Four years ago my 65 year old husband had sold his boat and was in mourning. He was also stuck in a sedentary job that he hated, was overweight because he never got any exercise and rarely felt like socialising. Privately, I reasoned that a dog would provide a distraction, a way of getting out, exercising and meeting other people. But trying to persuade Himself (and the cat) was another matter.
In order to prove that mine was an Informed Choice, I got books from the library, spent hours on the internet and talked to everyone I knew about the cost, (our) suitability, vet’s bills and insurance. There was also the matter of our six-year-old cat. Spoilt only son, who could wind Himself round his left whisker. I’d been advised that it would be better to forget ideas about a rescue dog and get a puppy so that he could boss it around.
I’d thought that the dog should be small, given that we live in a one bedroom flat with not much garden, and one night Himself said grudgingly, “if you want to get a dog you should get one like that,” pointing to a Jack Russell walking past the window. I tried not to get too excited, but felt this was a significant breakthrough. It was the first time he’d shown any interest in anything for months.
Eventually I managed to get Himself interested enough to see a litter of Jack Russell puppies advertised in the local paper owned by some gypsies. He had nothing against the gypsies but didn’t take to the dog’s father, a short-haired Jack Russell, and proclaimed that he looked vicious.
“I’d look extremely vicious if you tried to take away my babies,” I pointed out, but Himself had suddenly gone deaf.
The following week, there was another ad in the paper for two Jack Russell bitches so I rang up and could have sworn I spoke to the same gypsy as last week, except that these dogs were long haired and recently brought over from Ireland. While I’m not anti-Irish, I realised that we wouldn’t be able to see the pups’ parents, which we’d been advised to do.
Nevertheless, I rang Himself who reluctantly agreed to see them and I arranged a visit after work that evening. I wasn’t hopeful but reckoned it was good experience; we had to learn what to look for. To my astonishment, Himself picked one up, inspecting it all over. While I played with the other scrap, Himself cradled the other lovingly and said, “If you really want to get a dog you should get this one.”
Note the way he absolved any responsibility. Taken aback, I muttered that we might go home and think about it, but he was adamant. “If we don’t get this one, someone else will.”
I was so dumbfounded by this complete about turn, I gave the owners a deposit without quibble and arranged to collect the puppy the following day.
I spent that night not sleeping, petrified by this new responsibility, desperately worried about whether I’d be a good enough mum, would the cat be all right, was it all a terrible mistake. Himself had his first good night’s sleep in months, snoring blissfully beside me, untroubled by impending parenthood.
When we went to collect the puppy, I was more concerned with making sure Himself Bonded with her. In fact, looking back, that had already happened. What I hadn’t expected was falling in love myself, but that came later. Back home, a Very busy Himself sat in our kitchen showing a rare animation. “She’s a real little joy,” he breathed, gazing adoringly at her. He finally left at 3.30 “so I can come home early” and returned an hour later, suggesting that we call her Mollie. This was in deference to her Irish ancestors and also after a much loved, strong minded cousin, though a friend swiftly nicknamed her Mollie Coddled.
The first night she was understandably a bit squeaky, so at two in the morning this hulk of a man cradled the little snip in his arms and soothed her while I gulped back tears. So much for the man who never wanted children. After a few minutes he took Mollie and disappeared from the bedroom. I got up to find him taking Mollie’s bed into the kitchen then lugging a mattress and duvet onto the floor beside it.
“What are you DOING?” I asked, half asleep.
“Frankly, Pop,” he said, with the air of a Man with a Mission, “there’s no alternative but to sleep in here with her. You go back to bed.”
I did so, smiling to myself. It might not be good puppy training but it was good bonding. I did start to have severe doubts about training though – not Mollie but Himself.
Being new parents, I felt we needed all the help we could get so we had a very good session with our vet nurse – another young Irish girl. She answered all my frantic questions and suggested I bring Mollie to the socialisation class on Thursdays. The first session was somewhat alarming for Moll, who sat underneath my chair and refused to say hello to anyone, but after that she joined in and was soon playing happily with the other pups.
We were both very worried about how the cat would take to having a canine interloper but Himself had endless Man to Man talks with him. While the cat evidently didn’t approve, he tried to ignore the irritating little scrap which was, after all, much smaller than him. If that didn’t work, he hissed and swiped at her before stalking off, tail in the air. At night, the cat slept clamped to my hip (lovely in hot weather) on top of the duvet, while I was squashed between the cat and Himself, and Mollie slept in her crate in the corridor. In the daytime, I had to fight the cat for possession of my writing chair. He obviously felt his position as Top Cat was in danger of being ousted, and needed to redress the balance.
Himself’s interest in people blossomed, with Mollie to show off to the world. Having overcome her initial shyness, she loved meeting everyone, and spent many hours trying to persuade two aged shitzus to play. We learned a lot from their owners, two gay men who adored their dogs, who had stylish little pigtails on top of their heads. You will note that Mollie was very PC in her friends – lesbians and gays were among her greatest admirers.
It soon became clear that we had a child prodigy on our hands. One night Himself said, “you know, Pop, I reckon she’s at least as bright as – what are those exams?” Not having a clue what he was talking about, I couldn’t help, but he got there. “O levels!” he cried. “Yes, she’s up to O level standard already.” And she wasn’t even three months old ... the worrying thing was, he wasn’t even joking.
Himself’s depression improved dramatically. While he still hated work, he had focus again, and most waking hours were devoted to Mollie. She became the daughter we never had, and all my friends started muttering, “he’d make a lovely dad”.
While Himself adored Mollie and she could do no wrong, I soon realised that there was a wilful little girl who loved being boss. As I was with her most of the day, working from home, she had to realise that she couldn’t do what she wanted. To my relief she was surprisingly quick to learn, but as Himself told everyone, “she’s very bright you know.”
Puppy school followed the class at the vet’s, and it soon transpired that I was good at Being Firm while Himself, like many men I know, wasn’t. His version of training was to hold a biscuit in front of her nose and give it to her. “No!” I would shout. “She has to earn it.”
He would look at me sorrowfully and say, “She has, Pop, just by being her.”
See what I mean? Hopeless. So puppy school was essential for him, and we all learnt a huge amount.
Mollie arrived in our lives in a sunny week in July, and in late August Himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Throughout the dark days of terror, Mollie was a constant in our lives, focusing attention away from illness and onto her. When the initial shock wore off, the discipline of having to walk Mollie twice a day was a good one and got us both out of the house. There are wonderful days in Autumn, even cancerous ones.
One weekend just before Christmas, although his cancer level was down, Himself developed a lung infection and, coupled with terrible side effects from the cancer drugs, was in agony and unable to move from the sofa. That same week, Mollie had had her dew claws removed and the two invalids sat side by side on the sofa, watching mindless television together, transmitting wordless comfort.
Having helped him through the blackest days of December, when her stitches had healed, Mollie helped me to cope by coming on long walks. Outside I could breathe non-cancerous air and the everyday panics dissipated as she bounded across fields chasing a bird or splashed her way through streams trying to fish.
The prognosis for the cancer improved dramatically and we heaved a collective sigh of relief, but several months later, Himself was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Furtively I looked it up on the internet, and read, “this is a terminal lung disease.” You can imagine how I felt, that having cheated cancer, he was now going to die of a lung disease. And as he seemed to think it was a mild breathing problem, there was no way I could tell him how serious it was, so I sat on this new fear and tried not to let it grow.
Our friends and family have been wonderful, but the greatest tribute goes to Mollie. Thanks largely to her, we have survived. She is much loved by everyone she meets (except the cat), and has changed our lives by proving a wonderful companion.
A year on, the prostate cancer is now under control, the pulmonary fibrosis is has proved not to be lung scarring, and Himself has sold the business that was contributing to his depression. As a result of walking his hyperactive daughter twice a day, Himself has lost over two stone and is rightly proud of this achievement. He looks younger, his sense of humour has returned, and he strides along instead of shuffling like an old man.
He proudly shows off his wonderful daughter, chats to everyone and is now world expert on Jack Russells. The cat is not ecstatic, but has resigned himself to living with two scruffy, hyperactive women, and as long as he’s fussed over, he doesn’t complain too much.
As for me? I smile and thank my lucky stars that the gamble paid off. I not only have the best dog in the world, but a happy Himself to boot.
A shorter version published in Dogs Today, 2006