is dead. Not at all. However, I think I am relieved. We had no control over his illness, but we could manage his pain and death. At a time where we have had little control and much chaos, this has been a blessing. In a period of sadness and turmoil we have experienced new joy. In a way, BT’s passing has given us renewed hope – our watchword for 2020. It has reminded us to take heed of that popular phrase: “Be the person your dog thinks you are”.

Little Chick has announced that Westie is his best friend. Playing with her and stroking her makes him feel good. He has recognised that she has the same effect on him as using his calm kit. This is major stuff, therapeutically speaking, and is more than we could have hoped for in such a short time.

We truly don’t deserve dogs.

My little drummer boy

Although it may not seem like it, I usually try to have a clear topic or coherent theme to my blog posts. Currently, I have so many thoughts swirling around my head I’ve found it difficult to pin them down, trickier still to sort and file them under headings. So, this post is something of a hotchpotch of ideas. But that is necessary to clear my mind and free me to write.

When I was first thinking about this post – several weeks ago before the black dog had taken up residence in my mind – I asked Ali for an illustration of Little Chick playing the drums. I visualised the idea of him going to the beat of his own drum, celebrating all his uniqueness and that he seems happy enough to do things his way, unworried by people’s thoughts or reactions. Or the drums would represent his musicality – inherited from his birth father – and his enthusiasm for his school music lessons.

These are all still true. But thinking on them for so long I keep coming back to the same thought: how proud I am of Little Chick.

His first term at school was hard. It is for all children. Rather than dwell on the challenges and obstacles I want to admire how he has faced and overcome them. Even in November we had reservations about how he would cope with Christmas and the end of term. Pantomimes, performances, and parties are all wonderful in principle but are potentially a waking nightmare for Little Chick. And I allude to sleep because we have had so little of it – and rarely in solid chunks at the expected time. All this looked set for a torrid time crammed with epic meltdowns and complete overwhelm.

But Little Chick was amazing. His behaviour was excellent, he joined in, he played with (rather than alongside) his classmates, some of whom could now be seen as friends. The school nativity, which had the potential for complete dysregulation, was a triumph. He smashed it! His comic timing was unintentionally perfect and his joy was obvious. I think his friends and their families glimpsed the real Little Chick for the first time. School – who have been brilliant – already seem to have a good handle of who he really is and what makes him tick and I genuinely believe, in time, he will flourish in such a nurturing environment.

After a long hard term came Christmas. The school festivities led straight into family celebrations. We tried to keep things low key – our Christmas tree was not up until mid-December and only a fraction of our decorations was put out – but it is still a big change. Little Chick likes routine and predictability. We all do, really. Over the past eighteen months we have made several changes to the house, swapping rooms, rearranging furniture, adding or removing items. All this has been done for his benefit, but the process is disruptive and settling. It is something of a necessary evil, but we still feel awful unsettling him in his home. Extra bodies in the house does this too. Although we had family visit, they stayed locally, giving everyone space, and keeping the family home as close to normal as possible.

Little Chick did brilliantly well until Boxing Day. Unbelievably well. But as soon as the first guests left you could see a physical change, a release in him. By the time it was just the three of us again he was in full meltdown mode. Again, not unexpected, but so disappointing (for him). As much as we tried to keep things simple or the same it is just too much. Next year we may need to pull it back further. It seems unkind not to have lavish celebrations in the festive period, but I think it is a case of being cruel to be kind. Little Chick needs stability more. Since starting school his attachment issues have intensified. We realise now that he was not as securely attached as we assumed and we need to show him that he can trust us, that we are reliable adults who will keep him happy safe and well. If that means foregoing festivities and temporarily upsetting the wider family so be it. Little Chick comes first.

This small boy astounds me. Daily. I never cease to be amazed at what he can do and how much he is growing. Currently, this is even more remarkable considering how little sleep he is getting. Fuelled by pure nervous energy, he is working miracles. If we can help him sleep better and feel even more secure, this boy will move mountains.

Happy New Year

My last post was written in November following the Adoption UK Conference. That post was a success: it was a pleasure to write and I felt buoyed by the positive comments and feedback. Since then I have found it difficult to write, both figuratively and literally. A combination of sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, and general malaise has prevented me from finding the time, motivation, or means to write. Many of the side effects of sleep deprivation and depression are the same (for me, anyway), but my inability to physically write, to actually use a pen to craft words legibly, is unique to my depressive state.

So much has happened in the past six weeks that I wanted to articulate and share. There were giddy highs and soul crushing lows. Going back and picking over the details makes sense in the context of having a narrative flow through this blog. But it is utterly futile for me and my mental health. Instead, I will draw a line and move on. It is no coincidence that this realisation happens at the dawning of a new year (and decade). This year, reflecting on what has passed is not helpful. That may be an activity for some other time but, for now, for the sake of my family, I need to look forward. I need to hold fast, keep the faith, and remain hopeful.

Hopefully, normal service will be resumed shortly, and I can return to regular blogging. It is a sign of wellness and it is a comfort to me. I still have questions about the ethics of it and that may affect how and what I write about, but I know that I need to keep writing. To anyone who has tolerated my self-indulgent ramblings in real life or online THANK YOU.

I hope that 2020 is a year of peace, wellness, and happiness. And not forgetting hope.


Postscript

The illustration for this post may not make much sense since I am writing after Christmas. But I wanted to include this image from Ali Scothern for two reasons. First, Ali has been a great source of encouragement and collaborating with her has been a highlight in a tricky year. I look forward to working with her more in the future and making great things happen. Secondly, who doesn’t like puffins?!