When we first brought 13-week-old “France” the Great Pyrenees pup home, Nana and Papa welcomed her with mixed emotions. Although adorable, our new puppy had giant paws that she would eventually grow into, and an awful lot of fluffy white fur that seemed to be everywhere.
Both Nana and Papa had never been “dog people”, so this canine addition to our large household (5 kids, my husband Dan, his parents and myself) was a bit contentious at first. Nana repeatedly insisted that we should have opted for a “poodle instead of a horse”, and Papa? Well, as “France” grew into “Frank the Great” Papa transformed into a “converted dog person” in spite of both himself and Nana.
Nan and Pops have lived with us over the last decade, with seasonal forays and stays at the family cottage in Haliburton and the condo in Florida. As our puppy grew into a full-grown guardian dog, she naturally included Nana and Papa in her “human flock” and considered them well under her umbrella of protection. And it was Papa that benefited the most from the quiet companionship that Frank provided.
With the kids at school, Dan and me working, and Nana out doing non-stop shopping; Pyr and Pops were often left at home alone together. Their “secret” relationship flourished. As Papa’s health declined steadily over the last couple years, Frank’s attentive and watchful eye over him became more apparent. She would plod over to him (uninvited of course, because Papa “isn’t fond of dogs”, you know) and lie down upon his ice cold feet. When the house emptied out of everyone except for Pops, she would make her way to Papa’s den and lie down across the doorway until Nana or another family member would return.
As Papa’s illness took over and his mobility decreased, Frankie could be found spending the afternoon just sitting beside his recliner chair with her chin on his lap or resting on his arm. Nana would sometimes shoo her away… muttering under her breath about “dog slobber”; but Papa always welcomed her back saying “Oh, let the dog be”, much to Nana’s surprise.
In order to get around of late, Papa needed the assistance of a walker. Frank would lead the way down the hallway to the bathroom, often getting clipped by the walker’s wheels, and then would slowly escort Papa back to the den, where she would take up her protective position, as he settled back in his chair.
In the last few months, Papa didn’t talk much. His lack of vocalization and physical shut down was obvious to his family. Evidently it was obvious to Frankie as well. Though always gentle, she became even more so with Pops as his capacity diminished. One of his favourite things to do during his last weeks was to hand feed Frankie all the food he could not possibly eat; but that Nana insisted on giving him anyway. Frank tenderly accepted every morsel graciously, much to Nana’s chagrin.
On March 27th, in the late afternoon Frankie did something completely unexpected. She stood in the front foyer of our house, raised her giant head and let out what can only be described as a “wolf howl”… a long and soulful cry.
I was cooking Sunday dinner in the kitchen and poked my head around the doorway in time to see her with her chin in the air and her mouth open as the howl echoed eerily through the house. It put everyone in the house immediately on edge. Dan came running up from the lower level with our sons Eric and Jon on his heels and Nana came out of the den and stood with her hands on her hips, her head tilted in puzzlement. Even the girls, who were blaring rap music upstairs, yelled out “What was THAT!?” from their bedrooms.
It was a single howl, but it certainly got everyone’s attention. Frankie had NEVER done that before. She is a consistent barker, but never, ever has she howled. Frankie put her massive head down when Dan approached her, and as he rubbed her he asked her what was the matter. Of course, he didn’t get a response, and in a matter of minutes, we all went back to what we were doing as if nothing had happened at all.
That is… until just after 7pm when Nana called my name with a certain urgent tone. And then she called Dan a second later with increased intensity. Moments later Dan was performing CPR on his father while I was giving AR in tandem. Nana was calling 911. The kids were hovering near the bedroom as they watched helplessly.
The firefighters arrived first and took over from Dan and me and steered Nana out of the room. They were first responders and they had work to do. The paramedics came next, running up and down the stairs. They did what they could. The team with the stretcher came up the stairs... but it was too late. Papa didn’t make it.
Throughout this ordeal, there was something missing. Our Great Pyrenees didn’t bark… Not even once. In retrospect, when Dan and I were discussing and reliving those stressful last moments; it occurred to us that our dog didn’t charge the front door, or bark furiously. Normally her characteristic bark would be resonating through the house if anyone even approached the front walkway. Dan and I both found our dog’s silence very curious.
We later asked the kids if someone had put her in the lower level and closed the door and we simply didn’t hear her barking in protest; but they all said no. Eric did tell us however, that he saw Frankie standing in the back hallway when Papa’s body was being carried out… and she didn’t make a noise or come forward to investigate any of the firefighters or paramedics in the house. Eric said she just stood there watching them.
And now, over a month since Papa passed, our family still sometimes wonders aloud about Frank’s strange behaviour that day. We cannot explain the “howl” and we definitely cannot explain her uncanny silence and passive behaviour when our house was invaded by emergency response workers. Nana seems to think that somehow our dog sensed that the paramedics and fire fighters were there to help and were not a threat. Dan is inclined to think that Frankie picked up on the frantic mode we were all in; and perhaps it affected her in such a way that she did not react normally to the strangers in the house.
In quiet moments like right now, in the still of the night with only the soft click clack of the keyboard… Frankie lies beside me. I stop typing and look at her intently. “What goes on inside your brain?” I ask. “How do you know? What do you sense? What senses do you have that transcend what a simple human like me can possibly comprehend? The silence Frankie… The howl Frankie, oh the howl. Did you really know?”