Tim Dowling: is the dog about to die or does it just hate being on holiday?

<span>Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian

It is teatime on our rainy family weekend away. The five of us are sitting around staring at the dog as it attempts to remove mud from between its toes by scrabbling at the sides of its dog bed.

“She hates mud,” says the middle one.

“She hates the country,” says my wife.

The dog snorts and runs a circle round the room. Then it runs out of the room and does a circle round the next room. Then it begins the first of a series of hysterical figure eights through both rooms, tail wagging, pausing only to drag its back paws along the floor.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many laps it took for this behaviour to go from funny to annoying, then from annoying to concerning, then from concerning to upsetting. But more than you’d think – let’s call it 15.

“This is getting weird,” says the oldest one. It’s certainly unusual. The dog is 14 and normally spends most of the day asleep.

“Someone catch her,” my wife says.

The middle one intercepts the dog and takes its outside to rinse its feet, but as soon as it’s set down again the figure eights recommence. By now the dog is crashing into things, and rolling over on the tight turns.

“I can’t watch this,” says the youngest one.

“Something’s definitely wrong,” says the oldest one.

We take turns suggesting potential diagnoses: the dog has trodden in something caustic and is trying to scrape it off; the dog has been stung by a bee; the dog has a brain tumour; the dog has eaten some paint that was left outside, and is having a reaction.

“Dogs don’t eat paint,” my wife says. “Let’s wait for her to calm down.”

The dog does not calm down. After a further half hour of ceaseless running we are all frantic, and accusing each other of neglect.

It is wounding to be immediately identified as the dumbest of all creatures – a tourist

“This dog is gonna die,” says the oldest. A short silence follows. We are at last on the verge of a collective decision, which is to say: we await my wife’s decision.

“OK,” she says. “Get her in the car.”

As we drive the oldest one calls a nearby emergency vet. While the dog twitches and jerks in the youngest one’s arms, the oldest one puts his phone on speaker and holds it out as it rings, making it clear he will not be doing the talking.

“Hello?” says a voice. My wife tries to explain the situation, but it is difficult to make it sound like any kind of emergency.

“Our dog seems to be having a problem with its feet,” she says. There is a pause.

“Are you here on holiday?” says the voice. It is wounding to be immediately identified as the dumbest of all creatures – a tourist – but at this point it seems best to admit everything.

“Yes,” my wife says.

“I’m a large animal veterinarian,” says the voice.

The voice provides another number, which is how we find ourselves haunting the dim reception area of an out-of-hours vet in a seaside town on a Saturday night, with the dog now pacing out exhausted figure eights.

The only available vet is in the middle of surgery; we have been promised a long wait. At one point everyone wanders off into town except me and the dog. Alongside the reception desk I notice three candles. Above them is a sign that says, “When the candles shine bright someone is saying goodbye to their beloved pet. We respectfully ask you to remain quiet during this sad time.”

Under the circumstances I find this unbearable. The dog sits down and looks up at me.

“What, now you’re fine?” I say. “You’d better not be fine when the vet comes out.”

My wife and sons return from the high street.

“The pizza place doesn’t take reservations,” she says.

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When the vet is finally free we crowd into his examination room to watch the dog walk around and sniff the corners.

“It doesn’t look like much now,” I say.

“But even this is very out of character,” my wife says.

“She’s like, the world’s least curious dog,” says the middle one.

The vet examines the dog and suggests she may have suffered some kind of spinal strain. He administers an injection, writes out a prescription for painkillers and tells us to return if the situation worsens. By the time we’ve got the dog back on the lead she seems right as rain.

Later, at the pizza place, we struggle to absorb the idea that what we witnessed – which at the time a seemed clear case of demonic possession – was quite possibly a dog having a back spasm.

“I still think we did the right thing,” my wife says.

“Yes,” I say. “But we’ll never know if there was a different right thing that didn’t cost 250 quid.”