Country Matters: Farewell Pansy, my funny, faithful friend

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The Independent Online
The death of an old dog is bound to be a sad event, no matter how clearly you have seen it coming. Even when forewarned, you cannot escape a sense of loss at the disappearance of an animal that has lived as a member of the family for 14 years.

It was my fault that Pansy did not turn out a model black labrador: she had the looks, breeding and instinct to become a champion, but I never trained her strictly enough to instil the basic discipline that a gundog needs. It has to be said that in many ways she was an infernal nuisance - but that did not stop us loving her.

In arranging her birth, we deliberately sought to produce a streamlined dog. Her mother, Pumpkin (as a puppy she was perfectly spherical), grew up with the build of an All Black prop forward; so we had her mated with a slim male, and the result was excellent. The daughter turned out to have a perfect figure.

When we called her Pansy, several friends complained: such a dreadful name. I retorted that it was a perfectly good Edwardian name. Besides, it was perfect for shouting: a roar of 'PANSY]' carried well. Other people used it without worrying. On her first trip to the Highlands, at the age of three months, Jock the gamekeeper greeted her with 'Aye, Parnsy', and later a Turkish boy who came to stay addressed her happily as 'Punzee'.

During her formative months I should have instilled in her the one habit that all good gundogs possess: that of automatically sitting down when they hear a shot. Through lack of time and patience, I failed to persuade Pansy that this was the secret of success in life - and indeed, she gained precisely the opposite impression, treating any report as a shot from a starting pistol, and responding with the fastest possible take-off.

This quirk was not of much consequence when she and I were out alone; but whenever I was asked to organised shoots, it became a serious embarrassment. Time and again she burst her moorings during a pheasant drive and galloped about picking up birds that other people had shot, so that I amassed a tremendous pile and my neighbours were left with nothing.

Her instinct to retrieve was all-powerful, and she would carry anything - from rabbits and pheasants in the field to shoes in the house. But it took her time to cotton on to the idea of woodland deer-stalking. Then she perceived the difference between a rifle slung on my shoulder and a shotgun carried under one arm. With a shotgun, she would range ahead; with the rifle she would walk at heel.

She became skilled at tracking deer that had been shot but had run for a short distance before collapsing dead. On several memorable occasions, usually as dark was falling, she found beasts I would otherwise have lost.

With age came craftiness. Hating horses, she would set off on wide detours if she suspected that our walk would take us through a field in which horses were grazing; and often, as we headed back from shooting forays, she would veer off on a short cut - demonstrating that her memory and sense of topography were excellent.

The older she grew, the more eccentric she became. She never quite rivalled her mother who, if I merely raised my binoculars, would give a 25- bark salute, thereby clearing the ground for miles ahead; but in her own ways she was crazy enough. On walks, for instance, she developed an uncontrollable urge to stand on her head in badger droppings - after which she would have to be hosed down.

Always a keen traveller in cars, she became the world's leading canine chauffeur, sitting for hours in the driving seat, secure in the knowledge that any vehicle, if inhabited for long enough, almost always goes somewhere in the end.

The onset of deafness did not seem to worry her - and it had one distinct advantage in that it ended her vendetta against bluebottles. Lying on the floor, with eyes nearly meeting on top of her head, she would track flies partly by ear, and launch violent attacks as they came past, scattering anything in her path. When she could no longer hear their buzzing, the threat to furniture and ornaments receded.

It was infinitely sad for us that her body gave out before her mind. In the end, arthritis reduced her to a tottering shadow of her former sylph-like self. Humane considerations told us that we must have her put down. The trouble was that her sense of humour remained unimpaired, and in the evenings, when my wife was cooking supper, she would drive everyone dotty by tweaking dishcloths off the table or stuffing her head into the wastepaper basket and parading about with facefuls of rubbish.

To stamp out that remaining spark of life was a horrible decision; but finally we took it, and I buried her in a running attitude at the foot of a eucalyptus on the side of the hill. I like to hope that when foxes pass by there in the night, they sense the ghostly presence of a dedicated fellow hunter.

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