Without you

Not much to love about Monday today… Here’s The Carpenters with Can’t Smile Without You.


This week, I only have love in my heart for one special Monsieur, my Monsieur Ralf. Ralf came on a visit last August and although I tried my best to rehome him, I didn’t get very far. A week later and I decided, with a little help from my friends, that Ralf should have a place with me.

my big ralfie

And so it was.

He took five minutes to settle in and had the life of Riley.


In the mornings, he’d wake me with a huge ‘rowwwarrrrfffff’. When he first arrived here, he slept in the living room. I bought him a huge bed. It was the biggest dog bed they had in the shop. He never really slept in it. He liked to sleep in Amigo’s bed, or on the couch, and that was fine with me. Amigo never complained much either. After a couple of weeks, he decided he wanted to sleep in the bedroom with me, though I drew the line at him sleeping on the bed. I’d have had to have slept on the floor. From September to January, he slept in my bedroom and woke me up each morning with a huge and happy Ralfie “Raaaaawwwwwwwfffffffff”. When he realised how nice it was to stay in the living room in front of the fire, he’d sleep on the couch and come and find me in the morning. Ralf was a dog who definitely knew what he wanted to do and heaven help you if you didn’t want to go along with that.


Following his first war with a badger one afternoon in January, Ralf decided that the garden was great and amazing fun to find beasts for wars. Every morning, he’d race out of the door like a greyhound. Then he’d do his best to round up the local wildlife. It got to the point where I had to let Heston out first to go and shout at the wild things so that none of them ended up being caught by Monsieur Ralf. A trip to the vet later and he was patched up. It didn’t stop him though. Almost a month to the day later, he caught another one. Luckily, I had the hose on standby to break them up.


After his early morning romp, he’d come back for his breakfast. That dog loved to eat. Breakfast was the best bit of his day, apart from tea. He’s such a big dog that I’d be forever walking into him as I tried to sort out the bowls. I’d had to move all the dog food into a side room which was kept under lock and key. Though I had always been able to leave it out with the other three, Ralf decided it was perfectly acceptable to stick his nose in it and have a scoff. I came home two or three times to find him with his head in a bag of dog food, fast asleep.


The dog food wasn’t his only target. I had to move all jars and cans up to the top shelves in the kitchen as he was very happy to climb up with his big paws and knock things off to eat them. In October, he’d won Dogs’ Today Magazine’s ‘Golden Oldie of the Month’. He got a prize of vitamin powder for oldies. I went out that night and he knocked it off the shelf, then scoffed the lot of it. He was a fan of cookery books and chewed my copy of Antonio Carlucci. Ralf would happily eat dry pasta, oxo cubes, soup packets, a full kilo of sugar. Tins were also no problem for him and he would sink his teeth into sealed cans of fish or dog meat. A lot of things ended up under lock and key in the spare room, including cartons of milk. Ralf liked his milk. I can’t count the number of things he broke in trying to retrieve something from the kitchen side. He even knocked a jar of coffee into the sink in his bid to retrieve something. Bin bags weren’t safe around Ralf.


Ralf loved his walks, and if, by eleven, I’d not taken the dogs out for a walk, he would get all giddy and give me a big Rowwwwwwwfffff all over again. Once or twice, he even nipped me, he was so excited. In the car, I’d tried and tried to get him to sit in the back with the others, but he wasn’t having it. He liked to sit up at the front with me. He’d give me kisses as I was driving and bark at dogs in gardens. If he’d been in the back when I was driving, he was stuck there and had to wait until I got out and moved the seat forward – he was the only one who couldn’t squeeze out without me moving the chair.


At first, I was pretty sure Ralf was deaf. He wasn’t. He just didn’t know how to come when called, or what being called was all about. The first time he came back when called, he was so excited that he knocked me over. On walks, he stayed on the lead for the first few months, padding along at the side of me. Once, he pulled me through a field so that he could get to another dog he’d seen. I ended up covered in cow pats so that Ralf could say hello to some new friends.


One of the last walks we did, we came across a little posse of wild boar piglets – about three or four months old out eating in a field in the day time. Amigo, to my shame, ran over and caught one, and brought it back dead. He dropped it at my feet. Before I could do anything, Ralf picked it up and trotted off with it. He was so proud. He couldn’t have been any more proud if he’d caught that pig himself. He was incredibly sad when I made him leave it behind at the end of the walk. Only Sunday, he came out the bushes with fur around his mouth. God only knows what he’d found. I suspected a rabbit. Once, he trotted off over the hill and came back with a sheepskin. Getting Ralf to drop anything he’d decided to treasure was always a challenge. He was never far from me though, and even though his recall was terrible, he only was on the lead when we went past cows. He loved cows. Ralf very much wanted to play with the cows. The cows, much to his sadness, never wanted to play with him. In his mind, I think he thought they were alike, him and the cows.


Ralf also liked to spend his time in the garden. He dug me some quite lovely holes. I always let him. If you’re thirteen years old and enjoy digging holes, who am I to stop you? He’d stop in fields as well for a bit of a dig. Digging was his favourite occupation. He’d happily scratch away, flinging mud everywhere. My house was never dirtier than when I owned Ralf.


He was a very social dog too – he loved other dogs and never understood that they might be a little scared of him. Ralf loved people too. He came with me to the HOPE booksale as an ambassador for old dogs and for the refuge, and they were the happiest days of his retirement with me. He loved seeing people and being cuddled, giving his big Ralfie paw to anyone who gave him a euro for a kiss.


On Thursday morning, he ate his breakfast a little more slowly than usual. He was a little slower on his walk too, though the cows got their usual reception. By tea-time, he was only picking at the meat on his tea and he left his biscuits. He wasn’t bothered by the evening walk. I knew it was time for the vet. He hadn’t been sick or had any other problems – my first words to the vet were that he wasn’t his usual self. I’d had to lift him off the couch and half-carry him to the car. At the vet, he lay on the floor and I sat on the floor with him. He wagged when other dogs came in, but he didn’t get up. We had to carry him through to the surgery.

First, she thought he might have picked up a tick-borne disease. He had a seresto collar but even so, he had one or two ticks in the last few months. We struggled to get a urine sample from him, but it was a usual colour and no cause for alarm. His temperature was high and he had a fever. It was only when I pointed out how hard his stomach was that she thought to give him an ultrasound. I guess at that point I was thinking it could be a stomach torsion or even that he’d eaten something he shouldn’t. I half thought his stomach would show a knotted mass of animal heads and plastic things.

The first ultrasound was unusual. They then did an x-ray. Finally, another ultrasound. He had tumours in his spleen that had burst. She could have removed his spleen, she said, and he would have lived happily, but he had tumours in his liver too, and they were inoperable. At best, he would have had a month, maybe two. You make a decision there and then about what is best for your animal, whether those final weeks are worth the suffering and pain they will inevitably cause. Would he even survive the splenectomy? At thirteen and 45kg, he was pushing the equivalent of 120 human years. Surgery would be incredibly stressful and would it give him back his Ralf-ness? I knew then that to keep him alive would be to do so for my benefit, not his.

Funny that in 24 hours, I’d gone from wondering if he might even see seventeen or eighteen to seeing the light fade in his eyes. Sunday, he was digging up creatures. Monday he was frolicking with collies. He was in fine form, right up to the last moment.


In the end, he had seven short months with me. I realised today I’d not shouted ‘Allez!’ to the dogs for a good few days. Ralf had followed me everywhere, including into very small spaces, and would often corner me. His big rump next to me on the sofa was always a comfort, and those early days where he’d rest his head on my lap are moments I’ll always treasure. Seeing him run – really run – always brought a smile to my face. I don’t think running had ever been in Ralf’s sport repertoire. Those first days when he played and played with toys, and dug and dug in my garden – those were the days that cemented my love for him.


I said back in August that there would be no replacement for Ralf. He was an unexpected adoption that happened as a result of fate. Then, it was a practical statement. Three dogs is manageable; four dogs is bordering on not being. Now it’s an emotional statement. There can’t be a replacement for Ralf because he was just such a dog filled with the most amazing character. I’m very glad I had the Ralf experience.

Should another dog ever follow me home, or need me for the last months, well, Ralf taught me that they’ll always be welcome. At the moment, I can’t quite see how even ten dogs could fill the Ralfie-sized hole in my home and my heart. He was enormous in both size and personality, stubborn as a mule, playful as only a young puppy can be. It feels empty here in ways that no other loss has ever felt.

So here’s much love to Ralf. Go gentle, My Ralfie and give all those angels a kiss from me.



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