I wrote this originally 21 days before I left, and a week until I said goodbye to Mallei. I wrote at the time that I don’t know if I’ll be able to write it later. I don’t know if I’ll be able to write it after I drop him off with my aunt and uncle and my cousins in their gorgeous house in the country, but knowing quietly that I might not see him again. I don’t think I would be able to write it later if I get a call from my mum telling me he’s gone. And, I’m writing it now, when he’s in this strange place somewhere between senile and aware, happy and anxious all at once, because I think this is worth remembering.
I’ve written briefly about Mallo before, though he didn’t end up with my mum’s friend and the lady who bred him, but instead with my family… but I haven’t written down Mallo. I haven’t created him, sketched him with words. While I consider myself “a writer” (on good days), nailing down a personality always seems out of my reach. But here goes. Perhaps I’ll start with a story.
Once Upon a Mallei
When I was 17, I desperately wanted a dog of my own. I was in my last year of school and I was ready. We’d always had family dogs, but now it was my turn. I begged mum for a puppy, and when she found out an old friend of hers had bred her female dog to my mum’s dog’s full litter brother (yes yes that’s super confusing, don’t worry about it), it was perfect. We went and looked at the puppies. I walked in to the yard with all the puppies running around. Were there 8? Two of each colour? Something like that. I sat down, wanting to be overwhelmed by adorable squishy fuzzy Aussie puppies, but they were too busy running. Only one came over and he sat on my lap – a little orangey-red tricolour puppy with a weird 1/2 tail. He was so sweet, but I knew mum wanted a female, especially a red merle female, so I tried to meet all the puppies, but this little orangey one kept hanging around. We went home. I begged mum for one of the red merle girls, but in the end we would have to fix up the fences and buy all the puppy stuff, plus the puppy, so she said no, not right now. I went on camp for a week and when I came back, Mum said to me: “Remember that stumpy-tailed puppy you liked? Well, nobody bought him, so if you want, we can go get him for free.” Now… look… I’m an adult now, a grown up person, and I question the validity of that story. Really, Mum? Or was this some secret plot hatched so you could get me a puppy even though you’d originally said no? I’ll never know. In any case, we drove the 6 hours to the border and there picked up Mallei.
What’s in a Name?
Mallei had many names to begin with, and has had many names in his life. When I found out we would be picking him up, I got a dictionary (the perfect source of puppy names, of course!) and opened it to random pages (also a list of types of red wine, since he was a red dog, but a surprising choice given I was still a few months off being legally able to drink alcohol and to this day not even liking red wine).
He was almost called:
And others that I can’t remember now. One word kept pulling my attention back to it. Mallee. It was actually the most serendipitous name I could have chosen. For those of you who don’t know, Mallee country is an area in north-western Victoria, up near the border. It’s scrubby and arid and has a particular bird called a mallee fowl. It also happens to be the exact area where we ended up picking him up (I swear I didn’t know that when I was choosing his name!!). Me, being a typical teenager, felt that I couldn’t have boring, regular-old spelling, so just to make sure I would have to spell it to every vet for the rest of his life, I switched the last “e” for an “i” and got Mallei. And yes, since then, I’ve heard every pronunciation possible, but most people settle on Mall-ay. Turns out he didn’t need a fancy name. He was never a fancy dog.
As he grew, he got new nicknames, collected them like a nickname-collecting-hoarder.
These have included:
- Big/old fellow
- Big orange bus
- Big Mal
And others that I forget right now. I’m sure once upon a time he had way more clever and nonsensical nicknames.
A Life of Mallo
And from then, from picking him up at 10 weeks old, he was my shadow. Alright, sometimes he was naughty, like when he chewed up thousands of dollars worth of the sprinkler system mum had installed in the front garden, or when he and mum’s dog Biscay would sneak through a hole in the fence and go on adventures. Or all the times he knocked over the bin and raided it. ALL THE TIMES. And let’s not forget the three vet visits for chocolate ingestion. I swear he found chocolate where I didn’t even know there was any.
But he has come with me through so much of my life and I am in debt to him, in a way, for this crazy adventure I’m about to take. After puppy school, we joined a local obedience club and one Tuesday night they had the agility gear out. I wandered over with Mallei, then maybe 6 months old and they asked if I’d like to have a try. He went through a shortened straight tunnel and was super happy and confident. They made the tunnel longer for him while all the other dogs had to keep doing the short one. Losers. It seemed so easy for him, he was so natural at it that I thought we should give it a go. So we began training, picked up a mentor of sorts, and a day after he turned 18 months old, we ran in our first competition (got a Q and came 2nd.). And while he was an amazing agility dog given the methods we used and the handling that was around at the time, there was more to our lives than that.
Mallei used to come to nursing homes with me as a Delta dog, and the elderly people would pat him and he would put his paw on their hands. He was with me when I moved out of home and into my first sharehouse – a house we lucked into that allowed us to have dogs (most rentals in Australia don’t allow dogs). He was with me when I moved again, and again, and again, and again. In his nearly-14 years, we have moved house 9 times together. 9 times!! No wonder he stresses when he sees me start to pack boxes. He has been with me when I got married, and is with me now as I go through a divorce. He used to come with me to my job as a dog walker/sort of groomer. We went to Sydney to compete, to Adelaide to compete, we represented Victoria, and came 2nd out of the 10 best dogs in the state.He was the second Agility Champion in Victoria, the first Australian Shepherd Agility Champion in Australia. And now he is winding down. He sleeps, he falls over sometimes, he coughs, he loves, loves going for walks, but 45 minutes is more than enough. He wants to run when Penny brings her dogs over, and smiles, gleefully as he bounces along like a big rocking-horse. He reminds me of a little kid at those times when they think they’re going so, so fast, arms and legs pumping, but they can’t really keep up. He barks because that’s a thing dogs do. I don’t know if he knows why he’s barking half the time.
A Mallo, in Words
Sometimes I don’t know if he’s changed. If the way he is now is a result of his age, of his brain changing, of his senses failing, or if he’s always been this way. Sometimes, now that he’s old and I’m getting ready to leave him, I wish I’d loved him more, but then I remember our hours and hours and hours together and I know he was loved enough. Sometimes I think Lumen (and then Loki) took his spotlight. He went from being my one and only, to the third, the retired one, the sleepy one. While Lumen had this huge personality that couldn’t be ignored, had issues that needed to be managed and quirks that needed attention, and Loki would curl up beside you so sweet and demand that you just love him, Mallo would be on his bed, snoozing.
So how is Mallei? He is both the happiest, goofiest, jolliest dog I know, and also the one with a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, a lot of worry. At nearly-fourteen, he will body-slam me, bouncing and leaping with reckless abandon if I get a lead out to go for a walk. While this is, in part, because he loves to go for walks, it is also because he doesn’t want to be left behind. But then again, he dances and jumps and spins when it’s dinner time, too. He has more joy and more energy than my young dogs, and the simple things please him the most. I’m not sure he can hear the squeaking of a squeaky toy any more, but he will find the ones that squeak and squeak them endlessly when I come home. I tell him how wonderful he is. When I want to do some training inside with one of the others, he gets fed for hanging out on the couch, so, when he sees the food container come out, he charges into the lounge and launches onto the couch, with much less self regard than I’d like to see from a nearly-fourteen year old dog, and then stands there, 1/2 tail wagging in hyperspeed, ready to be fed.
I want to remember Mallei younger, the eternal puppy, the dog who even cat-lovers and people who were so-so about dogs adored. I’ve never had more people fall in love with a dog than they did with Mal. There is something sweet and charismatic about him. Unfortunately, my memories of the past are a blur – people often tell me stories about things we’ve done together and I could very well be experiencing them/hearing the story for the first time. So what I have is Mal now, who goes off on seniors adventures in the forest sometimes, following some forgotten smell and unable to hear me calling him back. Who pounces on a toy as if he’s seeing it for the first time and who launches himself into the boot of the car with no sense of self regard but simple excitement at going for a walk. Who, now that he’s older, basically falls over when you’re scratching his neck, so hard is he leaning into the scratches.
In many ways, my two boys, Mallei and now Loki, are a reflection of myself at different stages of my life. You know how people say dogs are often like their owners? I think this is true of my boys. Mallei, big and outgoing and sociable, full of joie de vivre, goofy and personable, is me during my undergrad course at Uni, studying drama, having parties every other weekend at my share house, going out clubbing. Beneath the bouncing excitability was always a kind of anxiousness, my own anxiousness about doing well, making mistakes, being good enough. And his anxiousness about… dog things, I guess. And Loki, serious mostly but with a sense of humour, reserved with new people but open with his friends, intense, driven, focused… Loki is me in the present.
(Thanks to my dog-lover-extrordinaire and amazing cousin Amy for the photos above)
The Best Home
I’ve been gone for 5 months now. Rereading this post that I wrote before I left leaves me in tears. But I get “pupdates” from my cousin every other week. Pictures of Mal at the beach, in a forest, on their farm. My Auntie tells me he’s so happy, he’s loved, he follows her around when she’s gardening. That’s all I could have asked for, honestly. And I know he’s loved, there. Their house is so full of it. His cough is getting worse but they’re working with the vet to see what they can do. He’s getting older, but of course he is, he’s fourteen, he’s allowed to.
And just quietly, I’m looking forward to seeing my big fuzzy orange guy if I make it back to visit at the end of this year… I can’t wait to tell him how wonderful he is for bringing me a toy that squeaks (maybe I’ll bring him a special European one).