This was an old joke, referring to an antiphon of the Vespers of Our Lady, between a liturgically articulate friend and myself when talking about my dog Rex. Dum esset rex in accubitu suo, nardus mea dedit odorem suavitatis. We were once singing these Vespers together and the dog was lying on the carpet in the chapel. He raised his head and pricked up his ears on hearing his name when the Latin word for King was pronounced.
Rex was a boisterous crossbreed between the Doberman and the Labrador, for whom life was one big game of running after cats and enjoying the great outdoors. He had had a cancerous tumour in the left eye for more than a year and his hips were getting worse and worse. We finally had him put down by our vet today and he is buried in our garden next to Frimousse, one of our cats who died back in 2007. He was thirteen years old.
It was in February 2001 when I decided to get a dog, and went to the animal shelter. They are grim places full of abandoned dogs, two to a cage, row after row. I had set out to find a Labrador or Border Collie puppy or a near mongrel equivalent, but animal shelters don’t work like that. Different dogs react in different ways as you approach their enclosure – some hurl themselves at the bars in a frenzy of defensive aggression, and others see their visitor with curiosity and hope. You offer the back of the hand for the dog to take a sniff. They either like the smell or they don’t. I must have walked around the place at least three times, each time passing in front of the cage containing Rex and some little spaniel-type dog. The word Doberman put me off, making me think of the old Nazi concentration camp guards and their dogs as sinister as electric fences with 50,000 volts! Later research would show that this breed, invented for attack and aggression, had progressively degraded into a much gentler and playful dog. The Army and Police no longer use them – Belgian and German Shepherds do the job much better! But Rex was a mutt with a docked tail, but fortunately with his natural floppy ears, a beau bâtard as our dog training instructor once said to me.
I think Rex chose me rather than I him. I adopted him and took him to the vet for a good check-over. He was eight months old and had apparently never been trained, apart from being clean at home. That was already something! He was a hard so-and-so, and pulled on the lead like a shire horse! He once pulled me off my feet and dragged me on the ground as he saw a rabbit and the chase instinct clicked in. Obedience classes were a must! Rex was a long and hard walker, tireless, as he and I would walk entire beach-lengths on the Atlantic coast of the Vendée. His favourite walks were in forests. It is just as well both he and I were in love with the great outdoors. He has shared our life, year after year, often irritating with his incessant barking in the garden. He was never much of an eater, and never so much as threatened a person. He was great with children. His objective in life was to chase other animals and enjoy himself at play. Dogs’ minds are as simple as our human minds are complicated!
On our return from the vet (he died in his basket in the back of my van parked just outside the veterinary surgery), I buried him in the garden wrapped in an old sheet and emptied a bag of quicklime over the body (eliminates the smell and stops foxes digging up the body). It was very hard to take the decision to have him put down, but it was the only thing for him. I am inclined to believe in the survival of animal souls like those of us humans, especially pets that have shared life with humans. They are outside the “economy” of Christian salvation, but the liturgy speaks in many places of beings other than human praising God in their own way. Whatever happened to this dog after the two chemical substances snuffed out his life, I ask your prayers for those of us who miss him. We humans become attached to our pets, and it is always a trying moment – after the sheer will of doing one’s duty in the old-fashioned English way.
Rex is at peace wherever his spirit is, and life has to go on.