I was not a great dog mom. I rarely walked her. I never brushed her hair. Some days came and went and I barely even looked at her, caught up in the daily fuss of work and parenting. I noticed her most when she wasn’t there at all, especially when one of the kids dropped a raisin or Cheerio on the floor. Shit, I gotta bend over and pick that up? Splash was the original Roomba.
But my husband, Andrew, was the best dog dad in the whole world, so I know her life was good because of him, in spite of me. When I first met Andrew in our mid-twenties, his family dog was about 15. He was heart broken when Lacey died, so I wasn’t surprised when he told me: If we are going to be together, there must also be a dog. (My allergies be damned.)
His love of dogs was one of the reasons I loved him, so what could I say? A dog mom I would be. We did some research and settled on the Portuguese Water Dog – hypoallergenic, big enough to take fishing, and small enough to fit into our humble bungalow and midsize car. We found a lovely woman named Mary-Anne who was breeding her porties in her home in Wentworth, Nova Scotia. Her female, Penney, was pregnant, so we put in our order. On Friday the 13th of April, 2007, our girl was born. But of course we didn’t yet know which one she was.
We picked her from a photo of the litter – eight or nine sleeping balls of fur in a myriad of black and white. We knew her when we saw her; she was a little separated from the group – a sure sign that she was adventurous and ready to travel across the Gulf to become a Newfoundlander. Most porties are black with just a few white spots, but Splash was equal parts black and white, like a tiny dairy cow.
We even thought about calling her Cowie. But we settled on Splash, elated to realize that the first two letters of our childhood dogs’ names combined to spell it — Spook, Lacey, Skip. And an unexplained H. (Hey, Newfoundlanders love putting H’s where they don’t belong.) It was meant to be.
When she was eight weeks old and ready to leave her mother, Andrew flew to Halifax and brought her home in a little bag tucked under his seat on the plane. She was 10 pounds and fully trained to pee and poop outside, with big brown eyes and fur like ripples of silk. She was perfection, softer than clouds, her breath as sweet as sugar.
She was cute but feisty. Mary-Anne later confirmed it – we had picked the alpha female in the litter. This would be extra fun when she was a fully grown 50-pounder! I remember one night shortly after we got her, Splash trotted to the front door to watch master Andrew leave for hockey. As soon as the door shut behind him, she turned to me sitting on the couch, arched her wee body like a jungle cat, and charged at me. She chased me around the couch for ten minutes while I yelped, half amused and half shit-baked. I was being terrorized by a fuzzy dice with legs! Her Friday the 13th birth started to make sense; we had ourselves a demon baby. It took me a while to show her that I, too, was boss. Though I’m not sure she was ever fully convinced. They say a dog only has one master, and it wasn’t me.
She was a super mischievous pup. I once left a ceramic plate of burnt cookies on the stove and returned home to find the plate laying on her bed across the room — intact and not a crumb to be seen.
She destroyed many a shoe. I mourned a few favourite sneakers.
We often returned home to see garbage strewn across the living room.
Once she even got into my stash of lady products and had a proper chow-down. If you’re ever wondering what a tampon looks like after it has travelled through a dog’s digestive system, just ask me.
But she was a dog with a conscience. We always knew she had done something naughty when she didn’t greet us at the front door with her signature shoe-in-mouth move. Sure enough, there’d be a steamer on the rug, and Splash would be on our bed trembling with fear.
Eating tampons doesn’t sound too bright, but she was sharp as a tack. She could sit, lie down, roll over, give you her paw, and toss a treat from her nose to her mouth.
She could count too. I shit you not. Drop a treat on the ground and tell her not to touch it till you count to three. “One… two…………THIRTEEN!” She’d jut her head toward the treat before realizing I said thirteen, not three, and continue to wait patiently. If the counting went on too long, drool would drip from her lips. Sometimes she just couldn’t resist and picked the treat up gingerly, hoping maybe we hadn’t noticed.
She could answer the phone. Yes, I’m serious. Press the page button on the base to make the cordless phone beep and she’d ransack the house to find the phone and return it to you. We’d be in another room when suddenly the beeping would get closer and closer to us; she had found it and was on her way, proud as punch.
And, at just five months old, Andrew taught her to get a beer out of fridge. Don’t believe me? Voila…
She was the centre of our world… until our world got one more human in it. Splash was two years old when our son Max came along, and the confusion of having a child with the #1 dog name in the world commenced. I lost count of how many people called the dog Max and the baby Splash.
Before we left the hospital, we sent home a receiving blanket with the baby’s scent so Splash wouldn’t eat the new eight-pound intruder. As if. Splash humbly took her place at the bottom of the family hierarchy in exchange for all the crumbs tossed from Max’s highchair and all the applesauce on his lips, forever.
She enjoyed 50% of the backseat for a few years… and then Rae came along. We had just enough room for her furry butt, jammed between the two car seats.
But it never deterred her from coming with us on excursions. She always wanted to be with us, no matter what. In her last week of life, we knew she was sick, so I happily squeeeeeezed into the back seat so she could ride shotgun like old times. Splash in the passenger seat was always a riot. Drivers would pull up beside us at red lights, nudge their passenger, and chuckle at us. Splash would glance at them and then stare straight ahead like she gave zero fucks. Pfffft. They didn’t even have any treats.
But watch out – if you reached your right hand over to scratch her while you were driving and then decided to put that hand back on the wheel, oh hell no. She’d paw at you to keep scratching. Yes, her paw would come at you while you were operating a motor vehicle. She didn’t say you could stop, fool! Multi-task! Drive with your knees!
She may have gotten demoted in the car, but she always took top spot in the bed. The kids had to sleep in their own beds but Splash got to sleep with us. At night, she’d walk halfway down the hall, turn around and stare at us, beckoning us to bed because she was tired.
We moved into the city a couple years ago, with neighbours a few feet away in every direction and a backyard the size of a meatball. This was Splash’s retirement home. For most of her life, we lived in a dog’s paradise – rural Torbay, with a house backing onto acres of farmland and a frisbee’s throw from the ocean. She ran free on the East Coast Trail, lapping up rainwater from puddles, chewing on sticks, and sampling the berries. Even in our fenceless backyard, she had space to sniff and explore. Sometimes I’d let her out to pee and completely forget about her. I’d look out the back window and she’d be waaaaaay the bejesus out in the pasture. I’d call out in my most threatening voice (which is not very threatening, unfortunately) for her to come back. She’d look up and stare at me and not budge an inch till I uttered the magic word – “treat.” That bitch ain’t no fool – she begged to go out way more than she needed to, just so I’d have to give her a Milkbone to come back. Sometimes she’d give me a proper “fuck you” and run off even further, treat or no treat, and I’d have to suit up in boots, coat, and angry face to go hunt her down. Which was super fun when I was nine months pregnant with a bowling ball in my underwear.
I spent most of 2009 and 2015 at home on maternity leave, so some days I’d be outside in my bathrobe, baby on my hip, tits exposed to the world, hair like a rat’s nest, yelling “get back here NOW, ya little frigger!” Sometimes I could see neither hide nor hair of her, so I’d have to toss the baby in the backseat, get in the car, and drive around the neighbourhood, scanning the greenery for a little poof of black and white. Usually I’d find her out back of the Foodland where tasty morsels often fell from the dumpster. I’d bawl at her to come hither and she’d start the slow walk of shame to the car, head down, paws full of Torbay mud. Busted again. When Andrew got home from work and asked how my day was, Splash’s latest escapade was often a highlight. Sometimes I didn’t tell him at all so he wouldn’t blame my newfound obsession with Road to Avonlea.
She drove me to drink some days. But chasing her down, taking her for a walk to tire her out so she wouldn’t pull a fast one on me later… It got me out of the house, reminded me there was a whole world out there beyond the diaper pail, when many days I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
Once, we lost her completely. Well, the lady I was paying to clean our filthy house lost her completely. That was an expensive day, let me tell ya. Andrew and I both missed half a day of work, scouring the whole town for the little frigger. We were bound to come up empty because our fuzzy wanderer had been taken into custody. Picked up by the dogcatcher. Yes, apparently that’s not just a fictional character in Annie. I paid a hundred dollars to bail her out of doggy jail at the Town Hall. (Newsflash: you need a proper I.D. tag from the City on your dog. Who knew?)
Splash would never have survived in jail. She loved her freedom too much. She stuck her head out the car window to feel the wind on her face. When we got close to one of her favourite places, like her buddy Jack’s house, she’d start to whine with excitement. She totally knew geography. Or maybe her nose could smell that big ol’ Bernese Mountain Dog. In any case, she figured out how to put down the window with her paw, so she could feel like she was getting there faster.
She liked to run off leash on Dunphy’s Lane, bend the yellow grass in the meadow. We went there the week before she died. But things were different now. There were new homes going up where she used to run, cutting her freeway short. She wouldn’t have been able to run anyways, not now. Splash lay down in the warm grass while we filled our butter tubs with blueberries.
She loved to swim and fetch sticks from the pond on Whitty’s Lane. Ducks scattered when they saw her coming. When we took her for walks, her webbed feet would pull us toward the pond.
She loved to go fishing and camping with Andrew. Once she went on a hard-core canoeing adventure and almost got eaten alive by the nippers. Andrew had to practically carry her home.
She was funny. She slept in the zaniest positions – paws straight up in the air, crotch open to the world. I wondered what she could be dreaming about. She wouldn’t get up in the morning until we did. If we stayed in bed till noon, she’d stay right there with us. Of course sleeping in became a thing of the past once the kids came along. But if one of us was sick in bed, Splash would be right alongside.
She was always happy to see you. As soon as anyone came into the house, she’d be at the front door with a sneaker or a toy in her mouth, circling you with a low growl, tail wagging and butt wiggling, eventually dropping the object at your feet so you could rub her head. That was your cover charge. She especially liked being scratched on her lower back, and did the running man in response.
When you jumped up suddenly and ran upstairs or down the hall, she’d chase you like a madman, nails slipping on the hardwood floor, whining with anticipation. We’d do this on occasion for sheer amusement.
She had jaws of steel. Historically, the strong-jawed Portuguese Water Dog was used by fishermen to haul up nets. Splash used hers to rip the eyes and nose off countless toys. When I put away her things yesterday, on top of the pile was a brown monkey a friend gave me at my first baby shower – with holes where its eyes used to be. Of course I kept it.
Like most dogs, Splash loved to go for walks. But she was was so clever, we had to spell out the word “leash” if we weren’t quite prepared to get up and at ‘em. And when she didn’t want to walk any further or didn’t like the direction you were heading, she’d put on the brakes: planted her four feet on the ground and put her head down. We’d have to drag her home like a stubborn mule.
She spent a lot of time in the bathroom. Think you were going to poop alone? Oh no, you may as well leave the door ajar or she’d be scratching at it within seconds. We’d step on her when we got out of the shower. She licked the water off our legs when we got out. She drank the bath water, bubbles and all. The last few months of her life, the toilet was her personal water fountain.
She’d go into the bedrooms and mess up the bedding. I was never sure why. Gave me a great excuse for never making the beds.
She’d bite our bums when we ran around the backyard. She ripped the arse out of more than one pair of pants.
She rarely barked. Other than finding a scattered turd on your lawn when she ran out of room on ours, she made an ideal neighbour.
She’d hang off the couch in weird and hilarious ways. I have dozens of pictures of Splash perched or dangling or spread eagle on the sofa. What a weirdo.
She loved chasing us when we went sledding in winter, nipping at us all the way down the hill. An extra layer of terror for the descent.
In winter, snow stuck to her fur like a million tiny snowballs. We’d find huge puddles of water on the floor as it melted off her.
She was a friend to all, even after enduring years of abuse from the new humans.
We were very lucky to have such a sweet, gentle soul in our daily lives. But I didn’t say she was polite…
When we went into a restaurant, she’d give us the death stare from the car. GIVE ME YOUR HAMBURGERRRRR. Splash loved food. She died for cheese. The only food we saw her turn down in her 10+ years was a mushroom. Watching a movie with Splash in the room was sheer torture, with her head bobbing toward you every few seconds, gesturing for another piece of popcorn. She stalked everyone eating anything and licked the dirty dishes in the dishwasher; I called her the pre-rinse cycle. When you were eating at the table, you might feel something emerging from under the table, between your legs — don’t worry, it was just Splash’s furry face, taking care of that corn niblet that just fell from your plate. She was very subtle. We joked that she’d choose a pork chop over any one of us, any day.
But during her last couple of weeks, we saw that that was just not true. Her organs were failing, she wasn’t digesting food, she turned up her nose to just about everything we cooked up. On Saturday, we walked into our bedroom and saw her standing in the corner with her head stuck between the nightstand and the wall, a pile of regurgitated food nearby. Eight years ago we might have scolded her, but now all we felt was pity. We rubbed her head and said it was alright, and I quickly cleaned up the mess.
And we knew we had it wrong all this time. The thing she loved most in this world wasn’t food; it was us – the touch of her humans. Belly rubs. Head scratches. It was the only pleasure that remained now at this 11th hour. And so there were many and often. I tried to make up for lost time, rubbing her soft belly every chance I got, sometimes waking in the middle of the night for a cuddle, to make sure she knew I was there. And on Sunday morning as she struggled to live while her body gave up the fight, we held her, and rubbed her, and caressed her silken head, and told her she was a good girl — the very best.
A dog’s life. How basic. How painfully brief. And it’s entirely up to us how it goes. I think that’s why it hurts so much. Because her whole existence – her life, and her death – was for us. Beyond this family, there was nothing. All she ever wanted was a walk, a rub, and a piece of cheese. There’s something terribly pitiful about it all, and something I could never adequately honour. I always struggled with the guilt of skipped walks and her long days at home alone while we worked. I struggle with it still. Did we do enough? Was she happy? Did we do right by her? Did we waste too much time?
There aren’t enough Milkbones in the world to repay her for what she gave us. She was comfort. When I had a rough day at work, her simple presence brought me down to earth. When my dad died, I found solace in her quiet warmth.
She was loyalty. When nobody else saw me, she stared right into my eyes. Hoping I was going to make popcorn, most likely, but still — when nobody else was waiting for me at home, she was there. She made a terrible guard dog – rarely barked, and so friendly she’d happily welcome intruders if they smelled like bacon. But she was there nonetheless – a constant companion, a trusted sidekick. We were never alone.
She was true, uncomplicated love. The way she’d close her eyes and press her head into my hand when I rubbed her ear. That was all she wanted from me (besides popcorn). And when days went by when I didn’t rub those ears or look into those big brown eyes, and those days certainly did go by, she never held a grudge. Mark Twain got it right — if heaven went by merit, we’d stay out and our dog would go in.
She was a reminder to cherish the simple things. Stop fussing. Keep playing. Never stop playing. She is still a reminder of that, perhaps now more than ever. The silence here in the house is so very loud.
I thank Andrew, too, for wanting a dog in the first place (my allergies be damned). I would never have known this sadness, but I would also never have known this love. There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.
Her death is a throbbing reminder that life is short. Time is fleeting. Ten years, man… a decade… gone in a blink. There’s only so much time for walks, only so much time for belly rubs, only so much time. Especially when so much of our time is spent paying the bills, and we’re all so very tired.
We knew the day was coming but we hadn’t discussed what to do once it came. Not an easy thing to talk about; feels like you’re willing it to happen. But when the moment arrived Sunday morning just before dawn, I think we both knew where she belonged.
We woke the kids to touch her satiny coat for the last time. And we laid our first baby to rest in a diaper box, in a spot where she lived her best days. Near where she galloped on the East Coast Trail, back and forth, back and forth, in bursts of the purest bliss. There were cows there as they often were when this was our stomping grounds. They watched us dig the hole, curious, cautious. A cow and her two calves lay in the grass, but the mother soon came to her feet and got a little closer, protecting her little ones, as mothers do. It felt like it meant something.
We covered the box in dirt, marked it with rocks, and returned this magnificent gift to mother earth.
The cows came up to the car as we were leaving. I saw a glimpse of Splash in their eyes. And we left our little girl there on the green hillside with a view of the ocean. It was hard to drive away, but we knew she was home.
I think about her most at bedtime. I picture her there on the hillside, in the darkness all alone instead of curled up at the foot of our bed. I can feel the ache in my chest. I know Andrew feels it too, even more so; he has felt this before. I’m almost surprised by my own grief. It keeps me awake. I flip my pillow to the dry side. As hard as it was to let go of those silky ears and soft belly, I know that’s just her shell out there. The soul of her – the genesis of our family, our steadfast friend – will always be wherever we are.
We have a secret, you and I, that no one else shall know,
for who but I can see you lie each night in fire glow?
And who but I can reach my hand before we go to bed
and feel the living warmth of you and touch your silken head?
And only I walk woodland paths and see ahead of me,
your small form racing with the wind so young again, and free.
And only I can see you swim in every brook I pass
and when I call, no one but I can see the bending grass.