BigDog = Big love: How a 9-stone dog taught author JoJo Moyes how to live for now

Rens Hageman
Rens Hageman

British journalist and author opens her heart and shares how she fell head over heels for a 9st hound she named BigDog. Your late forties, the truism goes, are a dangerous age.

Two years ago, I fell in love with someone who wasn’t my husband, but the unexpected love of my life is not a toy boy, or a first love rediscovered on Facebook - she’s a 58kg (9st) Pyrenean mountain dog.

I had no intention of getting another pet; we were, as my husband puts it, at peak animal, with three horses, three cats and a border terrier (as well as three children). Yet we had just moved into a large house when a friend noticed a dog on a local rescue centre’s website. She was too vast and, at the age of seven, too old for easy rehoming. Nobody wants a dog likely to need imminent veterinary care or worse (oversized dogs don’t tend to make old bones).

Looking back, I’m not sure what made me agree to meet her, but my family and I drove to a small house bursting with foster dogs and there she was, a subdued, white canine pony. They told us she loved children and cheese, ignored cats and would “be no trouble”. I told myself it would be a decent thing to do. I have new-found sympathy for anyone adopting a child. I was so nervous awaiting our simple dog home-check that I was awake fretting at 3am. We live on 22 acres, but with no contained garden. Would that go against us? Should we have fenced the pond?

Would un-brushed hair suggest potential negligence on the canine-grooming front? In the event, the man from the charity pulled up, gazed at our land and said: “I’m not sure why we’re doing this. Frankly, I’d like you to adopt me.” A week later I was driving my 4x4 home with a dog that it had taken two of us 20 minutes to hoist into the back (she is too old to jump). She cried for the entire hour of the journey - a terrible, mournful sound - while I watched her in the mirror and thought: “What on earth have I done?”

Later, I realised she had been fostered so many times she had simply assumed she was being moved on again. Routine and exercise, I’ve found, are the best ways to settle an animal. We set about giving her regular, frequent walks, but within days BigDog was limping badly. I researched arthritis, joint problems, hip issues - then finally checked her feet.

Her pads were pink silk, which is common among dogs that have been kept for breeding. We walked on grass until her feet toughened and I nurtured dark thoughts about puppy farms. The early weeks were not easy. She cried often, suffered bladder infections and ate sporadically. Our cats were black-eyed and outraged.

Our children had no misgivings - they buried themselves in her soft fur, lay on her and told her things. Pyreneans love children. While any adult caller to our house gets a reception not dissimilar to 'The Revenant', a child can walk straight in and she will lower her head, instantly gentle and submissive (this is peculiar to the breed). And as the months went on she cheered up and stopped crying in the car. The cats began to accompany us on walks and I, unexpectedly, fell totally in love.

I love all my animals. But BigDog adores me in a way I was unprepared for. It is distracting, passionate and time-consuming. Most dogs will look away if you hold their gaze, but she just keeps looking, as if she wants to drink you in. When resting she will lift her head to check my whereabouts before grunting with approval. At night she comes to each member of the family to have her huge, soft head stroked before going to bed.

A year after she moved in, her tail began to wag (it broke my heart when I registered the delay). And she began to play, tossing toys deftly in the air or galloping up and down the hallway. We have learnt when this happens to flatten swiftly against a wall as lamps fly, rugs concertina and ornaments bounce off shelves.

Larger than a Shetland pony, she has knocked both my husband and me clean off our feet (I did the promotional tour for my book Me Before You with a busted ligament; he is wearing a knee brace after she welcomed him home too enthusiastically).

Recently she began to “talk” to us during supper. She lies on her side by the kitchen table and yowls and grunts, waiting for a response before she “speaks” again. There is footage of this on my Instagram accounts: jojomoyesofficial and nanookthebigdog.

The unexpected pleasure of taking on a rescue animal is in watching them open up, trust in their surroundings and express happiness. I’m aware with every bounce through the woods, every tummy rub, that I have made her life infinitely better, and in a couple of tough years where our family have negotiated serious illness, major surgery, the lumps and bumps of work, politics and life, she in turn has been a constant source of joy and affection.

It’s not without its challenges. The carpet shampooer is in frequent use - her weak bladder means she needs walking every three hours. She disapproves fiercely of cyclists, scooters and, once (to our utter mortification), a motorised wheelchair. She fosters irrational dislikes and has to be shut away to stop her “herding” the odd guest. She has nearly dislocated my shoulder, requires regular specialist grooming and expensive glucosamine for her joints and if she sits on your lap, you have 20 minutes before your legs go numb and start falling off.

Like most Pyreneans, BigDog considers the lead an affront to her dignity and recall to be optional. Last summer, when my New York editor came to lunch, she simply disappeared halfway through pudding.

I have no idea how something so large and white can vanish so comprehensively, but the meal was abandoned while we combed the surrounding countryside on foot, car and quad bike. After two hours I became quietly hysterical; it felt like when our son, at the age of two, briefly disappeared in a supermarket.

I paid a local taxi to take the editor back to London, explaining that I couldn’t go anywhere while BigDog was missing. We finally located her an hour later, exhausted, delighted and ink black, having apparently been swimming in the county’s most brackish, foul-smelling ditch. I cried with relief (and then again when I saw the groomer’s bill). It’s not just me who loves her. It is impossible to walk a dozen steps in my town without people stopping to talk to her and smile.

Kids joke that I miss her more than them. She is a favoured customer at the café where I write, the staff stepping over her without complaint. When I’m with her I’m no longer the writer, just BigDog’s appendage (for the record, the answers are: no, she doesn’t eat that much, she only drools when stressed, and actually they’re the same size as any dog’s). My teenage children joke that I miss her more than them when I’m away.

This is only funny because they miss her more than me too (they’ve set up an Instagram account devoted to her). Even my husband, not the most expressive of men, is like putty when around her, as I discovered when I overheard him say: “Do you not want your breakfast? No? Shall I grate some Parmesan on to it?” (The dog in my new book, Still Me, has adopted this culinary habit). She has inadvertently improved my writer’s back because I’m forced to leave my desk at least four times a day. She has brought me and my husband closer - we walk together at dawn.

Even the mardiest teenager can’t help giggling at her timid deference to our fierce rescue cat or watching Madame Floof’s (as they call her) enormous feet paddling through her dreams. When we brought BigDog home we told the children that, given her age, she would be, at best, a four-year dog. I felt almost nonchalant saying it. Two years in, I become tearful if I think too hard about what that means and watch every limp, every exhausted flop, with concern. Yet maybe the lesson we learn from animals is just this - love is fleeting, often unexpected, and to be relished when it comes.

(Article source: The Sun)

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