For Shula: The Best Dog There Ever Was
Yesterday morning Shula, twelve years of age and the Hazelton family dog for almost eleven and a half of them, was put to sleep in a veterinary surgery in King's Lynn. We are missing her.
In the autumn of 1999 my daughter Jen, then not quite seven years of age, prevailed upon her mum to make a two pronged approach to me about getting a pet dog. We had never had one before. Mrs Hazelton - Nicky - comes from a large family where dogs were the norm. In fact, when we were first walking out, her parents owned three. But I had had little to with them, had never owned one myself, and with a house full of antique furniture and clocks (my trade) to consider, I was less than enthusiastic.
But, two females against one mere man …! Shula was an RSPCA rescue animal, and was chosen by Jen. I was not personally present when they went to make their selection. Jen said afterwards that the sight of Shula trying to push her head under the wire was what had decided her. Although years later Jen also confessed that it had been her intention as well to get the biggest one they had! And Shula was indeed quite a big dog ...
About ten months old and, we were told, named 'Shona' which we changed to Shula. We fixed her birthday at January 1st which was about right. Part German Shepard, part goodness knows what else, she had a beautifully sleek black coat, gorgeous brown eyes, a jet black nose, and light brown 'boots' to her feet and lower legs. Big yet slender, with particularly long hind legs, huge bat-like ears, and an overgrown puppy personality. Ebullient, very anxious to please, sweet natured though nervous, she had not had the best of starts in life. Fearful of being shut in closed spaces - even a normal room - and terrified (all her life) of raised voices, and strangely cautious at first about eating out of her bowl, as if almost expecting to get hit for doing so.
Jen and Nicky adored Shula from the outset. “The best dog in the world!” as a six year old Jen explained. “She's my little sister!” Hugh, meeting Shula for the first time upon her arrival at home and taking her out on her brand new new lead for the very first time, encountered our then next door neighbour who asked: “What sort of a dog is it?” “This,” Hugh replied, “is a pure bred Hell Hound!” And she could pull on the lead like a steam engine!
There were problems. Left alone for any length of time during the working day, even when given the run of the whole house, Shula would chew at the furniture. Two newly upholstered Sheraton Revival bedroom chairs had their seats shredded all over the hall on one occasion. Strange things like cutlery left on the kitchen drainer seemed to attract her chewing attention also. And then she discovered electrical cables, and how to scrabble up carpets with her front paws in order to reach them. A telephone line was also destroyed by her. The RSPCA people said it was down to anxiety. For a few days she had to be returned to the RSPCA, and her future with the Hazeltons hung in the balance. In the end it was decided to fetch her back. I am so glad, even at this present moment in time, that we arrived at that decision.
As if by magic, upon her return the chewing habit ceased. She seemed finally to have learned that however long we were away for, we would eventually get back to her. Jen's school friends, all then still quite young, used to come over to play with her and take her for walks. She loved people of all ages, but youngsters especially. Hated cats though and, unfortunately, other dogs. She was a big girl, and after once firmly seeing off a male dog who ventured too close, she became fully aware of her own strength. She could be badly behaved indeed with other canines, and there were a couple of occasions when we had to apologise to other owners.
In the summer months we often took her with us for long walks up on the north Norfolk coast at Holkham. Sometimes with up to thirty people from the old walking club which we once belonged to. Shula would race across the sands, splash through the shallow water at the distant tide line, and then wolf down her own personal plate of fish and chips along with everyone else sitting on the sea wall at Wells-next-the-Sea. And then walk back through the pine dunes. She never seemed to get tired. On at least three occasions she took part in the annual RSPCA charity dog walk held on the royal estate at Sandringham.
Most of all though, Shula simply blended into the household and became 'our' dog. A part, and an important part, of the Hazelton family. Over the months, and the years. Good natured, affectionate, occasionally exasperating, we all came to love her and she loved us all back. Nicky she certainly regarded as her mother, and would often follow her from room to room. Without fail she would always come and say 'thank you' for her main meal of the day by shoving her snout between your legs as soon as she had finished eating it. She also loved sleeping on the bed covers when Nicky was daytime sleeping due to night shifts. She even seemed to have learned Nicky's shift times, and would lie patiently on the hall floor listening for the scrunch of tyres on the gravel at the appropriate times. In latter times Jen's by now late teen-aged college friends regularly attend 'sleepovers', often up to six or eight of them at a time (we run a fairly relaxed regime here!) and at those times Shula would prefer their company, sitting up to all hours watching 'chick-flick' DVDs and then settling herself down amidst the confusion of sleeping bags and pillowed heads for much of the following morning – she definitely liked being one of the girls!
When Jen was around fourteen years old - I cannot remember exactly when it was - she won a rose growing competition. The prize for this was to get to name a newly bred strain of rose with a pink/orange flower head. Thus it was that 'The Shula Rose' came into being! We have four Shula Rose plants in the garden at the present time.
When Shula was just two years old Nicky, although nobody else, suspected there was a medical problem and took her to the vets. Indeed there was, a twisted bowel, and the subsequent operation unquestionably saved Shula's life. Well done Nicky! Later on Shula survived two separate operations to remove cancerous growths. At her six monthly health checks in June and December 2010 the vet commented on her remarkable state of health given her age. Even her teeth remained sound, along with her vision and her mental capacity.
Shula enjoyed Christmas 2010, stuffing herself with roast beef, eating lots of treats, and making short work – as ever – of the squeaky rubber bone you always get in doggy stockings. And she would have walked on water practically for another Chocolate Orange segment! On the 27th we had to leave her home alone when we went to visit Nicky's family in north east Norfolk for the day. Shula was pleased to see us back, but unusually subdued. She went off her food, started drinking to excess. We blamed ourselves and too much Chocolate Orange. On the 29th, the earliest date that could be managed, she was taken to the vets. The diagnosis was kidney problems due to age. Hospitalised for several days, she was returned home with further drugs to take. Getting her to take them proved difficult, but we managed. She seemed to pick up. Even went back to her normal two walks a day for a short time. But still little appetite, and she began to loose weight noticeably. The stairs, once bounded up in seconds, became difficult. And then, very suddenly, her hind legs collapsed under her three times within the space of a few hours, and each time left her gasping.
An emergency appointment on a Saturday morning. We had to lift her in and out of the car. Even during the short wait in the vet's waiting room she was slurping water from the dog drinking bowl there. The vet, a Saturday locum whom we had never met before, called us through. A small, grey haired Scotsman of around my own age, he handled the situation very decently. Kidney failure. I signed the form. He injected her in her right foreleg while all her family, all three of us, held onto her and told her what a brilliant dog she truly was. I would like to think that her final conscious thoughts were of our familiar scents all around her. And I would like to think she would have been comforted by that. About half a minute after death she gave a couple of convulsions as air left her lungs. Jen was understandably very distressed by that.
We were told we would be invoiced later, and let out via the staff entrance. I briefly shook the Scotsman's hand at the doorway, and thanked him for the sensitivity he had shown. I have no idea what his name was. Opening our own front door upon returning home with no big, black, tail wagging dog to greet us brought things home. In the afternoon Jen had to face a working shift at her Saturday job, and she did. Nicky and I cleared away all of Shula's possessions. Her collar and her favourite toy - an orange rubber bone - will be kept. Everything else is gone.
The main thing is Shula really did live a very good and long life.
But right now we really are missing her.
The best dog there ever was. Shula. January 1999 - 29th January 2011.
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