[Please note that since writing this post I have changed the name of the series to "A Dog Walk With..."
Welcome to the first Doggy Grief Therapy post. If you're wondering what this is all about I recommend you read my introduction – it'll explain a bit more about the inspiration behind this interview series and what I'm hoping to achieve.
Recently I got a message on instagram from an account called @darlingdog, its owner, Louise had somehow come across a post I wrote about our dog George, how having him put to sleep had affected me and how I wanted to start this series, Doggy Grief Therapy. She asked if I might like to read an article she had written for The Telegraph about grieving for her dog Cookie, as she thought I might find it helpful. Of course I said yes, and when I finally summoned the courage to have a read, although I cried the whole way through (perhaps reading it on the train wasn't my best move), I found it such a comfort to read about someone who had felt a lot of the feelings I did when we had to say goodbye to George. It also made me think about how differently everyone grieves, exactly what I was hoping to highlight through this series.
I knew instantly after reading her article that Louise would be the perfect person to kick off this series, so I asked her if she'd be interested in taking part and set a date to meet her and her handsome rescue Great Dane Fred for a walk in the Olympic Park in London. As I sat on the Overground on my way to the walk I found my eyes filling with tears as I thought about George and that dreaded day at the vets. Looking for a way to distract myself, I pulled out my book, only to find myself reading a chapter in which one of the character's beloved Jack Russell passes away at a ripe old age and another character finds a greyhound in need of a loving home. Not quite the distraction I was hoping for, and a rather bizarre coincidence. It had been a while since I'd had a good old cry over George - having our foster dog Saffie around for the past couple of months has definitely helped me and proved a brilliant distraction – but even if Louise and I spent the whole walk crying, I knew deep down that talking to someone who understood how I felt would help me. As I got off the train and turned the corner to see Louise, wearing a rainbow striped jumper, smiling and waving and the lovely grey-faced Fred, I knew I was right to do this. They were literally the brightness I needed on a very rainy day.
I'd planned to record our chat and write it out interview style, but we got into talking about our dogs so quickly that getting my phone out to record didn't cross my mind for a very long time! So here's Louise's story...
In September 2016, Louise's English bulldog Cookie was diagnosed with a tumour on her heart, and just two days later she was gone. Louise had noticed Cookie's behaviour change and knew something was wrong, but wasn't expecting the results to be quite so horrifying. On our walk we spoke about that stage I think we all go through – the denial that anything bad is really happening. Louise said that even as the vets were scanning Cookie's heart and explaining what was wrong with her she didn't believe it was really happening. I know I personally convinced myself that George wasn't struggling as much as he really was and it wasn't until I spent some time with my Aunty's dog a month before George passed away that I realised how hard he really was finding life. Louise told me about making that call to the vets – to book in Cookie's final appointment – how she felt intensely guilty as Cookie sat at her feet staring into her eyes. She described it as “the ultimate betrayal” and found herself feeling responsible for killing her beloved family dog. This resonated so much with me. Whilst I was not the one that ultimately made the decision about George or who made the call to the vets, I absolutely felt like I'd betrayed him. I so clearly remember speaking to Kurtis after we'd been to the vets and agreeing it felt like we'd tricked George that day – taking him on a lovely sunny walk in the park, before taking him into the vets for the final time. He had no idea he wouldn't be walking out of there, and he happily wagged his way in, as he always did. I don't think I'll ever get over that feeling really.
Louise's situation with Cookie was even more complex, because not only did she have to cope with the death of her companion and the feeling of responsibility, she also had two young children (at the time two and four years old) to whom she had to explain why their dog wasn't around anymore. Cookie had become lovingly known as The Unicorn to Louise and her family – due to a brown patch on her head, where they joked her horn would one day grow. When it came to explaining to the children where their pet had gone, Louise decided to write them a letter from Cookie, saying she had gone to live on a rainbow – it was her time to become the unicorn she was always meant to be. Two years on and she says her kids still ask her about Cookie – what does she think Cookie's eating where she is? Will her horn have grown through yet? Louise told me that she is sure some people would frown on this way of coping with the situation, but to me it seemed like a beautiful way to explain the situation to children of such a young age and this particular story made perfect sense for a family who already believed in magic.
Louise and I spoke about our coping mechanisms. The week after losing Cookie, it was Louise's birthday but she'd written off celebrations of any kind and told her family and friends she didn't want any gifts. There was only one thing she wanted and she knew she couldn't have it. Thankfully her husband didn't listen to that request, and bought Louise a necklace with Cookie's name on it – she hasn't taken it off since and told me that having that with her at all times felt genuinely healing for her. Some of you will know that I sold “Underdog” pins with George's face on them after his death (and raised money for his rescue centre), and I was able to share with Louise that I too found it really helpful to wear that – I felt like I was carrying him with me always.
To me – the most healing thing has been Saffie, our foster dog. She has provided a much-needed distraction, love, affection, entertainment and a reason to go outside again. Since writing this Saffie has found her forever home and it was so rewarding to see her trot off with her lovely new owners Tara and Simon. I have to admit that the house does feel very empty without a dog around and I don't know how long I'll last before welcoming a new foster into our lives. I was dreading the day Saffie left, fearing it would bring back all of the sad feelings I had after George died, but thankfully I've been coping OK so far. Louise herself has fostered in the past, and told me about Henry, a Great Dane she fostered for six months and who Cookie had fallen in love with. While Cookie was still alive, Louise had decided that she might like to adopt a Great Dane of her own and so she was put on a waiting list for a rescue centre in Wales. It wasn't until a month after Cookie's death that she received a call from the charity Great Dane Care saying they had three dogs she might like to meet, singling out one in particular - Fred. On hearing Fred's name and thinking that “he sounded like a good guy”, Louise reluctantly agreed to go in and meet him, warning Liz on the other end of the phone that “ Even if we take him, I don't know how much we're going to love him. I just don't feel in a place where I can do it”. At the same time though, Louise told me that she felt like it was quite selfish not to have a dog when they were set up to do so and there were so many dogs sat in rescue centres. So she went to meet Fred. “He literally just lay his head and body on me, and I thought he was lovely. We agreed to take him home and found that OF COURSE there was love still in me.” Louise once again wrote a letter to her children - this time from Fred. “Hi my name's Fred, I don't have a home, I don't have a family...” The letter went on to list what Fred was looking for in his new home, all things that Louise and her family quite clearly had – somewhere with a sofa that he could sit on with children, a family who had a car with a big boot that he could fit in.... Her son who was four at the time read the letter, then looked up at her and said “Well we don't know ANYONE like that!” Suffice to say that they willingly allowed Fred into their lives anyway and the children fell in love with him too.
Louise and I spoke about letting a new dog into your life and what it's like learning to love again, getting over the initial feeling of guilt. “I guess it felt a bit like a betrayal, but the fact is that he was so different to Cookie and isn't a replacement.What's been amazing are the lessons I have learned through Fred are completely different to the lessons I learned through Cookie. Cookie went deaf when she was four, and I feel like she was my soulmate dog. Fred's amazing, because he's just so loving and wants to be with you in a completely different way. Basically we got him about six weeks after we lost Cookie, and it actually felt like a really nice thing to be going out on dog walks again, because for me with the kids, it sounds really silly, but going out on dog walks was like time to myself. So having him with me, in a weird way actually helped me process everything that had gone on. I was talking to Liz at Great Dane Care and she said she massively believes that the right dog comes along at the right time.”, said Louise. I too feel like this – and was able to tell Louise that I felt like Saffie was sent to us for a reason. We both needed each other at that particular moment in time and have helped each other heal and move on.
As we watched Fred roll around in the sandpit and bound across the grass, we agreed that dogs are truly magical creatures. Louise has been obsessed with dogs since she was a child and always knew she wanted to work with them, but found herself working in the toy industry instead. During these years she decided that she would use her own time to start learning more about how she could fulfil her dream. It meant working weekends, evenings and even going out to India for 5 weeks to study. “I decided that the thing that was going to make me happy was being with dogs, and I really think that if you believe in what you're doing then you have to take a leap of faith. So I decided to hand my notice in at work and set up on my own. Everyone thought I was mental.” Now though, Louise spends her days helping people find the right dog for them, training puppies and dogs and sometimes sharing her wisdom on TV – you may have seen her recently in BBC Two's Ten Puppies and Us - if you ever need proof of the power of dogs just look at Hunter and Alfie (I sobbed the whole way through this episode and Louise told me she watched it four times in the editing suite, crying every time too!)
To be honest, talking about George and hearing Louise talk about Cookie did feel like therapy and helped me massively. Louise said towards the end of our walk that this was only the second time she'd really spoken about Cookie in the two years since she'd lost her, so I think it did her wonders too. It could have been the pouring rain, or the strong wind in our faces, but I think we both shed a little tear that day and sometimes that's all you need.
Since this series is so new I'd really appreciate your feedback – was it helpful for you to read about someone else's experience with grief? If you want to get involved in future or just want to talk to someone who has lost a pet, please do email me. You can also contact Blue Cross who have a pet bereavement counselling service. Thank you for reading.
If you'd like to read more about Louise and Cookie, I'd recommend her beautifully written article for the Telegraph and you can read more about George and how his face raised over £350 for Battersea Dogs Home in an article I wrote a month after his death.
All photos from Louise's instagram except the photos of Fred and Louise in the sand which are by me.