You know how some memories stick in one’s mind as though they happened yesterday? That’s how it is with this incident.
It was a very hot day in May, I’ll never forget it. I’d just finished my housework and we were heading out to our local auberge in France for Sunday lunch. This was a treat I always looked forward to.
As Jack, my husband, and I drove down the almost deserted road towards our eatery, I relaxed and idly flipped through the menu in my mind. H’m what would I choose today? The fillet of salmon and mixed salad was always good and would go very nicely with a glass of ice-cold beer. And for Jack? Doubtless he’d be ordering a plateful of meat, laced with frites à la maison. He jolted me out of my daydreams with a series of tuts.
“Tsk, just look at that – what a mess!”
“Up ahead, there’s a whole load of cardboard in the middle of the road.”
Sure enough, although it was some way off, it looked distinctly like someone had discarded a large cardboard box. I tutted teamily, but as we got closer we realised how wrong we were.
“Jack, it’s moving!”
“You’re right. It must be an animal, perhaps it’s a deer that’s been hit by a car. What a shame.”
We drew alongside the lightly twitching form and got out to see what we could do, only to find that it wasn’t a deer at all. Barely alive, with its head flat on the tarmac, it was a dreadfully emaciated male dog. His ribs and spine stuck out like coat hangers, stretching filthy fur into grotesquely unnatural shapes. Cuts, bare patches and old scars covered much of the animal, it was a pitiful sight.
There was no way we were prepared to leave it exposed in the middle of the road. Aside from the obvious danger from other motorists, the sun was so hot on the tarmac it was causing mirages to form. The dog had to be moved.
So far he hadn’t acknowledged us at all. Swatting away the buzzing flies that surrounded the pathetic body, I stared in dismay at his muzzle. It was a mass of scabs, some bleeding from the bites of fleas and mites which visibly infested the threadbare fur. And he stank. As we began lifting him, he weakly raised his head. Completely docile, he gazed at us pathetically as we gently carried him to a cool, shaded patch of grass on the side of the road.
I waited while Jack dashed back to the house to get a supply of food and water (the photos above show the water bowl). We weren’t sure whether it was wise to give the dog any food, but we felt certain he needed water. We put both down and he managed a little of each. At that stage there was nothing else we could do. We continued on to the auberge and had an unsettled lunch. Somehow our meals didn’t taste quite as good as usual.
We tried to rationalise what we’d seen. Perhaps the dog had wandered off from his kennel. Maybe he had tired himself out and lain on the road, exhausted. Perhaps the owner would come looking for him. Whilst almost logical, those theories didn’t tally with the reality. We talked to our local chums in the auberge and everyone had the same opinion. It was a well-known trick. The animal was probably an old hunting dog who was no longer useful and had been dumped on the road in the hope that someone else would take it in.
With this appalling thought in our minds we said our goodbyes and returned to the spot where we’d left the dog. At first we thought it had gone, but no, we followed a trail of flattened grass and found him. He'd had dragged himself to a shadier spot. There was nothing for it, we couldn’t possibly leave him there all night, so we put him in the car and returned home.
Fortunately, we have a small grassy pen with a kennel so we put the dog in there, isolating him from our own dogs, Aby and Max. At that stage we had no idea whether he might be carrying a disease and didn’t want them in close contact, but we did allow ours to have an introductory sniff through the fence. This didn’t take long. Aby and Max decided there was no fun to be had here and mooched off to do something more interesting.
The dog had been too weak to walk so we left it propped up on some bedding in the kennel with a fresh supply of food and water. That night was a tense one. We prepared ourselves that it would probably be dead the next morning and were amazed to find that not only was it alive, it was standing.
We weren’t entirely sure what to do next but one thing was quite clear, the poor animal needed urgent medical attention. I took him to our vet for a full examination. Doctor Arnaud had seen this kind of case before and was incredibly caring as usual. He confirmed our early suspicions. There was no tattoo, microchip or other form of identity on the dog, he was badly emaciated and had several superficial injuries, including a broken tail. But the list got longer. Blood tests showed that he had a kidney problem, and a dicky heart. He was running a temperature and had a skin disease. He was also old and nearly deaf.
Our vet concluded that the dog had almost certainly been abandoned and asked what we wanted to do. Put it down, or keep it? This was a scenario we hadn’t properly considered. I asked the vet if the dog was in pain. He replied that, other than discomfort from the superficial injuries, he wasn’t. That was all I needed to know, I called Jack to confirm the results and we decided to keep him. Sometime later I left with a huge bag of tablets, special antiseptic shampoo, extra special food and a very large bill.
Now that we had a new dog in the family we had to give it a name. That was easy. Doctor Arnaud had told me it was a wild boar hunting dog; he’d even shown me a particularly nasty looking scar which he thought had been made by a boar’s tusk. Our new dog was named Hunter.
The next few weeks passed in a flurry of activity for Hunter with some basic requirements receiving rapid attention. There was no denying it, he was very smelly indeed. He was also covered with fleas and other small critters, which had a tendency to jump rather a long way. This wasn’t a winning combination for a dog that was going to be living with others, so early action had to be taken.
His general state of filth meant that Hunter was quickly bathed – twice. Did he ever put up a fight? Never. He simply peered mournfully at me with his rheumy eyes and succumbed gracefully to what had to be done.
The level of bug infestation was so high that he was given anti-flea treatment in tablet form and as a liquid spot-on. This nearly worked but not quite. The second application of antiseptic shampoo, whilst effective in eliminating most of the unwanted odours, did a great job of turning my fingers a strange colour and also dissolved the spot-on. The tablet clearly wasn’t up to the job of handling French fleas all by itself so another spot-on had to be applied.
Then there was the question of worms – we couldn’t seem to get rid of them. Hunter lived in the pen while he was undergoing his primary health-care programme and two things happened. Firstly, we noticed his poo contained extremely wriggly-looking parasites, which caused me to rush back to the vet for further supplies. Then his poo disappeared.
Unlikely though the concept was, I assumed that Jack had transformed into a hygiene-conscious kennel maid and he, apparently, thought the same about me. It was only when I complimented him on his selfless husbandry skills that the ghastly truth was out. Hunter was supplementing his regular diet by eating his own poo. That explained why we couldn’t get rid of the worms and the reason for his rank breath, which had a similar effect to pepper spray.
Back I went to the vet for a discussion about the dog’s psychological issues and to buy more wormer. Doctor Arnaud wasn’t at all surprised by my awful tale. He explained that most hunting dogs in the area live in kennels. Many are kept in excellent conditions but, in a situation such as Hunter’s, evidently not always. Come feeding time it was probably survival of the fittest. Food would be put down and the older dogs were often bullied out of the way by the youngsters. This explained why our dog resorted to unsavoury tactics to fill his belly, it also helped explain why he was so thin and poorly. Thereafter, Hunter was stalked and poo removed the moment it was deposited.
We began to see some positive changes in mid-June. Hunter started gaining weight and padded around his pen with a gait most sea dogs would be proud of. Finally we could see what a handsome chap he must once have been. Not very tall, but with a fine head, floppy ears, strong body and deep chest, he had the distinct look of a bloodhound. He was also gentle as can be and amenable to any amount of fussing that came his way. He was a proper country gent who gradually captured our hearts.
Once his primary problems were sorted out, he spent his early days gently pottering around in the garden with our two young Australian Shepherds. He was a pack dog so there was no reason why they shouldn’t get on, and our two were always up for a play with a new pal. Once he started to tire we’d take him back to rest in his own pen. This routine worked for everyone, or so we thought. One morning all that abruptly changed. We were woken by the mournful baying of a hunting hound. It took us a moment or two to realise where the sound was coming from. It was Hunter, and he had found his voice.
Delighted, but worried that something was wrong; I hurried out to find him booming his head off at the pen gate. He was absolutely fine and just making it clear that being shut in the pen was no longer an acceptable option. That was the start of his transition to becoming a house dog.
During the hot summer days the doors were usually left open so he could come and go as he pleased, but he was returned to his pen at night. He would have lived in a kennel so we assumed he wouldn’t be house trained, and anyway we thought he’d be more comfortable outside. Not a bit of it. Once Hunter discovered the delights of comfortable dog beds and warm, dry conditions, that was it – he wanted in! This was when we began to realise what a determined lad he was.
Every morning at daybreak we would be roused by a constant report of deep barks, which continued until one of us opened the gate. Then, to our surprise, holes started appearing in the fence. It took a couple of days for us to work out what was going on – Hunter was chewing through the galvanised wire – we couldn’t believe it, this was supposed to be strong enough to keep wild boar out. We cut our losses and took a chance on letting him sleep in the house. Did he wee on the floor? Never, there was no problem at all, except for Aby, whose bed he commandeered.
For the rest of the summer Hunter was in his element and his wonderfully mild character flourished. He ate like a horse, finally put on weight and started to look like a healthy old dog again. But there were one or two issues. Hunter, being a hunting dog, was extremely single-minded, and with that came a certain degree of obstinacy. His deafness emerged as a distinct advantage, and was a condition he conveniently used like a trump card.
When Hunter decided he wanted to do something that nobody else wanted him to do he completely ignored any contrary instructions. This was frustrating for me, and completely intolerable for my hyper-impatient husband. Cries like, ‘Hunteeer! Argh! That bloody dog won’t listen to a thing I say,’ commonly rang around the garden as Jack pointed furiously at a disappearing bony backside.
Once Hunter had gained enough strength for longer outings we allowed him into the ‘dogs’ field’, a three hectare (over seven acres) enclosed pasture. It is cut for hay each year by a local farmer and the dogs use it for general exploring, constitutionals and honing their scenting skills while they’re waiting for a proper dog walk. The moment Hunter set paw in the field he was off and it was a joy to see. With his nose to the ground he shuffled around with his ungainly gait. Sniffing, pausing, sniffing again – head up for a moment, then down again. Just doing his job. He weaved across the field with remarkable speed for an animal who had so recently been close to death. But there was a practical problem with all this.
After the first few visits we realised he was having a wonderful time and seemed strong enough to be left on his own. A fine idea in theory except that Hunter had no idea when to stop. The other two dogs would come back after a short excursion, abandoning their old pal who would be somewhere in the field, head fixed to the ground as usual.
The pattern never changed. Once he’d been out for a while I would walk to the field to bring him back in. But it wasn’t easy, he was hard to spot. His tawny-brown fur blended nicely with the grass and became the perfect camouflage. When the prospect of disrupting a satisfying hunt was in the offing I swear he used that together with his cloth-eared deafness to great effect. Looking like a slowly moving tussock of grass he completely ignored my bawls of, ‘Hunter, supper, come!’ The inevitable result being that I would trudge across the field, lasso him, and drag him home.
On one occasion, as I forlornly watched the bony backside snaking around the field in the distance, I had a cunning idea. Aha! We have Australian Shepherds, they’re herders, why not send them out to collect Hunter? Sadly the dogs took a pretty dim view of my brilliant plan. Aby evidently decided that the bed-stealer was best left out there and Max had a couple of half-hearted attempts, but since Hunter wouldn’t play Frisbee with him, declared him to be no fun at all. That was it, I ended up traipsing across the field and hauling Hunter back – every time. And he was very good natured about it all.
The next problem came via his paws. Hunter had enormous ones – they were like shovels. I was alerted to a sound I can only describe as a hound dog song. You might be familiar with it. When a hunting dog picks up a particularly tantalising scent they will alert their fellow hunters by making a strange, continuous call, it’s quite different to the normal bark. One day in the field Hunter started making a similar sound but it was more like a quavering hoot. Initially charmed by this peculiar noise, I ran over to find that he had discovered an extremely interesting scent, but it was beneath the ground.
Hunter took the term ‘dogged’ to a whole new level. He had started digging and wouldn’t stop. Aby and Max were extremely impressed, joined in for a bit then gave up, evidently deciding that he was being a bit ‘OCD’ about the whole process. But then they are shepherding dogs. I watched, amused for a while, until it dawned on me that he really wasn’t going to stop. Eventually concerned that he might injure his bulldozer-like paws I pulled him off and towed him out of the field.
As the weeks wore on this became a regular event. Every day Hunter would dig holes – long ones, wide ones and sometimes very deep ones. His health didn’t seem to be suffering although we were worried that the effort might be straining his heart. I checked with the vet who said he should be fine. Jack dryly observed that whilst the dog was fine the farmer might not be thrilled when one of his tractor tyres disappeared down a newly-created crevice – but I felt this was a slight exaggeration. So we left him to enjoy his retirement days weaving, sniffing, hooting, digging and then digging some more.
One day in the late summer Jack rushed up to me with a panicked expression.
“You have to come and have a look at Hunter. Something terrible has happened.”
“Why what’s wrong?” I asked, slightly exasperated that my satisfying weeding session was being disrupted.
“His balls have exploded!”
“Honestly, they have.” He winced, with look of anguish only another male can express.
“I’m sure your exaggerating again, where is he?”
We found Hunter snoozing in the sun outside the kitchen door and sure enough the poor dog’s testicles were very swollen and oozing a ghastly fluid through flaking skin.
“I can’t believe it, he was absolutely fine this morning,” I cried.
“I know, it’s awful isn’t it, poor bugger,” groaned Jack. “Oh God, you don’t think they’re going to drop off do you?” he shuddered.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” I retorted hotly, fervently hoping I was right.
I took our uncomplaining dog back to the vet for more blood tests which showed that he had a nasty infection. We were told that the treatment would eventually clear it up but unless he was castrated he was likely to develop testicular cancer. This decision was ours to make, and it was a hard one. Hunter was very old and had a weak heart. Was it right for us to put him through the traumas of surgery?
We spent the next week treating his symptoms with strong antibiotics and cleaning him up several times a day. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, but the site of the infection was taking a long time to respond. Akin to that I noticed a few dark, scabby patches on his tummy and legs where his fur had worn to the skin. Unsure as to whether this was part of the infection we cut our losses and decided to risk it, Hunter was to have surgery.
To our relief Hunter pulled through incredibly well. Doctor Arnaud carried out a new battery of tests and found that he was suffering from a kidney disease that was causing his skin to break up and fur to fall out. Once again we sought his advice. Were we right to keep the old hound going? The response was the same. He was responding well to treatment, he was in no pain and the skin condition could be kept in check with a different special shampoo and regular baths. Decision made. Armed with further supplies of medication and a new lot of special food, we decided to work with our aging canine retainer.
Autumn brought the deer and wild boar hunters out in enthusiastic droves. We live in rural France and every weekend the air would be filled by the cries of frantic hunters and our home surrounded by baying hounds. They were so loud that Hunter heard them, or possibly smelled them. He would stand by the entrance gate sniffing and watching as dogs whizzed past in pursuit of their quarry.
On one such hunting day I was working in the house when Jack shouted for me to come outside.
“I’ve lost Hunter!” he cried, in exasperated tones. “Just look at what he’s done.”
I walked over to the gate and saw a gaping hole in the wire. Hunter had chewed a hole in the netting that covered the wooden gate, and disappeared. I was horrified.
“Jack, that’s awful, he’s far too old to be outside on his own. He might get run over or caught up in the hunt.” Then a thought struck me. “Ooh, I wonder if it’s his old pack out there?”
Jack went off to have a look, which in some ways wasn’t a great idea. Being in the potential firing line of our hunters, or actually anywhere in the same vicinity is never advisable. I tensely waited, listening to Jack shouting his head off, but it was to no avail. He came back a short time later absolutely furious.
“That bloody dog,” he puffed, “I could see his bony arse in the distance but would he come? No he bloody well wouldn’t.”
“Oh dear, I hope he’s going to be alright, his poor heart,” I replied, feeling decidedly anxious.
“His heart? What about my sodding heart? I nearly had a coronary galloping across that field. Anyway he’s probably gone for good now – back to the idiot huntsman who messed up his health in the first place. Huh, that’s gratitude for you!”
With that, Jack stalked off in a huff. But I know my husband, underneath that bluster he’s a big old softie at heart. He spent the next few hours wandering around looking for Hunter and was thoroughly forlorn when his search proved to be fruitless.
By the end of the day we’d morosely decided that Hunter had either had a serious accident or returned to his pack. Our chat was interrupted by a funny noise. It was that unmistakable quavering hoot – the old warrior had returned. We rushed to the gate and there he was, filthy dirty, but otherwise unharmed and extremely hungry.
Incidents like this weren’t isolated. If he managed to chew his way through a newly replaced piece of netting he would always return. He knew where his home was. Happily he eventually stopped trying to join a pursuit and renewed his focus on excavating the now pitted field. He was in doggy heaven.
Friends and visitors who came to visit immediately fell in love with our gentle old boy. He was handsome, he was placid and loved the kindness that was showered on him. One did have to be a bit careful though when handing out treats. Clearly used to fighting for food in his youth, he’d make a sporty grab for whatever tantalising titbit that was being offered, whether or not a hand was in the way.
The thing is, Hunter was a true hunting dog. This was reinforced by a series of incidents that took place in the spring of the following year. One day I saw him sitting under a tree in the garden with a bundle of white in his mouth. Quite where he had found the speed to grab one of our fantail pigeons was beyond me, but I managed to rescue it before it met an early demise. The grass snakes he regularly trapped and crunched on were less lucky.
While he was having a lovely time, his skin condition wasn’t. It was worsening. Bi-monthly baths turned into weekly ones. New shampoos were used and different tablets given. Still no pain or discomfort so we persevered, which enabled him to commit another grave sin. We live in an ancient property which is surrounded by an old, mostly dry moat. The first I knew of this next set of misdemeanours was a hollering from Jack, who was suffering from a nasty bout of sciatica.
“Come quick, we’ve got a problem with Hunter!”
I rushed out to find Jack teetering on the edge of our moat staring down at something. Hunter had somehow scrambled down the bank and had got himself stuck up to his legpits in a particularly stinky patch of muddy water. We looked at him, he stared solemnly back – motionless.
“It’s no good, I’m going to have to get him out, he’s obviously too weak to do it himself,” snapped Jack, through gritted teeth.
He disappeared into the house and returned wearing wellies, which was a bit pointless because the moment he climbed into the brackish depths, water poured into his boots, filling them in seconds. He shoved and pushed and hauled the old dog and eventually got him to a dry part of the moat where I could help. Whilst Hunter seemed to be completely unperturbed – Jack was in agony. He started spitting out instructions.
“You pull while I push – just watch you don’t slip, we don’t want another injured party in here, we’ll all end up at the bloody vet at this rate.”
“Rightho, just watch your back,” I gasped, trying to grab Hunter’s shoulders.
“Very funny, God Almighty, for a dog with such a bony arse I can’t believe how heavy he is. He’s like a sack of potatoes. Come on, Hunter, make an effort!”
Hunter didn’t make any effort at all and relaxed into the fireman’s lift routine like a pro. It took us quite a while to get him out and when we did he gathered himself up and shuffled off to have a kip. We on the other hand were shadows of our former selves. Jack declared that his back would never be the same again and I was covered in moaty slime. Actually we both were.
I’d like to say that this was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. In between times he continued to enjoy his halcyon days in a variety of ways. He messed around with the other dogs, teaching them bad habits. He snoozed in flower beds, never beside them, dug more holes, chewed on things that didn’t look remotely chewable and ate like a horse. He was a magnificent character, but he was becoming more poorly. More health checks showed further deterioration. His heart was becoming weaker. But he never showed signs of pain, just pure contentment with the gift of prolonged life.
One morning the following summer he didn’t come in after breakfast. I went out to find out our old boy lying on the lawn, completely flat – he couldn’t move. Panic-stricken, we placed him on his favourite bed and I rushed him to the vet. The vet did what vets have to do. He ran yet more tests, explained that Hunter’s kidneys were now failing and gave us our options. Yes, we could keep him going for a while longer, but was this for the best? It was our choice. Deeply troubled, I looked down at the old scarred head with big floppy ears. For the first time since that fateful day when we had found him he didn’t raise his head. Hunter was tired and ready to go.
With heavy hearts we made our decision and the vet put our old boy to sleep. It was a dreadful, awful decision to make, but we knew it was the right thing to do.
Now when we look back on our experiences with this ancient old warrior, we smile with enormous affection. Was he independently minded? No, he was bloody minded. He caused havoc to our land and bank account and was incredibly time consuming to deal with. But here’s the flip side. He had been cruelly mistreated yet remained accepting, stoic, affectionate and so very content with his new home. For all his foibles we loved our old hunting hound dearly and still miss him terribly. Watching that dog with the bony backside enjoy the autumn of his years was a privilege.