This is an article I wrote when I was still a Befriender (volunteer animal bereavement counsellor) for the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS). SCAS is now part of the Blue Cross. Sadly after a major road accident in 1997, my injuries meant that I had to cease my activities for the society but this article was latterly included in the SCAS learning pack “When a pet dies."  

Way back in 1979 when I invested a whole £5 on a scruffy Jack Russell Border Collie bitch puppy, she was the first dog I had ever shared my life with. She helped me through many troubled times over the years and asked for nothing in return. So when in December 1995 she looked at me in a way that said “dad I really can’t go on.” I knew immediately that the time had come to help her move on from this life while some dignity still remained.

To many, on first sight I am probably not an archetypal befriender if such a person exists. I’m large (hence the name Slim), hairy, tattooed and pierced and more often than not, leather clad. I’m a biker and often look like the type of person you wouldn’t want your daughter bringing home to tea. But my old dog Zak, in her 16.5 years of life gave me more pleasure, faithfulness and trust than I’ve had from many people I’ve known before or since.

On that evening that my vet helped her pass over into peace at last, released from pain and age, I was humbled by the dignity with which she slipped away. And I’m not afraid to admit I cried. In fact I cried off and on for a long time. I cried as I collected her tired little body from the vet the next day for her final journey to the animal crematorium in East Grinstead. As I would for a fellow biker I wore full biking regalia and my colours in honour of her spirit which was as big as the sky. I drove her first past our old house and then to our new home in Biggin Hill (Kent) where she had spent the last months of her life, enjoying the odd slow walk in the nearby woods and fields. Eventually I carried her into the house and laid her in her basket one last time. My other dog Flug (Pronounced Floog) a Border Collie bitch, but wiser maybe than us humans, sniffed at Zak just once and looked at me as if to say that this was just a body, Zak’s spirit having already flown.

On the way to the crematorium the sun beat down from a clear blue winter sky. When we arrived I laid her in state in the crematorium’s chapel of rest, bounded by flowers, curled up on her favourite blanket in her old basket. I’d given her a Bonio as she always liked one at night before we went to bed. In touch with our spiritual beliefs my then partner and I placed gifts of tobacco, sage grass and dentalium shells wrapped in her blanket. These showed she had been a dog of great wealth and esteem in life and would help her in the life to come. When I had to leave her, the sun hid behind the clouds and the rain fell as the heavens cried.

My partner and I had always said that, when the time came, we would give a home to another dog. And fate played its hand. The next day I had to return to where we had previously lived. In passing I stopped off at the pet shop where I had bought Zak all those years ago. And there in the window was a little Border Collie puppy. He was 9.5 weeks old, sold once and returned as “too difficult to keep” by owners who’d managed to cut off half his tail and get him infected with a deep tissue fungal infection which took months to heal. But we were meant to love him and so I bought him home and we named him Shunka, the Sioux Lakota word for dog.

He helped my partner and I grieve for Zak. He went with us when we collected her ashes the next Saturday. As young as he was he seemed to sense the sadness around him and was still and silent as we cried for the loss of little Zak.

The Plains Native Americans, the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) make offerings to those who have gone before to be with The Father. They make ties of bright cloth filled with tobacco which are then hung from the bough and branches of a tree. As half our garden is woodland, my partner hung such an offering from a tree about eighty foot from the house. I added my own memorial in the manner of the North Californian people the Karuk by hanging one of her own possessions, a favourite toy, from the same tree. Then from back indoors we watched as a mist descended and hid the tree from view. Three times the mist rose and fell and then it dispersed to reveal a beautiful bright sunlit day. We knew that Zak had arrived and was seated beside the Great Spirit where all animals go.

Little Shunka has grown. He’s a lovely dog and he’s going to be big, except for his little stumpy tail. But still, occasionally out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Zak. When I look again she’s gone. Zak will always remain in my heart, mind and soul as the best old ‘wozzle’ dog there ever was.

I’ve shared this story with many people over the years and no doubt will share it with many more in the years to come, especially those who have never known the undemanding love of any companion animal. Many people have never heard of S.C.A.S and befrienders until they met me. And I think that, coming from a man and especially one who often looks like a renegade from a Bad Biker movie, this story often helps many recognize within themselves the true worth, happiness and love that a companion animal can bring. And if I can help just one person to share and realise their grief at the loss of a beloved pet then I feel that I have achieved something worthwhile.

Slim Haines 1996

Post script December 2007

Sadly both the dogs mentioned, Flug and Shunka passed away this year in February (17yrs) and July (11.5yrs) respectively. I am still proud to have their son Chishii as my companion as well as a little 4 year old terror of a rescued Border Collie called Mist who, as much as he tries my patience, one day I am sure will settle down and become much less disturbed than he is. He deserves that much after the way life has treated him.

Slim writes: 'Zak was a real old scruffy mongrel and always looked as though she was walking along in the middle of a force 9 gale. One ear went up and the other stayed down and her fur went in all directions.
Her nickname of "wozzle" came from her insatiable curiosity. It was a shortened version of "What's all this then?" but pronounced as "Wozzle Disden?" and finally shortened to Wozzle. If there was a bag, box, container of any sort then she had to go stick her head in it and see what was there.'

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