His say: Martin Freeman: Goodbye to a most trusting friend
HE WAS just a dog, and a bog standard one at that – black Labradors are Britain's most common breed.
He was a couple of weeks shy of his 16th birthday, a cracking age for a Lab.
And he was on his last legs – his back pair had "gone" through arthritis. For the last month he'd been unable to stand unaided.
And so all the comforting words from friends and family were apt: "he'd had a good innings"; "it was the kindest thing to do"; "you wouldn't want him to suffer".
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Why, then, has the death of my dog hit me so hard? Partly because of a sense of guilt.
The outstanding characteristic of the relationship that a dog has with his or her owner is trust. To them, you are God. They never question your actions or judgment.
Yet my last act was to betray that trust, to con him with soothing words and strokes as the vet struggled to find a vein in his weak front legs for the cannula through which the lethal injection was given.
"It's all right, Jet. Don't worry. That's a good lad."
He bore the discomfort without complaint, as any loyal, trusting dog would.
A few seconds after the fluid finally went in, his life was over.
"Put to sleep" is a euphemism, although that was precisely the illusion. I stared at his body, expecting him to wake up.
"He's gone," the vet said, confirming that his heart had stopped.
He arrived when he was two and a half: we "adopted" him from a dog rescue organisation.
I'd never had a dog before and did not know what to expect. The answer was the unexpected: I started to see the world differently. Things familiar to me were utterly novel to him: rabbits, snow, boats, a torch, a fire, Christmas presents, sand, the sea, waves, an empty bucket.
That sense of delight and wonder is infectious and uplifting. It's impossible to feel down on a drizzly January day on a well-trodden route when there is a bouncing bundle of happiness on the other end of the lead with an expression on his face that says "this is the best walk ever".
His enthusiasm for life was never diminished even when he was forced to share it – and wait longer for attention – following the arrival of our first child.
Like him, she was adopted. There was no warning for Jet: suddenly there was a fellow four-year-old in the house.
Our first day out together with the new arrival was to an estuarine beach in the South Hams. When the tide raced in, we had to grab our things and quickly move higher up the beach.
As our daughter dreamily followed at a distance, Jet hung back, ambling at her side. He had utterly and immediately accepted the new arrival into the family, despite slipping to number four in the pecking order.
He was just as welcoming when we adopted our son four years later. By then Jet was, if anything, even more tolerant of the poking fingers and clumsy feet of another strange young child.
More importantly, both children bonded first with the dog. Having been let down by most adults in their lives before their new parents were presented to them, they were wary of trusting any grown-ups.
They had absolute trust in Jet, though, their four-legged parent. They would curl up with him when anxious or sad, read aloud to him when chilled and draw him into their games when happy.
Lego houses were built around him, cars raced through his legs, dolls rode his back.
When they dressed up, Jet was expected to do the same, knowing there would be a biscuit as reward if the play become over-demanding.
He went along happily with this new role as the primary bond within the family, clearly enjoying the attention.
Without being asked he would follow my son upstairs at bedtime and stay there until the lad was asleep, then head to my daughter's bedroom and be with her until she nodded off. Job done, he would head back downstairs.
No owner will be surprised by that story. Dogs have an amazing empathy with their families.
That is not just my romantic view of the relationship between man and his best friend. There is hard evidence: an episode in the BBC science series, Horizon, highlighted many unique characteristics including the fact that dogs are the only animals that "read" faces in the same way humans do (The Secret Life Of The Dog, 2009; you can still catch clips and excerpts online).
I am proud to say that the empathy worked both ways. As Jet aged and slowed, his two young charges moved into new roles as his care assistants.
If he was off his food they would tempt him with treats. They cleared up his increasingly frequent "accidents".
So strong was the love shown by both children to their dog that I was worried that his death would damage the family.
Both were inconsolable. My son's open grief was amazing: he rarely shows vulnerability.
It was terrible to watch but at the same time reassuring.
The very best of man's best friends – in death as in life he pulled our family together.
And now he's gone. But gone where?
Physically his remains are in the garden, under the pear tree where he used to rummage among the undergrowth in the late summer, looking for windfalls to munch on.
That accounts for his flesh and bones. What about Jet himself? His soul or spirit or consciousness or whatever you call it, the mysterious entity that made him alive?
I have no idea. When forced by death to consider life, the Universe and everything the best I can come up with is that, for the sake of our sanity amid grief, there has to be something else.
Perhaps infinite Universe is all there is; and if there are too many stars and planets to count, then all things are possible. If so, then on another planet somewhere one day there will be another me watching another youthful Jet bouncing around looking for my slipper so we can have a tug of war across the kitchen floor.
Farewell, old fella, until we meet again.