James herriots dog stori.., p.42
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.42

           James Herriot

  It was about a fortnight later and as I opened the gate to let Sam into the riverside fields I glanced at my watch. Twelve thirty – plenty of time for our pre-lunch walk and the long stretch of green was empty. Then I noticed a single dog away on the left. It was Nip, and as I watched he got up, took a few indeterminate steps over the grass, then turned and sat down again at the gate of his back garden.

  Instead of taking my usual route I cut along behind the houses till I reached the old dog. He had been looking around him aimlessly, but when we came up to him he seemed to come to life, sniffing Sam over and wagging his tail at me.

  On the other side of the gate Mrs Potts was doing a bit of weeding, bending painfully as she plied her trowel.

  ‘How are you, Mrs Potts?’ I said.

  With an effort she straightened up. ‘Oh, not too bad, thank you, Mr Herriot.’ She came over and leaned on the gate. ‘I see you’re lookin’ at the awd dog. My word he’s missin’ his master.’

  I didn’t say anything and she went on, ‘He’s eating all right and I can give him plenty of good food, but what I can’t do is take ’im for walks.’ She rubbed her back. ‘I’m plagued with rheumaticks, Mr Herriot, and it takes me all my time to get around the house and garden.’

  ‘I can understand that,’ I said. ‘And I don’t suppose he’ll walk by himself.’

  ‘Nay, he won’t. There’s the path he went along every day.’ She pointed to the winding strip of beaten earth among the grass. ‘But he won’t go more’n a few yards.’

  ‘Ah well, dogs like a bit of company just the same as we do.’ I bent and ran my hand over the old animal’s head and ears. ‘How would you like to come with us, Nip?’

  I set off along the path and he followed unhesitatingly, trotting alongside Sam with swinging tail.

  ‘Eee, look!’ the old lady cried. ‘Isn’t that grand to see!’

  I followed his usual route down to the river where the water ran dark and silent under the branches of the gnarled willows. Then we went over the bridge and in front of us the river widened into pebbly shallows and murmured and chattered among the stones.

  It was peaceful down there with only the endless water sound and the piping of birds in my ears and the long curtain of leaves parting here and there to give glimpses of the green flanks of the fells.

  I watched the two dogs frisking ahead of me and the decision came to me quite naturally: I would do this regularly. From that day I altered my route and went along behind the houses first. Nip was happy again, Sam loved the whole idea, and for me there was a strange comfort in the knowledge that there was still something I could do for Mr Potts.

  Dogs do love a regular programme. One of their greatest pleasures is to look forward to something and then to see that something come about. It may be a meal or the arrival home of one of the household. With Nip it was his daily walk by the river with his master. I have always had a warm feeling for my farmer friends who shared my early struggles, and this feeling has strengthened over the years now that I myself can look back on more than half a century of this association. In the case of Mr Potts, I was glad to be able to show that veterinary services could embrace many things.

  43. Judy the Nurse Dog

  I first met Judy the Sheepdog when I was treating Eric’s bullock for wooden tongue. The bullock was only a young one and the farmer admitted ruefully that he had neglected it because it was almost a walking skeleton.

  ‘Damn!’ Eric grunted. ‘He’s been runnin’ out with that bunch in the far fields and I must have missed ’im. I never knew he’d got to this state.’

  When actinobacillosis affects the tongue it should be treated right at the start, when the first symptoms of salivation and swelling beneath the jaw appear. Otherwise the tongue becomes harder and harder till finally it sticks out of the front of the mouth, as unyielding as the wood which gives the disease its ancient name.

  This skinny little creature had reached that state, so that he not only looked pathetic but also slightly comic, asthough he were making a derisive gesture at me. But with a tongue like that he just couldn’t eat and was literally starving to death. He lay quietly as though he didn’t care.

  ‘There’s one thing, Eric,’ I said. ‘Giving him an intravenous injection won’t be any problem. He hasn’t the strength to resist.’

  The great new treatment at that time was sodium iodide into the vein – modern and spectacular. Before that the farmers used to paint the tongue with tincture of iodine, a tedious procedure which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. The sodium iodide was a magical improvement and showed results within a few days.

  I inserted the needle into the jugular and tipped up the bottle of clear fluid. Two drachms of iodide I used to use, in eight ounces of distilled water, and it didn’t take long to flow in. In fact the bottle was nearly empty before I noticed Judy.

  I had been aware of a big dog sitting near me all the time, but as I neared the end of the injection a black nose moved ever closer till it was almost touching the needle. Then the nose moved along the rubber tube up to the bottle and back again, sniffing with the utmost concentration. When I removed the needle the nose began a careful inspection of the injection site. Then a tongue appeared and began to lick the bullock’s neck methodically.

  I squatted back on my heels and watched. This was something more than mere curiosity; everything in the dog’s attitude suggested intense interest and concern.

  ‘You know, Eric,’ I said, ‘I have the impression that this dog isn’t just watching me. She’s supervising the whole job.’

  The farmer laughed. ‘You’re right there. She’s a funny old bitch is Judy – sort of a nurse. If there’s anything amiss she’s on duty. You can’t keep her away.’

  Judy looked up quickly at the sound of her name. She was a handsome animal; not the usual colour, but a variegated brindle with waving lines of brown and grey mingling with the normal black and white of the farm Collie. Maybe there was a cross somewhere, but the result was very attractive and the effect was heightened by her bright-eyed, laughing-mouthed friendliness.

  I reached out and tickled the backs of her ears and she wagged mightily – not just her tail but her entire rear end. ‘I suppose she’s just good-natured.’

  ‘Oh aye, she is,’ the farmer said. ‘But it’s not only that. It sounds daft but I think Judy feels a sense of responsibility to all the stock on t’farm.’

  I nodded. ‘I believe you. Anyway, let’s get this beast on to his chest.’

  We got down in the straw and with our hands under the back bone, rolled the bullock till he was resting on his sternum. We balanced him there with straw bales on either side, then covered him with a horse rug.

  In that position he didn’t look as moribund as before, but the emaciated head with the useless jutting tongue lolled feebly on his shoulders and the saliva drooled uncontrolled on to the straw. I wondered if I’d ever see him alive again.

  Judy, however, didn’t appear to share my pessimism. After a thorough sniffing examination of rug and bales she moved to the front, applied an encouraging tongue to the shaggy forehead, then stationed herself comfortably facing the bullock, very like a night nurse keeping an eye on her patient.

  ‘Will she stay there?’ I closed the half-door and took a last look inside.

  ‘Aye, nothing’ll shift her till he’s dead or better,’ Eric replied. ‘She’s in her element now.’

  ‘Well, you never know, she may give him an interest in life, just sitting there. He certainly needs some help. You must keep him alive with milk or gruel till the injection starts to work. If he’ll drink it it’ll do him most good, but otherwise you’ll have to bottle it into him. But be careful – you can choke a beast that way.’

  A case like this had more than the usual share of the old fascination because I was using a therapeutic agent which really worked – something that didn’t happen too often at that time. So I was eager to get back to see if I had been able to pull that bullock from the b
rink of death. But I knew I had to give the drug a chance and kept away for five days.

  When I walked across the yard to the box I knew there would be no further doubts. He would either be dead or on the road to recovery.

  The sound of my steps on the cobbles hadn’t gone unnoticed. Judy’s head, ears cocked, appeared above the half-door. A little well of triumph brimmed in me. If the nurse was still on duty then the patient must be alive. And I felt even more certain when the big dog disappeared for a second, then came soaring effortlessly over the door and capered up to me, working her hind end into convolutions of delight. She seemed to be doing her best to tell me all was well.

  Inside the box the bullock was still lying down but he turned to look at me and I noticed a strand of hay hanging from his mouth. The tongue itself had disappeared behind the lips.

  ‘Well, we’re winnin’, aren’t we?’ Eric Abbot came in from the yard.

  ‘Without a doubt,’ I said. ‘The tongue’s much softer and I see he’s been trying to eat hay.’

  ‘Aye, can’t quite manage it yet, but he’s suppin’ the milk and gruel like a good ’un. He’s been up a time or two but he’s very wobbly on his pins.’

  I produced another bottle of sodium iodide and repeated the injection with Judy’s nose again almost touching the needle as she sniffed avidly. Her eyes were focused on the injection site with fierce concentration and so intent was she on extracting the full savour that she occasionally blew out her nostrils with a sharp blast before recommencing her inspection.

  When I had finished she took up her position at the head and as I prepared to leave I noticed a voluptuous swaying of her hips which were embedded in the straw. I was a little puzzled until I realised she was wagging in the sitting position.

  ‘Well, Judy’s happy at the way things are going,’ I said.

  The farmer nodded. ‘Yes, she is. She likes to be in charge. Do you know, she gives every new-born calf a good lick over as soon as it comes into t’world and it’s the same whenever one of our cats ’as kittens.’

  ‘Bit of a midwife, too, eh?’

  ‘You could say that. And another funny thing about ’er – she lives with the livestock in the buildings. She’s got a nice warm kennel but she never bothers with it – sleeps with the beasts in the straw every night.

  I revisited the bullock a week later and this time he galloped round the box like a racehorse when I approached him. When I finally trapped him in a corner and caught his nose I was breathless but happy. I slipped my fingers into his mouth; the tongue was pliable and almost normal.

  ‘One more shot, Eric,’ I said. ‘Wooden tongue is the very devil for recurring if you don’t get it cleared up thoroughly.’ I began to unwind the rubber tube. ‘By the way, I don’t see Judy around.’

  ‘Oh, I reckon she feels he’s cured now, and anyway, she has summat else on her plate this mornin’. Can you see her over there?’

  I looked through the doorway. Judy was stalking importantly across the yard. She had something in her mouth – a yellow, fluffy object.

  I craned out further. ‘What is she carrying?’

  ‘It’s a chicken.’

  ‘A chicken?’

  ‘Aye, there’s a brood of them runnin’ around just now. They’re only a month old and t’awd bitch seems to think they’d be better off in the stable. She’s made a bed for them in there and she keeps tryin’ to curl herself round them. But the little things won’t ’ave it.’

  I watched Judy disappear into the stable. Very soon she came out, trotted after a group of tiny chicks which were pecking happily among the cobbles and gently scooped one up. Busily she made her way back to the stable but as she entered, the previous chick reappeared in the doorway and pottered over to rejoin his friends.

  She was having a frustrating time but I knew she would keep at it because that was the way she was.

  Judy the nurse dog was still on duty.

  The caring instinct in animals is manifested most obviously in the maternal feeling, surely one of the most powerful and most commonly observed characteristics, but Judy is the only animal I have ever known whose concern embraced all her fellow creatures. As Eric Abbot said, she was in her element when there was any sickness among his livestock. She was a natural canine nurse, and so unique in my experience that I have often wondered if anybody else has encountered one like her.

  44. Myrtle

  ‘Ooh . . . ooh-hoo-hooo!’ The broken-hearted sobbing jerked me into full wakefulness. It was 1 a.m. and after the familiar jangling of the bedside phone I expected the gruff voice of a farmer with a calving cow. Instead, there was this terrible sound.

  ‘Who is this?’ I asked a little breathlessly. ‘What on earth is the trouble?’

  I heard a gulping at the other end and then a man’s voice pleading between sobs. ‘It’s Humphrey Cobb. For God’s sake come out and see Myrtle. I think she’s dyin’.’


  ‘Aye, me poor little dog. She’s in a ’ell of a state! Ooohhooo!’

  The receiver trembled in my grasp. ‘What is she doing?’

  ‘Oh, pantin’ and gaspin’. I think it’s nearly all over with ’er. Come quick!’

  ‘Where do you live?’

  ‘Cedar House. End of Hill Street.’

  ‘I know it. I’ll be there very soon.’

  ‘Oh, thank ye, thank ye. Myrtle hasn’t got long. Hurry, hurry!’

  I leaped from the bed and rushed at my clothes, draped over a chair against the wall. In my haste, in the darkness, I got both feet down one leg of my working corduroys and crashed full length on the floor.

  Helen was used to nocturnal calls and often she only half woke. For my part I always tried to avoid disturbing her by dressing without switching on the light; there was always a glow from the nightlight we kept burning on the landing for young Jimmy.

  However, the system broke down this time. The thud of my falling body brought her into a sitting position.

  ‘What is it, Jim? What’s happening?’

  I struggled to my feet. ‘It’s all right, Helen, I just tripped over.’ I snatched my shirt from the chair back.

  ‘But what are you dashing about for?’

  ‘Desperately urgent case. I have to hurry.’

  ‘All right, Jim, but you won’t get there any sooner by going on like this. Just calm down.’

  My wife was right, of course. I have always envied those vets who can stay relaxed under pressure. But I wasn’t made that way.

  I galloped down the stairs and through the long back garden to the garage. Cedar House was only a mile away and I didn’t have much time to think about the case, but by the time I arrived I had pretty well decided that an acute dyspneoa like this would probably be caused by a heart attack or some sudden allergy.

  In answer to my ring the porch light flashed on and Humphrey Cobb stood before me. He was a little round man in his sixties and his humpty-dumpty appearance was accentuated by his gleaming bald head.

  ‘Oh, Mr Herriot, come in, come in,’ he cried brokenly as the tears streamed down his cheeks. ‘Thank ye for gettin’ out of your bed to help me poor little Myrtle.’

  As he spoke, the blast of whisky fumes almost made my head spin and I noticed that as he preceded me across the hall he staggered slightly.

  My patient was lying in a basket by the side of an Aga cooker in a large, well-appointed kitchen. I felt a warm surge when I saw that she was a Beagle like my own dog, Sam. I knelt down and looked at her closely. Her mouth was open and her tongue lolled, but she did not seem to be in acute distress. In fact, as I patted her head her tail flapped against the blanket.

  A heart-rending wail sounded in my ear. ‘What d’ye make of her, Mr Herriot? It’s her heart, isn’t it? Oh, Myrtle, Myrtle!’ The little man crouched over his pet and the tears flowed unchecked.

  ‘You know, Mr Cobb,’ I said, ‘she doesn’t seem all that bad to me, so don’t upset yourself too much. Just give me a chance to examine her.’

/>   I placed my stethoscope over the ribs and listened to the steady thudding of a superbly strong heart. The temperature was normal and I was palpating the abdomen when Mr Cobb broke in again.

  ‘The trouble is,’ he gasped, ‘I neglect this poor little animal.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Well, ah’ve been all day at Catterick at the races, gamblin’ and drinkin’ with never a thought for me dog.’

  ‘You left her alone all that time in the house?’

  ‘Nay, nay, t’missus has been with her.’

  ‘Well, then.’ I felt I was getting out of my depth. ‘She would feed Myrtle and let her out in the garden?’

  ‘Oh aye,’ he said, wringing his hands. ‘But I shouldn’t leave ’er. She thinks such a lot about me.’

  As he spoke, I could feel one side of my face tingling with heat. My problem was suddenly solved.

  ‘You’ve got her too near the Aga,’ I said. ‘She’s panting because she’s uncomfortably hot.’

  He looked at me doubtfully. ‘We just shifted ’er basket today. We’ve been gettin’ some new tiles put down on the floor.’

  ‘Right,’ I said. ‘Shift it back again and she’ll be fine.’

  ‘But Mr Herriot.’ His lips began to tremble again. ‘It’s more than that. She’s sufferin’. Look at her eyes.’

  Myrtle had the lovely big liquid eyes of her breed and she knew how to use them. Many people think the Spaniel is number one when it comes to looking soulful but I personally plump for the Beagle. And Myrtle was an expert.

  ‘Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that, Mr Cobb,’ I said. ‘Believe me, she’ll be all right.’

  He still seemed unhappy. ‘But aren’t ye going to do something?’

  It was one of the great questions in veterinary practice. If you didn’t ‘do something’ they were not satisfied. And in this case Mr Cobb was in greater need of treatment than his pet. Still, I wasn’t going to stick a needle into Myrtle just to please him, so I produced a vitamin tablet from my bag and pushed it over the back of the little animal’s tongue.


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