When I saw my dog, Mabel, suffer an epileptic seizure, she looked nothing like the gentle giant I knew and loved.
Legs whipping back and forth, mouth frothing, eyes wide and black; Mabel's body seemed out of control, and it was frightening. I froze with panic. I was never trained at puppy school to deal with a very large and convulsing Bernese Mountain Dog.
Somehow though, the practical part of my anxious brain kicked in, and I swung into action. I remembered my wife's advice, cleared the floor of anything nearby that Mabel might have knocked over and hurt herself with, grabbed my phone, and waited. The fit only lasted for a few minutes, but it seemed to take forever. I will never forget the sound of loud and desperate panting. It was like no amount of air could ever satisfy Mabel's overheating body.
I've seen other dog owners struggle when their canine companions behave in unexpected ways. Out on the parks in Canberra's north, where I take Mabel to run and play with bulldogs, border collies, labradors, German shepherds, kelpies and all sorts of other dogs, many owners stay on their toes, ready to step in when needed. The smell of discarded pizza can send even the most well-trained dog bolting across roads - cars or no cars. A friendly wrestle between puppies occasionally turns snappy. Big dogs like mine might look cuddly, but can seem intimidating when they're off-lead, and galloping around in excitement. I suspect I look similarly bonkers the times I run after Mabel, cajoling her to return to me with treats - which she does, most of the time.
As frustrating as it can be, living with dogs means they, like humans, have their own feelings and desires. And like humans, dogs are not always predictable.
There is more pressure now, though, for me and other dog owners to look after our furry best friends, and to manage how they behave. In Canberra, the laws for the care of dogs have been strengthened. A "no tolerance" approach has been introduced for people who don't make sure to keep dogs on a leash when needed, control their dog well, and fulfil other responsibilities of living with animals.
Of course, the laws are necessary. A legal framework can support the health and wellbeing of dogs, their owners and others in the community, helping to prevent cruelty, injury and other harm.
But even with the increased recognition of the need to manage human and dog relationships, and by caring for Mabel as best I can, seeing her convulsing in my home was terrifying in a way that no law, or good preparation, can prevent. The seizure was a terrible reminder of the fact that unexpected, and painful, things happen to pets. I cannot ignore the dread that comes with knowing that, sometimes, there is only so much I can do when Mabel is sick.
In the past, I've turned to scientific studies to better understand ways of living with Mabel and other animals. I've learned that people who train their dogs with reward-based methods, say giving a dog food for sitting or praise when it returns, find them effective, and tend to experience higher levels of obedience from their pets when compared with other more punitive approaches. Pets end up with less problematic behaviours like growling at other dogs and aggression towards people, too.
I also know now that dogs are skilled at learning socially. How people act in more informal situations, such as at home, or in the dog park with others, can influence what dogs learn and remember, and how they behave. An owner who feels happy, sad, impatient, frustrated or anxious is likely to affect the moods of a dog as well.
I believe my life with Mabel is reflected in the evidence. Generally, Mabel seems happier and relaxed when I'm encouraging with her, provide treats for her high-fives and many other tricks, and stick to a routine of regular walking and feeding. Most people who don't mind big dogs love spending time with Mabel, and my wife and I rarely have trouble finding minders to look after her.
I could barely hold things together though when Mabel seemed so sick, let alone summon the will to put on a happy face. Soon after Mabel's seizure, my wife and I took her to the veterinary surgery. I felt nauseous while waiting for the vet's diagnosis, wracking my brain and trying to remember if I'd missed her epilepsy medication, whether Mabel had eaten something strange, or if there was something that had upset her. We were told the seizure may have been caused by her body becoming accustomed to her medication. Mabel stayed at the surgery for the rest of the day so the staff could monitor her. They gave us new pills and dosage instructions, and I tried to distract myself from worry with work as we waited to pick her up.
Relief came, over the phone: Mabel was fine, and happy. Later that night, seeing Mabel hop down from the car without effort, her giant tail swishing and eyes bright, she seemed blissfully unaware of the morning's emergency, of how close she might have been to serious injury. I was envious of her natural joy. I felt like I needed a stiff drink.
Early in the 19th century, the poet Lord Byron wrote of the pain he felt after the loss of his beloved dog Boatswain, who died from a rabies-induced seizure. In his poem Epitaph to a Dog, Byron pays tribute to his dog's selflessness, and courage in life:
But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master's own,
Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth -
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Byron's dog didn't have medication like Mabel, and I imagine Mabel's 21st-century life is much easier. But in Byron's writing, I can see how Boatswain, like Mabel, remained spirited and embraced life, despite the sickness, uncertainty and death facing him. The dogs, it seems, are alright. There is something comforting, too, in how Byron describes their friendship, and his dog's commitment to that bond, with all his human companion's insecurities and failings.
Perhaps now, with greater enforcement of laws for living with dogs in Canberra, and the rights and sentience of animals increasingly recognised, one of the best ways humans can respond is through a reconsideration of friendship. Dogs may know how to be man's best friend, but in the art of friendship - how its earned, maintained and celebrated - I feel like I still have much to learn from Mabel, and all the other dogs and their owners that I meet.
I still worry, of course, about Mabel having another seizure. But I feel lucky, and more relaxed, knowing that Mabel is my friend, steadfast and firm, no matter what life throws at her. Or at us.
- Ben O'Mara is a writer based in Canberra and Melbourne.