Memories Of Pastelle

In Memory of Pastelle (August 19, 1995 to November 17, 2006)

November 17, 2006: this day brings to an end one of the best chapters of my life. The days when the Twins, as I used to call them, were overflowing my life with joy are over.

Pastelle left us in a flash on the night of November 17, a bit over a year after her brother Willy. Unbeknownst to us she had been brewing a cancer in her abdomen. A giant tumor attached to her pancreas ruptured possibly during a tug game that she played with her housemate Layla, my parents’ Labrador. She didn’t tell us much, as she had the habit of hiding when she was in pain. Yet by some miracle, Layla alerted the rest of the family to the distress that Pastelle was going through in the middle of the night and ’ thank God and Layla ’ she was in loving hands for the last hour of her life. She died in hospital at roughly two o’clock in the morning on November 17.

She was in loving hands throughout her life. When I met her for the first time, we were looking to buy not two but just one dog ’ a boy preferably. An advert in the newspaper had announced the imminent arrival of two border collie pups in town, born on a farm near Martintown eight weeks earlier. We arrived well before the delivery truck. My mother and I immediately fell in love with her little brother, Wil, who was a complete charmer and made sure we wouldn’t spend another second of our lives without him. But Pastelle was close by and something really strong inside me compelled me to take her too. She was less interactive than Wil but much more inquisitive, checking out her surroundings, fascinated by the toys I showed her. I thought that she might just be the dog I was actually looking for: a working dog, highly motivated to learn and play. I had recently lost my German Shepard Tweenie ’ a dog that I adored but who was both dumb and, well’ ‘introverted’ (both these qualifications understate the facts). Willy appeared as her opposite in terms of sociability. Pastelle, on her side, struck me as Tweenie’s opposite in terms of intelligence. I just had to take her too.

In a ruthless act of reason, my mother bought Willy, and I bought Pastelle. The Twins had both won us over. We walked away with our pair of puppies with the funny feeling that the overall result ’ having taken them both ’ was right, although the details of ownership might need to be revised. For one thing, ‘ownership’ was just a way of speaking. Pastelle was not anyone’s dog, and she quickly conveyed this fact to us: she didn’t belong to anyone. The World belonged to her.

Quickly we realized that of the two twins, Pastelle was in charge. She made sure that Willy was kept in check in the house, and that all the toys were hers. Willy was plainly relieved that she would take that leadership role ’ it might have been tiring otherwise ’ and so a stable harmony was established between the Twins from the start. But Pastelle had no aspiration for Presidency. She liked order, structure, predictability and the safety provided by set principles. Above all, she loved following rules laid out for her. Although my mother cared deeply for her wellbeing (especially in the kitchen), and Pastelle adored her for it, Pastelle found security in me as I was the one who had all the expectations to be met. Pastelle started looking up to me for instructions on what to do. Thus began a unique relationship between her and me, one that would carry on for the rest of her life. I was not her ‘owner’: I was her Tutor, and she was my Pupil. And so we understood each other.

My role as her tutor consisted in training her, exercising her and grooming her. Between my mother and me, I was the ‘severe’ one of the two, the one who scrupulously followed the doctor’s instructions and monitored Pastelle’s weight, the one who imposed curfews, nothing-in-life-is-free training, regimented physical exercise, dietary restrictions, compulsory tooth-brushing and ear inspections. I was at the origin of all rules (my mother, the origin of all exceptions) and anything I said had unquestionable normative value to Pastelle. I was the figure of authority for her ’ she wanted one - and with the compliance of a soldier she would respond to me with unbounded respect and trust.

This trust carried us far. As I trained her for cadaver detection, we traveled to James Bay together, to Flint (Michigan), to Owen Sound (Georgian Bay), to Estrie (Qu’bec), to Lake Huron and to Lake Ontario. Pastelle was nervy by nature: she reacted to strong noises, didn’t like being approached by strangers or touched over the head, and she especially didn’t like being hugged or carried around. But as long as I was there to tell her what to do when confronted with novel situations, Pastelle was thriving. I just needed to tell her that things were exactly the way they should be and how she should react. If I set up ‘hugging’ as an exercise, she would strive to do it well and hug me back too ’ just to get it right. Together we traveled in pick-up trucks, trains, planes of various sizes (she traveled both as cargo and with passengers), helicopters, boats, snowmobiles and four-wheeled ATVs ’ she even had a ride on a baggage carousel. She learned to accept being evacuated on my shoulders with her legs splinted and to rapel off a bridge in a harness tied to me, both of us dangling at the end of a rope over the Flint River. As I said, she trusted me.

She was fueled by nuclear energy: she exhibited spectacular alerts when she had found her victim (or any human remains), jumping on me face-height from several meters away to make sure I was not going to pass by without noticing. Our team’s training officer Kim would often ask us to perform public demonstrations. She would ask someone to randomly throw a milk tooth or a ball of human hair in a field the size of a tennis court. Kim would brief the crowd to pay particular attention to Pastelle’s body language, and to try to pick up what was the subtle alert that Pastelle would display to convey her finding to me. As the crowd held its breath in a quasi religious silence, anticipating the alert, Pastelle would meticulously search the area. As soon as she had found the milk tooth or the hair she would explode on me like a blast, to the astonishment and delight of everyone. There was nothing subtle about her display.

Her rewards for finding her victims were to disembowel stuffed toys. She would get one stuffed toy to destroy for every successful search that she completed. She could work six consecutive hours to get one. To this day, apparently, my team mates keep finding stuffed toy material in the forests where we worked. She is part of the legends.

Four other search dogs on the team have lost their lives in just over this past year ’ one generation of canine team mates swept away by age and illnesses.

Pastelle had the inner strength of a wolf. She survived a parvovirus infection as a pup, the excruciating pain associated to her chronic skin condition, hypothermia in the arctic tides of James Bay, and the loss of her little brother Willy. Cancer took her life like a coward - by surprise, without giving her a chance; it took us all by surprise.

We will forever miss you Pastelle. You should rest now, ‘C’est Tutrice qui l’a dit’.