Our boy Chewie wasn’t an easygoing dog.
He was accident-prone from the beginning and seemingly without any sense of self-preservation, an attribute that led to his parents jumping fully clothed into a local canal – not once, but twice in quick succession – in order to rescue him from a watery end. He always did love a swim.
He was a smart boy, but resistant to training. He preferred to apply his brains to devising new methods of obtaining forbidden or inaccessible food.
To be honest, it didn’t even have to be actual food. He once got through three quarters of a full bag of Dynamic Lifter at my Mum’s place before we realized what was happening. The 3am digestive repercussions of that little incident will be forever preserved in our memories, if not in the carpet.
But over the years my husband worked tirelessly with him, and they reached a happy compromise; Chewie would do pretty much whatever Brendan wanted, assuming he was paid handsomely and immediately in treats.
But equally, I don’t think there was anyone he wanted to please more than his daddy.
And strong-willed. I thought I knew stubborn when I saw it, but he redefined it for me. When we picked him up from the breeder, she warned us: ‘He’ll train you before you train him!’. We scoffed at this and went on our merry way, confident in our ability to handle one small – albeit naughty -puppy.
She was right.
He trained us to abandon the puppy crate he hated so much. He trained us to accept his position as forever-inside-dog. He trained me to relinquish my his favourite blanket and to not even think of eating an apple without splitting it 50/50 with him (okay, fine – more like 70/30 in his favour). He trained us to happily accept our tiny allotment of couch while he spread-eagled himself across the lion’s share.
He did all this and much more through positive reinforcement: he was sweetest, funniest, most sensitive dog you’d ever meet. Yes, he was challenging, but his spirit was part of what made him so unique.
And he was a bull in a china shop of course, but kind of like Ferdinand in temperament – only instead of wanting to smell the flowers, he just wanted to be with his humans and eat pizza.
How he loved pizza. And consequently, the doorbell. He learned to associate the sound with impending pizza, which says a lot about our dietary habits.
In turn, the pizza delivery guy – and eventually the Thai and Chinese delivery guys – learned to associate our house with a large fur-hurricane who desperately wanted to introduce himself (and take any food off their hands). The poor bastards would drop off our order and leg it out the front gate as quickly as possible. They weren’t to know Chewie wouldn’t hurt a fly (he’d happily hurt cockroaches though. For some reason he liked to kill them with a giant paw-swat and then work at squishing them flat as a pancake by repeatedly rolling over them on his back).
He also loved cauliflower. Pineapple. Hunting for earplugs like some sort of truffle pig and gobbling them up. Discarded kebab wrappers. ‘Helping’ me in the garden (read: eating my garden trowel). Sydney Park at 6am. Deliciously cool puddles he could plonk himself into. Curling up on my pillow not a minute after being expressly forbidden to do so. Stealing toilet rolls from the bathroom and burying them in the backyard. Have you ever seen 35 kilos of sheepish puppy trying to slink beneath your radar with a roll of Sorbent double-ply in his mouth?
He never failed to make us laugh. Sometimes I’d walk into the bathroom and find him randomly standing in the bathtub, as if he’d been waiting for me. God knows why.
He had a face that enabled him to get away with nearly anything, including: stealing and eating entire cartons of eggs, digging up freshly planted trees, burying his dad’s favourite t-shirt in the yard (and faithfully returning it in an advanced state of decomposition six months later), liberating whole burger patties from the dining table, feasting upon snails while lying ON OUR BED, and – last but not least – wolfing down his own poo just before burping in my face.
His charms even worked on complete strangers. During one particularly embarrassing trip to the park, he stole a little girl’s sandwich right out of her hands. She cried. Her Dad had every right to be angry of course, but he took one look at Chewie and let it go.
He had that effect on people.
He was famous around the neighbourhood and at the local dog parks. People knew his name long before they knew ours, which I loved. Dogs bring out the humanity in people in a way that other people don’t.
Our local burger joint even got into the habit of cooking him his own ‘Chewie Burger’ whenever we’d show up with him in tow. They’d pack it in a little box with a drawing of him on the lid. It got to the point where we’d walk past the place on one of our early morning jaunts and he’d splay himself down on the footpath outside, refusing to move. It took a lot to convince him a Chewie Burger wasn’t forthcoming at 6am.
And without fail, every time we took him out for walk people would stop us in the street to ask us his name, what kind of dog he was and whether they could pat him (many tried, but unless there were edible bribes on offer he was notoriously aloof with strangers…just another one of his many eccentricities).
So despite being a stubborn, highly neurotic tub-of-guts kleptomaniac who would happily sell you out for half a bag of organic fertiliser, it was hard not to fall in love with him.
Chewie was only six months old when he had his first seizure. He was on the bed with me at the time (how well he trained his humans!). It was – and still is – one of the most violent things I’ve ever seen. I woke up to the feel of him thrashing against my back, and turned on the light to find him coiled up and convulsing. His jaws were locked open and ropes of saliva flew from his mouth as his whole body shuddered. His legs stuck out at odd angles while his paws paddled at the air, and he lost control of his bladder.
It was a sight we were to become familiar with, but it never got easier to watch.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when he came out of that first seizure – the confusion and shock and vulnerability. It broke my heart. I couldn’t even explain to him why he felt bad.
The vet diagnosed genetic epilepsy, an incurable disease all too common in purebred dogs. The treatment approach is to minimize the seizures as much as possible, not just because they’re individually traumatic, but because they’re cumulative; the more seizures a dog has, the more their brain learns to have them. And as a consequence, the more likely it is that they will go into status epilepticus – a state where the dog starts convulsing and doesn’t stop, leading to overheating that literally ‘cooks’ them from the inside-out.
Thus began our battle to keep the dreaded seizure monster at bay.
We tried the standard medications: Phenomav, Bromide, and eventually Kepra.
We put him on a raw food diet. We tried giving him fish oil. We tried icing his neck when a seizure started. We tried avoiding or pre-empting suspected ‘triggers’ – things like chemical flea treatments, household cleaners and extreme weather/temperature changes.
We tried keeping his weight down so that the meds would work more efficiently (no easy feat when you have a dog that will happily devour a tennis ball cover and several of his own poo bags if there’s nothing else on offer. Yes, that actually happened and it all came out the other end in one go, along with several earplugs).
Bromide was the most effective of all – it gave us Chewie’s longest seizure-free period. In late 2012 he went three whole months without having one, and it was amazing. He was his most joyful, naughty, robust self during that time, and we felt like we were getting a hold on the disease.
But eventually, the dam always broke. We’d wake up in the middle of the night to Chewie’s distressed barking at the bottom of the stairs – it was his way of telling us he’d had a seizure and needed our help.
Often we’d hear his initial collapse and make it in time to get a cushion under his head so it didn’t thrash against the floor. Then we’d hold him, stroke his rigid body and talk to him through the convulsions – tell him he was a good boy and that it was time to come back to us.
Eventually the seizure would end and his body would go limp and still – all but for his tail. His tail would start thumping on the floor when he realised we were there.
Sometimes the after-effects of a seizure were mild and all he’d need to recover was something to eat to get his blood sugar up. But more often than not he wasn’t so lucky; he’d come out of the seizure completely blind, disoriented and covered in his own urine. One of us would hold his collar and pace the floors with him so that he didn’t injure himself. He’d often slip into a second ‘aftershock’ seizure after a few minutes.
I don’t know how many times during those black, still hours between 12 and 5am I watched Brendan lift Chewie into the bathtub and wash him clean so he wouldn’t have to go back to bed covered in his own wee. And I think that, even though we had our first baby just months ago, it was Chewie that made us parents.
I don’t want to focus too much more on the horror of the seizures, because they weren’t the main part of sharing life with Chewie. His joy and character were the main parts, the best parts of having him. But I loved him, our brave, funny, crazy boy, and I guess I just want to share what he went through.
He was a brutal literary critic. When we weren’t watching he’d select a book from the shelf and – with great relish – proceed to tear the pages out one by one and toss them over his head until they covered the entire floor. Weirdly, he’d go through phases where he’d only eat the books of one particular author before moving onto the next. I still wonder how he differentiated between them.
And once, in a fantastic demonstration of irony, he actually ate his own homework from puppy school (along with a book titled ‘In Defence of Dogs’).
‘Mr Bacca’ (my niece Kasey gave him this nickname as a puppy and it stuck) also had a raging social life outside of his home life with us, a circle of people who loved him and helped us take care of him from almost the day we brought him home.
Everyone at Mutley Crew (Sydney’s best doggy daycare) looked after our boy like he was their own, and I guess in part he was. They were his daytime family. They picked him up and brought him home each day, looked after him when we went away, counted out his pills and made sure he swallowed them, and kept an eye on him when he wasn’t well (and towards the end that was nearly all the time). They’d even take him to our vet (the amazing Annandale Veterinary Hospital, where everyone knew Chewie by name) if he was unwell while we were at work. They were his humans too, and he dug his way into their hearts (and probably buried t-shirts there). He collected so many of us, the special boy.
Last June, while I was still in hospital after having given birth to our daughter, Chewie was on his way home with his (human) buddy Jason, when he started seizing in Jason’s truck. This escalated into cluster seizures – where the seizures come one after another with barely any time in between.
Jason raced our boy to the vet, where they managed to break him out of the seizure cycle. But the prognosis wasn’t good. Chewie’s epilepsy was getting out of control, and after several years we’d exhausted most of our treatment options.
The last hope on the medication front was a relatively new pill known as Kepra. We decided to give it a shot.
Kepra proved to be effective, but there was a catch. In order to keep the seizures at bay, we had to have Chewie on a dosage so high that he was constantly doped to the eyeballs – to the point where he started walking in his own excrement and his back legs began collapsing.
After a month or so on the highest possible dose, he (unbeknownst to us) developed excruciating pancreatitis, which left him unwilling to eat (unheard of in Chewie-world) and even worse, unable to swallow his pills. This led to our worst nightmare, status epilepticus.
At the end of a quiet day at home with me, Chewie went into a seizure on our kitchen floor. I put my daughter in her bassinet, shoved a pillow under Chewie’s head and wrapped my arms around him. But unlike previous seizures, he didn’t fully surface. The convulsions would slow down, only to rev up again, and again, and again.
With our baby girl screaming in the living room and Chewie still thrashing on the floor, I raced to grab his emergency Valium and injected him with it. It took about 15 minutes to take effect, but finally the convulsions slowed, then stopped. He came to and got up on his feet; I picked my daughter up and we watched as Chewie (high as a kite – his pupils were the size of 5-cent pieces) tried to ‘walk it off’, pacing from one end of the backyard to the other.
Even after this, it took time to reach a decision we’d always considered out of the question.
The smaller moments tipped us over, in the end. Watching him struggle to get up in the morning for the walks he’d always loved. Seeing him face-plant into the ground trying to chase his toys. Force-feeding him his 13 pills a day (even hiding them in mince meat didn’t work anymore, the cheeky sod would spit them out when we weren’t looking). Watching him loiter in the kitchen (which he liked to do in the off chance that there would be scraps on offer, or perhaps pate on crackers – another treat we liked to share), but struggle to stay upright on the floor tiles as his back legs buckled beneath him.
We made the agonising decision to let our boy go.
One sunny afternoon in early October, we took Chewie to the local doggy beach at Jubilee Park for a swim. His legs wobbled on the steps on the way down to the sand, but he managed to enjoy a quick dip and even tried to give chase to some of the other dogs.
That night for dinner, he got a whole pizza to himself.
We got up early the next day and drove to Sydney Park for our morning walk. This had been our beloved weekend ritual for over three years. It sounds trite and cheap when I put it into writing, but those early morning walks around that park with my husband and my dog – my little family – were some of the most joyous times of my life. And it was Chewie’s favourite place in the world, aside from maybe the couch and our bed.
On this occasion – as on many previous occasions – he found himself a delightfully muddy puddle to roll in.
We came home. I sat outside with Chewie and fed him an ice cream while we waited for the vet to arrive.
I can’t bring myself to go into detail about the rest of that morning, and I guess it’s not really necessary. What I will say is that Chewie passed away peacefully and painlessly, with our arms wrapped around him, eating the last of his pizza.
Goodbye, my boy. I think about you every day. It seems I can’t cut up a cauliflower without thinking about you, or eat gelato, or bite into an apple, or walk past your favourite park – the one with the puddles under the swings.
I still can’t hear the damned doorbell ring without expecting to see you scream down the hallway, jumping out of your skin with excitement at the prospect of some irresistible delicacy coming through that door.
I remember the earthy smell of your paw pads. I remember the wet, rough surface of your nose. I remember the warmth of your big belly; I used to warm my hands on it in winter. I remember the silky feel of your ears and how you would nudge my hands when you wanted me to rub them.
No more nasty pills. No more shaking legs. No waking up blind and frightened, and no more muscles torn from convulsions. The seizure monster is gone, vanquished. You can rest now.
You were naughty, funny, stubborn, eccentric, ever-hungry and always an individual. But most of all, you were our good boy. We love you. We miss you.