For a long time my household couldn’t have a dog, but while I was growing up dogs were always in the picture. I mean this quite literally; you couldn’t take a family photo without a tail in the corner or a furry head appearing somewhere in the shot. My wider family were very close when I was little and we met up a lot so I always felt like my grandparents’ dogs were my dogs too. I remember three dogs from when I was a toddler, Lila (a barrel-shaped Jack Russell), Sam (a black Labrador) and Kasper (a Border Collie). My grandparents have always pretty lax when it comes to disciplining their dogs so I would often end up at the bottom of a pile of slobbery fur with a wet nose or paw in my little face, but I never minded.
Kasper was always my favourite. I remember when I was about three I was pulling on his soft ears and, after a while of begrudging patience, Kasper decided he’d had enough of being mauled and snapped, taking my tiny hand in his mouth. I hesitate to say he bit me because there was no force behind it, just alarming speed. He didn’t hurt me at all, it was just his way of saying “enough now”. My mum took me aside and, after checking that I wasn’t injured, explained to me that dogs aren’t cuddly toys and that they have feelings and need to be respected. Later on, while I was sitting on the sofa, Kasper came and nudged my elbow with his nose and wriggled under my arm for a cuddle. To me, that was his way of saying, “I’m sorry I snapped. I love you really.” I never thought I’d love a dog more than Kasper.
When I was about seven my mum gave up her job working at a nursery and was at home full-time. Being an Army family we never knew where we would be living year after next and it wasn’t practical to get a family pet if we could be moved across the globe at a moment’s notice, especially with quarantining laws being what they were in 1999. After a bit of research my mum hit on the solution of puppy walking for the Guide Dog Association. After a few months of vetting and form-filling Major came to live with us. He was a yellow Labrador-Golden Retriever cross and he was such an adorable little bundle of fur that we couldn’t help but fall for him, despite knowing from day one that he was never really “our” dog. After a little over a year Major went for his final training with the Guide Dog Association before being matched with Mark, a blind man living in Surrey. We never saw Major again but we know that he had a wonderful life and lived out his retirement with Mark.
Then, when I was eleven, my parents told us that we were going to get a family dog. They had spent a lot of time choosing a breeder and visiting the house where the puppies were born and raised for the first portion of their lives and were taking us to meet the tiny yellow Lab girl puppy who we would call our own. The excitement was simply indescribable.
Meeting our puppy with her litter-mates and mother was a slightly overwhelming experience. We arrived and my parents pointed out our puppy to us and we sat in the little pen and played with her. She was so soft and small and she scuttled about, clambering over us and licking our hands, getting to know us. It was like she was always ours.
We called her Buffy and she has been the life and soul of my family ever since. I’ll never forget the first time we took her swimming and she took to it like a duck to water, paddling about as if she were some sort of mer-dog. We’d spend summers floating along in an inflatable dinghy with her popping up and down the riverbank. One of her favourite games was “destroy the broom”. Which is exactly like it sounds. She is scared of vacuum cleaners and daffodils and she loves Springer Spaniels and chasing cyclists, though we try to keep the chasing in check.
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you how I can bore a room full of people to tears enthusing about my animal family, particularly my beautiful dog. She’s been my running buddy, playmate, comforter and protector for almost eleven years now and I can’t think about a life without her in it without getting extremely tearful. Whenever I’m ill or sad there she’ll be, sitting on my feet, staring up at me. I’ll often joke that she’s the only member of my family that’s always pleased to see me, but it’s not really a joke. She may be an old lady now, but to me she’s always my first puppy and will forever have an indelible paw print on my heart.