Dogs can be an unnerving presence on home visits – all dogs, except Hector

An exception to this doctor’s no-dogs rule was Hector, a white miniature poodle belonging to Gordon and Irene Ives.

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When visiting patients at home, I generally ask for any dogs to be shut in another part of the house. Unlike with cats, which usually ignore strangers, the arrival of an unfamiliar man is of supreme interest to any canine. The more protective and territorial breeds go straight to DEFCON 1. Many are the consultations I have had to conduct above the snarling of an incensed hound, bashing itself against a perilously thin panelled door in a determined effort to get its teeth into the intruder.

Smaller breeds are usually more friendly – although most Labradors are also fairly genial – but this poses its own problems. Dogs are intensely olfactory animals and a new human being brings an enticing smorgasbord of aromas to investigate. It is difficult to maintain a professional interest in Mrs Smith’s breathing difficulties while having repeatedly to remove Fido’s snout from one’s crotch.

An exception to my no-dogs rule was Hector, a white miniature poodle belonging to Gordon and Irene Ives. Gordon spent several years housebound with end-stage heart failure and he was frequently on the list for a home visit. Hector became accustomed to doctors and district nurses calling and would greet each arrival with his tail wagging nineteen to the dozen. Once the initial thrill subsided, he would settle himself on the sofa next to you, contentedly being stroked as you discussed Gordon’s symptoms and charted his slow but inexorable decline.

There were two occasions on which Gordon actually died, with Irene’s frantic 999 calls bringing the paramedics in time to restart his heart successfully. Irene told me that Hector seemed to recognise the difference in these situations and kept out of the way of the resuscitation efforts.

Gordon spent many months living on borrowed time before the third episode of arrhythmia, from which he could not be brought back. We feared for Irene’s emotional health. For years, her existence had centred around caring for Gordon and now, suddenly, he was gone. She had always been somewhat anxious, periodically depending on mild tranquillisers for her “nerves”. Following her bereavement, she developed agoraphobia, which made it impossible for her to attend surgery.

My home visits continued, now focused on helping her through this difficult period. Hector remained as ebullient as ever and there was a difficult disconnect between his playful bouncing on and off the furniture and Irene in her grief and dislocation.

Eventually, though, things improved and I began to see less of Irene. When she did require attention, she would make an appointment. I always enquired after Hector and her expression and the way she talked so fondly about him spoke of the comfort he gave. His need for walks had gradually restored her confidence in going out and he was an irrepressibly sunny companion in the otherwise empty house.

Irene came to see me just after I got back from holiday this summer. I was sad to learn that Hector had died while I was away. It was something we had discussed among the team: what would happen to Irene if she lost her dog, too. However, she told me that, far from a resurgence of grief, her overwhelming feeling was of relief. Now in her early eighties, she had become increasingly worried by the thought of what would happen to Hector were she to die before him.

She confessed to having become preoccupied by disturbing visions of him alone in the house, perplexed, nudging and worrying at her lifeless body. As it was, he had lived out his days in his inimitable style and had been put peacefully to sleep once the vet had diagnosed cancer.

Irene misses him but there has been no recurrence of her anxiety or agoraphobia – something we had thought would likely happen. She seems to have drawn strength from no longer having to worry about his future. At some point, though, I am bound to pay another visit to her home, and it will be strange not to see Hector there.

Phil Whitaker is a GP and the New Statesman’s medical editor. His books include Chicken Unga Fever: Stories from the Medical Frontline (Salt)

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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