Jane Macdougall: The Bookless Club and the lessons of dog training

Jess died while I was talking with the vet in her office. The vet’s assistant came to tell us, and they told me that Jess was wagging her tail right to the very end.

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Her name was Jess.

Jess was kind of a default name. Each night, I’d write tomorrow’s To Do list and it included getting the kids to settle on a name for our new German Shepherd puppy. Their wide-ranging list included names like Fluffy and Rosalita. They couldn’t agree. I’d shake my head and tell them to keep working at it. Each night, I’d pencil the To Do entry, “German Shepherd — name?”, or, “Name for G.S.” As the days went by, this entry got truncated to simply, “GS?” Well, the line between G.S. and Jess is a short one. Her name became Jess.

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On her first night with us, we all slept on the family room floor with her. To say she was loved doesn’t begin to cover it. My five-year-old daughter tearfully announced now that she had a puppy, she never needed another toy for as long as she lived. My son spent hours rolling around on the lawn with Jess, pretending to be her brother.

At around eight months, we took Jess to be spayed. The surgery was uneventful. A few days following the operation, however, Jess lay at my feet with a pained expression. I distinctly recall thinking: I know that look. That was the look on my face when I was in labour. Something was wrong. I called the vet. I was told not to worry.

A few days later, Jess seemed on the mend. She bounded down the back stairs to the lawn. At the bottom of the stairs, all four legs gave out under her and she belly-flopped onto the ground. Despite gathering herself up and carrying on, I was alarmed.

Again, I was told not to worry.

Days later, her situation grew grave. She was regurgitating her food, her face seemed beyond her control. I took her to the vet. Nothing could be detected. I took her to another vet who acknowledged that something was dreadfully wrong, but he couldn’t identify what. Jess got swiftly worse and had to be hospitalized. All we knew at this point was that, following a routine surgery, a healthy, happy puppy had been suddenly stricken with a mysterious disease. It was gut-wrenching to witness.

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Jess’ situation was bewildering. Our vet told me I could paw through her medical texts because she was stumped. Serendipitously, I stumbled upon some material that talked about large-breed dogs being susceptible to particular problems following anaesthesia. Jess was a large-breed dog. All of Jess’ problems seemed to have started immediately following her surgery. Maybe the anaesthetic was at the bottom of the trouble?

It was eventually discovered that Jess had responded catastrophically to the anaesthetic in her spaying surgery. Something in the anaesthetic had prompted an auto-immune response that had triggered a rare and terrible disease known as myasthenia gravis. Antibodies were destroying the communication between her nerves and muscles. She was losing the ability to walk, to swallow, to even blink.

In the end, all of our efforts amounted to nothing. I berated myself for not acting sooner, but earlier detection might not have produced a different outcome. In retrospect, I think all we accomplished was prolonging her misery.

Jess died while I was talking with the vet in her office. The vet’s assistant came to tell us, and they told me that Jess was wagging her tail right to the very end. I was undone. Not only had I not allayed her suffering, but I wasn’t with her at the moment of her death.

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I often think back on that time. I can make no sense of the misery she endured, and endured with such magnificent forbearance. I looked for the lesson in Jess’ short life. My only take-away was that Jess taught me to do my homework. To make hard choices. To trust my gut.

That was Jess’ parting gift to me.

That was the lesson she taught me.

In the years since her death, it has proved to be a valuable lesson.

Jane Macdougall is a freelance writer and former National Post columnist who lives in Vancouver. She will be writing on The Bookless Club every Saturday online and in The Vancouver Sun. For more of what Jane’s up to, check out her website, janemacdougall.com

This week’s question for readers:

What have your pets taught you?

Send your answers by email text, not an attachment, in 100 words or less, along with your full name to Jane at [email protected]. We will print some next week in this space.

Responses to last week’s question for readers:

What’s your earliest memory?

• My earliest memory was on my second birthday in March 1940. My mother took me to Nonsuch Park, Surrey, England, to take some birthday pictures to send to my father, who was stationed in Kirkwall, Scotland, with the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Second World War. My next memory was of a telegram arriving to inform my mother that my father’s ship had been torpedoed and sunk on April 26, 1940, just after my birthday.

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Jean Marchant

• I was the age when children parrot what their parents say and never think their words will be repeated in wider company. I was sitting in a high chair in our sunny kitchen facing the open door to the dark basement staircase. My mother was busy in the kitchen and my father was reading the paper at the kitchen table beside me. An unknown, exceedingly large man had arrived earlier and was downstairs fixing something for my parents. Who knows the full extent of my parent’s easy banter that revolved around the stranger working below us, but I wanted in on the joke and, when the heavy footsteps hit the stairs and the large shape arose from below, I announced with loud excitement, “Here comes old fatso!”

Gerry Sayers

• I must have been about four when we lived at 20th and Fulton. A Chinese fishmonger would go door to door with his two pails hanging from the wooden rod across his shoulders. He seemed very exotic. Our neighbour, Mrs. Sharman, kitty-corner across the street, was always an easy mark for cookies. We moved further west, and years later I was pleased to find her again manning our school lunch program during the war.

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Sandra Schemmer

• I was about to turn three when my parents brought home a new dresser and placed it in my bedroom. I excitedly proceeded to remove the clothes from my small dresser and stow them in the drawers of the new, larger one. Seeing what I was up to, my mother returned my belongings to my old dresser. She probably explained why, but I don’t remember that part. I know now that the new dresser was purchased for the bundle of joy with whom I was to share my bedroom (and my birthdate). Interestingly, I have absolutely no memory of my baby brother’s arrival, only that of his dresser.

Sandi Bezanson-Chan

• My earliest memory is visiting my grandmother in West Bay when I was about five or six with my brother and parents. To keep us entertained (and probably out of her hair), my mother would send us outside with cups of Puffed Wheat. We would sit on huge rocks in my grandmother’s garden and eat them in the sunshine. I can still feel the warmth of the sun and the crunch of the Puffed Wheat even after 75 years.

JoAnn Fox

• My earliest memory is of when I was three and my sister was six. She had me in her doll’s pram with my legs hanging over the end and a “veil” — a piece of net — draped over my face and was pushing me up our street in Sheffield, Yorkshire, during the Second World War. A lady stopped her and said, “Oh, have you got a baby in there?” I closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep as they pulled back the veil to admire me — and I fell asleep.

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Janet Cowley

• My earliest memory is being told, “You don’t have to sleep, but you must stay safely on the bed while the grown-ups have their naps.” My grandparents were farmers, and summer workdays were from dawn to dark, so after the main meal (always at noon) my grandma, grandpa, and Uncle Fritz slept. “I’ll know you’re safe if you read books to your dolly while on the bed.” Trying to stay awake on that darned bed was tough when an annoying fly was buzzing and bumping into the bedroom window screen, buzzing and bumping, bumping and buz-z-z-z…

Lorna (Krahulec) Blake

• I have been blessed or cursed with a very good memory. My earliest is probably a few weeks before my third birthday. We were still in Winnipeg and we had my mother’s sisters living with us. My five-year-old sister and I were up very early. Somehow, we found some nail polish. We thought it would be a good idea to paint the ducks embroidered on our pillow cases. I remember being scolded. I know it was when I was not quite three as on May 2 my mother married her second husband. And I remember the dinner at the reception when my grandma took some of the food off my plate, telling me such a little girl couldn’t eat all that. I remember looking forward to being big enough that I could have all the dinner.

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Linda Moore

• When I was five, I lived on Otter Street in Banff, Alberta. There was a row of trees alongside Otter Street. The trees had branches that made them very suitable for climbing. I decided to climb one of the trees. I was quite high up when I heard a loud shout: “Jane! Get down from there! You’re going to fall down and hurt yourself.”

It was Mrs. Barber, who lived next door to us. I called back to her that I was not going to fall. I had a good hold on the branches and wanted to climb higher.

Mrs. Barber sounded angry, and she shouted back to me. “That is very dangerous. You are not safe.”

“I’m going to tell your mother,” she shouted.

I called back that I was allowed to climb trees.

That is the end of my memory. I think she went inside our house to tell my mother. This was a very satisfying exchange for me, because I was able to defy Mrs. Barber. In fact, I was allowed to climb trees.

Jane Shoemaker

• I think my only certain earliest memory was when our family cat had kittens. I was three, or maybe just barely four. Their home was a cardboard box in my bedroom closet. I adored them. I can still hear their tiny meows and how Puss licked them constantly. I was so upset when they were adopted. I’ve loved cats ever since.

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Scott McGillivray

• We lived on 30 timbered acres 3.5 miles away from a small B.C. town. Each weekday at noon, dad would walk from his sawmill to lunch prepared and served by mom at our kitchen table. On the back porch, dad would pause to dust off sawdust and remove his boots before entering. After lunch, his routine included a brief nap on his back on a thick rug on the floor. I clearly recall climbing atop his chest to join him, his arms embracing me while he whispered, “Be still”, while he dozed. His smell was a pleasant mix of light body odour with the scent of fresh Douglas Fir. I remember it, too.

Larri Woodrow

• I am an August baby, so this is a summer memory. I was at the beach and my father dropped me into the water to see if I could swim spontaneously. I couldn’t. I recall the terror of seeing the greenish water and sand coming up to meet me, and not being able to breathe. Then my father plucked me up, laughing while I blubbered uncontrollably. Years later, I told my mother and she said, “You can’t possibly remember — you were only one.”

Victoria Lyon

• My first memory was a traumatic one. I was in a wading pool where the water couldn’t have been more than knee-deep. I remember playing this game where my friend and I would plunge into the water and, using our hands on the cement floor, manoeuvre ourselves between each other’s legs. It was great fun until inexplicably he reached down and pinned my shoulders underwater. I remember desperately trying to escape his grasp, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, in a state of utter panic and using all my little-boy strength, I was able to wiggle free, gasping for air as I surfaced. I now count myself very lucky that I don’t suffer from claustrophobia or various water-related fears as that traumatic moment in time is seared in my consciousness forever.

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Avrum Miller

• I was born in March 1944, when my father was flying convoy patrol over the North Atlantic with the RCAF. My mother and I spent most of my early months on her father’s farm near St. Mary’s, Ont. When I was 15 months old, in May 1945, the war was winding down. My father was discharged from the RCAF on Aug. 1, 1945, and my mother wanted to send him a picture of me “working” on the farm as he served his final months in the armed forces. I’m told she tucked me under her arm and started the cows down the lane to pasture after the morning milking and then set me down to carry on herding the cows.

John Clement

• My earliest memory is pedalling my tricycle down the hall through the wide doorway into the kitchen through to the dining room and on into the living room, round and round the big old house my parents rented on the river. The joy of independence and freedom in motion have propelled me through the next 70-plus years of my life.

Kathleen Vance

• My earliest memory is listening on the radio to the wedding of the Duke of Kent to Princess Marina of Greece in November 1934. I will be 93 in October this year, so I was a four years old then.

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Doreen Dunne

• One winter day in Hove, England, my mother gives me a toy submarine. I’m sitting in a high-chair. I promptly throw the toy through a window. I love the musical sound of the breaking glass and laugh in delight. My mother begins weeping. Oh no, how could you, she says. It was not until some years passed that I understood how desperately poor my mother and I were then, in profoundly depressed post-war Britain, before my father returned from the army and I met him.

Michael Price

• I have an earliest memory story and I even remember the date. I was two years and 10 months old when, on June 20, 1952, my brother was born. I was staying with my grandparents at the time. It was memorable for many reasons. There was the Pepsodent tooth powder — not my favourite way to clean teeth. I slept in their bed, but I have no idea where they slept. My father would bring me a Dixie Cup of ice cream on his way home from work.

One Sunday, my grandparents took me to a church strawberry tea. I had my first taste of Philadelphia cream cheese, which I still enjoy 70 years later. I managed to open a gate which closed behind me. I couldn’t reach the latch on the inside of the gate and cried for my grandmother to let me in. I am now 73 and my grandmother has long gone, but the memory of Pepsodent, Philly Cheese, ice cream and a locked gate are my earliest memories, and they are cherished.

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Ken Harper

• My earliest memory is one which stays with me because it’s a recurring thought which is reinforcing the memory. In my memory, the day is bright and warm, I am in a crib next to an open window on my right. There is a door and a kitchen beyond. I hear a group of people chatting, but don’t see them. A man in a uniform walks toward the foot of the crib, he looks at me, then lifts me up above his head, lays me back down and walks back toward the kitchen. When I was a teen I asked my dad who this might have been. He said it sounds like the house we lived in between 1942-47 and the man was most likely my Uncle Doug when he came home from the army. I was born in May, 1945, and would have been just three to six months old that summer … but that doesn’t make sense as I would be much too young to remember that event.

Sally Funk

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