In Norse mythology Garm was the ferocious hound who guarded the gates of Hell. Our Garm bore only a passing resemblance to his mythical namesake. Guard dog he was not; he treated open gates as pathways to adventure, not to be guarded. He was a family pet, or more precisely the boys’ pet. They were fascinated with Norse mythology and heroic figures, and perhaps hoped that Garm would live up to his name. The boys were 14 and 9 years; Garm was 3 months when we adopted him. He was a black Labrador retriever, or mostly so, and true to his breed was gentle, friendly and handsome. Most of the time he was quite likeable and might even be credited with some intelligence, though later behaviour would cast doubt on that assumption. In particular, he had the one quality that distinguishes all Labs, a good nose. This product of genetic selection, over which he had no control, was eventually to be the cause of his downfall.
Garm was a house dog, but with limited privileges. The house rules were simple but strict; he had a pad in the kitchen and was to stay there. However, like the camel outside the tent, he was always prepared to test the limits. While we were eating Garm would lie in the doorway between kitchen and dining room with his nose exactly at the dividing line. First the tip of his snout would edge across the border, followed by half his head, and one paw very gingerly, then very slowly and quietly the other would follow. All this without a sound, trying his very best to be invisible. “Out, Garm”, not even spoken harshly, and he would recoil back to his lair in the kitchen. He never required or received physical punishment; harsh words were quite enough to make him obey, if only temporarily.
When he was alone with the boys he knew he had the freedom of the house. Of an evening he would snuggle between them, relaxing comfortably on a soft chesterfield in the upstairs family room, watching TV or dozing. But the moment a car entered the driveway, signalling the return of parents, he bolted back to his place in the kitchen. Usually he beat us and he would raise his head sleepily as we entered the house as if asking what had kept us so late. Occasionally, perhaps because the TV was too loud or the sitcom too engrossing or he was sleeping too soundly, he missed the noise of car tires crunching gravel and didn’t realize his peril until the front door opened. Then he came careening down the stairs, tumbling head over heels in his haste, with no pretense at deception, to cringe under his blanket in the kitchen.
He was the boys’ pet, and you can guess the division of responsibilities for his care. I fed him; they treated him to snacks. I took him out each day, summer and winter, for his E&E (exercise and excretion); they encouraged him to loaf with them in the family room. I disciplined him; they indulged him. Did this indulgence foster the character flaws that later led to his problems with the law? I suspected so but I got little support for that view, neither then nor now.
We were a reasonably peaceful household until Garm started to feel the surges of young manhood. I realized that his brain was subservient to his hormones when he picked a fight with the neighbour’s German shepherd, four times his weight and strength. My intervention certainly saved his life and cost me several lacerations and a tetanus shot. Garm was unabashed and acted as if he had won the fight. At that point I should have done the obvious and removed the source of his surging hormones. I procrastinated and events overtook us.
As I said, Labs have good noses. Garm could sense the pheromones of a bitch in heat from across the city. He started to bolt from the yard, completely ignoring our calls to stop, and several hours later we would find him with a pack of like minded juvenile louts, vying for the attentions of a preening female. When we dragged him home he seemed contrite but did not reform his behaviour. The next enticing waft of a bitch in oestrous and he was off again.
Garm was confined to quarters. I reinforced the fence around our yard, six feet high with sharpened pickets along the top. The gate was kept locked and when outside the yard he was always on a leash. Still I avoided the obvious solution.
Then disaster struck, the nadir of his delinquent career. Garm was a little short of his second birthday. It occurred on a late afternoon in midwinter; we were all indoors, preoccupied by routine tasks. Garm was more alert than was his usual habit at that time of the day, but he studiously avoided the door, avoided even glancing at it. Interested in going outside? Not him! The front doorbell rang and I forget now who was the caller or why. The door opened briefly, only a little, and Garm was gone. Like a sprinter out of the starting blocks, a black projectile, he bolted past the surprised caller, bounded to the top of a small snow pile bordering the walkway, and launched himself at the closed gate. Unfortunately for him, he cleared it with room to spare and disappeared. A search until dark of his usual haunts proved fruitless. The boys were disconsolate.
Two days later the city’s pound keeper phoned. Garm had been apprehended and his offences were serious: caught with a pack of dogs in Assiniboine Park chasing deer. The only one with a collar, he was positively identified. The boys were delighted; they wanted him home at once. The fine to spring him was $53, and would increase for every day he was an unclaimed guest of the City. I was at work; grocery money on hand was insufficient; piggy banks were emptied and I think it was still not enough. My wife claims that she had to search behind the cushions for loose change, but she does tend to exaggerate. I didn’t witness his release but apparently he was a sorry specimen: fawning, contrite, chagrined, and apologetic. How could a decent young fellow have sunk so low? Oh! The evils of bad company!
I was resolved that the definitive treatment could not be further delayed. The source of his tempestuous hormone surges had to be removed. It had been a busy day at the hospital and we had guests coming for dinner but the pound keeper had warned us that the fine would double each time he was caught. My chief lab technician was alerted and Garm was bundled off to our animal operating room.
My experience with veterinary anaesthesia had been limited to one species, sheep. Our sheep were docile, phlegmatic creatures that readily accepted a mask with halothane and oxygen. Compared to a sheep’s breath it was a fragrant mixture and that might explain their lack of resistance. We usually induced general anaesthesia with about 3% inspired halothane. Using an old ether bottle as we did, and opened about half way, it might deliver anywhere from two to five percent. However, we had done this a hundred times and had never killed a sheep.
Garm was contrite but suspecting he was to be punished, he cowered; he whined; he cringed under the bench; he struggled when offered the mask with sweet smelling halothane. His adrenaline level soared. I sat on him and opened the old ether bottle a little more, trying to get through this trauma quickly. In my impatience I forgot, or perhaps I never knew, some basic dog physiology. Dogs have an irritable myocardium and are prone to adrenaline induced arrhythmia.
My readers will by now have guessed the sad ending of this story. Every anaesthetist knows the risks of mixing high levels of endogenous adrenaline, an irritable heart and halothane anaesthesia. Garm struggled a little then suddenly became quite still, the knife never got near his tender parts. When I saw his dilating pupils I instantly realised what had happened — cardiac arrest. We tried to resuscitate him but to no avail. Open chest cardiac massage, endotracheal intubation, and oxygen were ineffective. I considered calling 911 for a defibrillator but Wayne, my technician, balked. He was, perhaps, anticipating tomorrow’s headline in the Winnipeg Free Press, “Laboratory technician Wayne P. at HSC calls paramedics to resuscitate mongrel dog.”
Although I could justify the necessity for my actions, the outcome was certainly a product of haste and carelessness. My evil genie at work again. I could anticipate the questions and reproach that faced me at home. After all, Garm had left home a lively and healthy dog for a small operation that would cure him of his lusts. Would they think I had killed him deliberately? Would they doubt my sincerity and good intentions? I was a professional anaesthetist; would this blunder stigmatise my career?
There were tears, of course, and as expected there had to be a heaping dollop of guilt and reproach. How did I explain my miscalculation? I fell back on the anaesthetist’s oldest and lamest excuse: “He took the anesthetic badly.” It was a low point for us all.
Why do dogs have such an emotional hold on us? First, consider that the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) and humans have a long shared history, 20-30,000 years . Still, it is debatable who adopted whom. Did wolves attach themselves to hunter-gatherer groups to share in the spoils of the hunt or did humans capture and domesticate the (now extinct) megafaunal wolf? Though they may have hunted together, they were not chummy; that came much later. When hunting strategies became more dependent on dogs, the relationship deepened. Dogs were buried with humans, as trusted servants of the deceased. After the shift to an agricultural economy, about 12,000 years ago, dogs took on domestic roles as herders, pack animals and guard dogs and probably lived more closely with humans. Domesticated dogs thus have had about 12,000 years to study humans, learn their body language and anticipate their moves. They do this so well that we have anthropomorphized them; we assume their behaviour reflects human feelings and qualities. It is understandable that people put their dogs in their wills, delay vacations when their dog is ill, and are prepared to pay veterinarians more than doctors. Dog owners assume that the unconditional loyalty and love of their pets deserve a reciprocal response. But all dogs, some more than others, carry traces of the wolf ancestor. That remnant of the ancient past defines my memories of Garm; a dog that at his best was totally civilized: obedient, charming, and lovable. But when the instincts of the wolf were stirred he acted like a wolf. He followed his nose and did what nature demanded of him.
The boys have a different point of view. They favour the old myths that portray dogs in mystical and heroic settings. There are many examples: Garm in Norse mythology, Cerberus in Greek; Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf. Constellations and stars honour dogs; Sirius, the Dog Star in the constellation Orion, is the brightest star in the heavens. These are the images they relish. They see Garm, the black hound of Hel and guardian of “Gnipas Cave”, leading a pack of savage wolves across the heavens into the battle of Ragnarok. They see the heroic Garm in a death struggle with the God Tyr. Fight bravely, Garm!
- Morell, V., From wolf to dog. Sci Am, 2015. 313(1): p. 60-7.