When I first moved to Bridgend, I was greeted with a deep, resonant bark from my neighbour’s house. Somehow the word “bark” doesn’t fully convey the sound coming from over the honeysuckle laden fence between our houses. This was a “woof, woof, woof” of the most extraordinary timbre, the kind of noise you would hear if you were creeping around an Irish farm-house yard late at night in the mid-nineteenth century; the precursor to an angry farmer visiting all manner of violence on you with a nail-encrusted shillelagh before setting the hounds on your sorry carcass. How wrong could I be?
I peered over the fence and this monster… I kid you not… it was nothing short of a great big, hairy monster of a dog came lolloping towards me. I had never seen such creature before. He whimpered, barked again and repeated his whimper. Then in a moment of doggy supplication, he offered his huge head to me, tongue lolling out his mouth, itself as big as some poodles, red-rimmed eyes pleading. Being something of dog lover, I knew instantly that he was no threat, he just wanted to talk to his new friend… and have his head scratched. So, scratch it I did. Satisfied that the new human was indeed a friend and could easily be bent to his will for head scratching purposes, he loped off to have a drink of water, great slavering gulps that dried his bowl in a moment. One last “woof” and he flopped to the floor, content that all was good in the world.
Over the ensuing years there were many woofs, many head scratches and quite a few cuddles. His name was “Gandalf” and we became friends. Phil and Angela, my neighbours, and owners of Gandalf were kind enough to permit him free rein of all the other properties in the close, so we could share in the head-scratching, cuddly, hairiness that came as part of the deal with Gandalf. Then one day, around Christmas 2011, the barking stopped.
I wasn’t at home much around Christmas, so I did not have time to catch up with the comings and goings of the close, and it wasn’t until the closing Friday of the year I discovered that Gandalf was no more. I’ll spare you the details, but it transpired the old thing was a victim of bone cancer. He was seven, and wolfhounds do not live much longer than that, but it still came as a shock. The picture above isn’t Gandalf, but it illustrates what a lovely animal wolfhounds are.
Seven, even in doggie years, is no great age, except for these great hounds. For them it is a terminus, a full stop when their big old hearts can beat no more, almost as if the head-scratching, hairy bigness of them had all become too much. They are the tallest of dog breeds, but rarely live beyond the six to ten year age span, with seven being a pretty consistent average. (Now for the science) Dilated cardiomyopathy and bone cancer are the leading cause of death and like all deep-chested dogs, gastric torsion (bloat) is common; the breed is affected by hereditary intrahepatic portosystemic shunt. All of which translates into a life of loving cut short by genetic predisposition to dying before a decade is out. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair.
Wolfhounds have been around for along time. They may well have been introduced to Ireland as early as 7000 BC, but in all that time, no-one has found a way to extend their lives. Perhaps they haven’t looked. I think they should. It’s too late for Gandalf, but perhaps some geneticist somewhere can identify the DNA switches that make them what they are: great big, precious lumps of head-scratchy happiness, that leave you just when you’ve gotten used to them.
Goodbye Gandalf. RIP.