Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.
We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:
“Shall we get a dog?”
“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.
“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.
The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.
“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.
Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”
Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.
There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.
The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”
We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.
Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.
Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.
My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.
Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.
Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.
Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.
Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”
Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.
Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”
Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.
Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.
Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.
Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.
Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.
Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.
Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.
Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.
I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.
There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.
A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.
On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.
The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.
He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.
There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.
It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.
I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.
Rest in peace, Toby Dawson. You were so loved.