I’ve shared my life with dogs, and the one who stayed loyally by my side during my thirties and forties was something special. Perhaps it was just timing: she saw me through the turbulent years of divorce, second chance love, motherhood, multiple house moves, career troubles and the darkest days of bereavement. Yet I believe there’s more to it than that. While each dog I’ve owned has had my heart, just one had my soul.
She was a force of nature from day one: a blue-eyed, needy, bundle of joy gifted to me by my then-husband as another baby substitute, a ‘little sister’ for our Jack Russell, Jelly. Her registered name was Calzac Carletta of the Cotswolds which we considered far too grand for this wrinkly, big-pawed goon of a tot, so we called her Pudding, an added sweet treat sugaring our little Cotswolds family.
For the ensuing fifteen years, she was to become my rock, the most consistent companion in my life.
I’d had a Weimaraner before, so I knew the breed suffers from separation anxiety, but nothing prepared me for Pudding’s level of clinginess. She crashed her way out of ever-tougher dog crates, clambered through open windows and became the ultimate boot room escapologist to be with me. In the end, it was easier to take her everywhere. She seldom strayed far. In all other respects, Pudding was almost untrainable. I thought I knew my stuff, but for a long time, she had me beat. We were asked to leave our village hall puppy classes for disruptive behaviour. On the lead, she dragged me everywhere. She barked non-stop at other dogs, flattened strangers with enthusiastic greetings, and stole any food she could lay her paws on – a roast chicken resting on the Aga at Easter, a whole salmon in foil, entire picnics and ice creams from children like a seagull. Trips to the vets were commonplace. Some were food-theft related, others sheer bad luck: she caught Parvovirus despite being inoculated and nearly died; she developed severe uveitis after a womb infection and came close to losing her sight; she swallowed the Jack Russell’s favourite toy and had to have several feet of stomach removed. Her insurance premiums were soon bigger than the car’s. And if she wasn’t the victim, she was the cause: an overexcited game of fetch in our garden led to her landing on top of Jelly, his leg breaking so badly it needed a metal frame; my tooth was knocked out when she felled me against a drystone wall. She was, in short, the most destructive, disruptive, injury-prone dog I’d ever had. And we worshipped one another.
We walked miles together to try to run down her batteries and for me to think things over: work, troubled friends, family rows, my disintegrating marriage. When that ended all-too painfully, there was no question about who would get custody of Pudding. She was by then four and at her most rebelliously wilful. My mother called her ‘demon dog’, but I drew strength from her single-minded devotion. Having always slept downstairs – one bit of training we’d nailed – she moved to the landing, then outside my door, and finally onto the foot of my bed. We watched a lot of bad late-night television together. She never judged me; she just loved me.
When I eventually found love again, she adored him from the start, even when she was demoted to the top of the stairs once more. The devotion was mutual. She came with us on every romantic weekend. If I went out, she didn’t howl by the door as she once had but followed him around instead.
We went on to have two children, and she was like Nanny from Peter Pan to them, a doting maternal companion. She let them crawl all over her, hang from her tail and ears, and peer in her mouth. Her stumpy tail just thumped the ground adoringly throughout. She would pad around the house rounding us all up; she liked togetherness. We appreciated that bossy corralling, the opportunities to relax together all too few. Our first years as a family were full of life-changing upheaval: we’d moved to Somerset to set up my partner’s new equestrian business just as my darling father was diagnosed with aggressive cancer that took his life in little more than eighteen months; Alzheimer’s also claimed my partner’s stepmother that year. With two parents widowed and struggling to cope, we moved again to be closer to them, taking eight horses, two toddlers and Pudding. Then my mother was diagnosed with a long-term degenerative illness, and we moved yet again to set her up in an annexe with us. Pudding would sit with her for hours, friends at last. ‘Who’s the best dog in the world?’ Mum would whisper to her when she thought no one could hear.
Having finally mellowed in midlife, Pudding had become the dog everyone who met her wanted to take home for her loyalty, her beauty and – wonders – her obedience, a canine epiphany that had surprised us all. From around seven (fifty in dog-to-human years) she’d stopped pulling on the lead, terrorising other dogs and even let our free-range chickens ride on her back. She sat, lay, stayed and came on command, making us suspect she’d always known how to, but now she’d chosen to comply. She still stole food – even in her dotage one house-sitter’s badly concealed fudge stash led to yet another emergency vet’s trip – and she hated being left, but she possessed a wise, charismatic kindness only older dogs have. She genuinely loved people, especially children. Our eldest daughter’s autism can make home life traumatic – her high anxiety, many meltdowns and sense of profound, rudderless isolation impact us all. Pudding was her go-to, the calm weight of her most-trusted family member leaning against her side reassuringly provided a comfort we couldn’t, however hard we tried. The simplicity of it, that connection between child and dog, just worked.
By her teens, Pudding had multiple huge lumps, cataracts, arthritic hips and the fiercest will to live I’ve known in an elderly dog. My darling grey ghost who had almost died so many times wasn’t ready to leave us. The vet trips became so regular she grew to dread them, to the point where she had to be treated in the car boot. We were told multiple times that this was probably the end, only for her to rally and be back out gambling in the garden a day later, ears flapping.
But it came eventually, as we knew it would. She settled beside me one evening, head on my lap, and I knew in an instant that she’d taken a hit from something she couldn’t beat this time – kidney failure it transpired, as so often claims old dogs – and that we needed to help her out of the pain quickly. The vet was wonderful, agreeing to visit us at home, aware of how frightening Pudding found the surgery.
I’ve been beside beloved dogs when they have been put to sleep before, that agonising kindness born of having canine companions whose lives are so much shorter than ours, but this was different. This was Pudding, my family, my force majeure. She was irreplaceable, her familiar gaze fixed on me as she took leave of the life she’d lived so riotously and generously.
The family were all distraught, our mutual comfort so important, but the enduring grief I felt afterwards rocked me. The well-meaning platitudes soon came thick and fast: ‘She had a good life’; ‘She was a great dog’; ‘Will you get another one?’ How could I? There was no other Pudding. I looked for her everywhere. I hid behind doors and wept in silent, shameful desolation. It was a feeling entirely unlike any for a pet I’d lost before. I lay awake at night just missing her.
Although my daughters, then ten and eleven, had never known life without Pudding in it, they took her death in their stride, The Encyclopaedia of Dog Breeds quickly brought out for inspection to choose her replacement, designer dogs much discussed. I couldn’t bear to join in. I felt I’d lost something of myself with her, but I was too ashamed to admit it; I didn’t want to make it about me. Perhaps that secret part of me was grieving for my own stage of life: Pudding had arrived in it when I was thirty-two, at the top of my career and full of dreams; I was now forty-eight and more world-weary. She’d been my constant through so many life-changing years, and now she – and they – were gone. For a while, I felt genuinely lost. I missed the woman I’d been when we met.
My mother’s death a year later put things in perspective, a loss on a different scale and a sharp reminder that a human lifetime outspans and outshines a dog one. There’s no comparison between the two, except that one is enhanced by the other immeasurably. Carpe diem is a wagging tail.
And thank heaven for books and for writing, in which Pudding remains immortal. She featured in most novels I wrote during her lifetime. A fictional shapeshifter, she’s not only been the inspiration for far too many canine characters to mention but she’s also been people, horses and even a car with a mind of its own. When stubborn, devoted, destructive eccentricity was required, I closed my eyes and pictured her. I still do.
Losing Pudding was a part of the inspiration behind Woman of a Certain Rage, my novel written as Georgie Hall which is out in paperback this month. In it, heroine Eliza is struggling to come to terms with the death of her own ‘lifetime’ dog, Arty at the same time as she grapples with middle-aged invisibility. And Pudding is always by my side in the Comptons novels, bounding through every landscape when I walk there in my imagination – or more precisely when I ride there. In the third book in the series, heroine Pax closes her eyes and gallops in her mind if life gets tough. Her creator has always done this, but nowadays I’m never alone, chased alongside by Pudding as she did so often when alive. We’ve been especially busy exploring the Bardswold villages and vales together lately, and I hope we’ll continue to do so for a long time yet.
When distracted working, I still sometimes catch myself reaching down expecting to feel the creased velvet top of Pudding’s head. Even four years after losing her, I miss her daily, although I’ve long since relented to family pressure and dog love and we now have two rescue greyhounds, sweet-natured divas we adore, although they possess none of Pudding’s fierce sister soul.
I will be forever grateful for the years I shared with the ‘best dog in the world’ and that she became the most gloriously generous personality in midlife. I’m taking inspiration from that. By my calculation, I’ve just passed seven in canine years, and I hope my dog days are just as rewarding. I wish the same for all fellow dog lovers who are also only just coming of age.
More news on the third Comptons book soon.
Woman of a Certain Rage written as Georgie Hall is out in paperback on 12th May.