Seventeen years ago, a colleague told me that her dog had given birth to pups.
“I don’t suppose you want one?” she asked, explaining that the pups were a cross between their red setter mother and the border collie from next door. Bella. the pups’ mum. was a gentle soul she explained.
I was pregnant with my first child and I’m not sure if it was the idyllic family scene that I pictured in my head or an abundance of hormones playing havoc with my sense of reason that fuelled my desire for a puppy, but I called my husband to convince him of our desperate need for a dog. It took all of five seconds to persuade him.
And so, once we had agreed, all that was left was to wait until our pup was old enough to be separated from his mother.
My colleague said she had identified the ideal one for us “He’s the runt of the litter”, she said “but I think he’ll be perfect for you”.
While we waited we discussed names.
As “Only Fools and Horses” fanatics, Del Boy seemed the obvious choice.
“I’m not walking around the park shouting Derek, after a dog”, my husband declared - so we settled on Rodney instead.
A few weeks later we excitedly made our way to the farm to collect our pup. We were under no obligation to choose the “runt” but found ourselves drawn to this particular pup with two different coloured eyes who made his way over to us.
There was just something about him, something impossible to describe, but we knew he was the one.
We wrapped him in a towel and turned to say goodbye to Bella, who watched us sorrowfully, almost.
I rubbed my pregnant belly guiltily and made a silent promise to his lovely mum that we would look after him always, and love him forever.
Our ball of fur snuggled up on my husband’s lap for the drive home and moments later threw up on him. I’m not sure if it was the car journey or the trauma of separation that caused it.
Rodney always seemed to be attuned to life and his surroundings. Maybe rather than a skill learned, it was something he was born with.
While we awaited the birth of our first child, Rodney was our practice baby.
We were conscious to ensure he never spent much time alone even engaging the services of my sister to dog-sit so that I could attend my antenatal classes, guilt free.
I viewed the neighbourhood cats suspiciously as they prowled along the back garden walls.
Precious first-born syndrome seemed to kick in with my puppy dog and Mama Bear was ready to protect him from ferocious felines and treacherous magpies, who loitered sometimes.
And like most first-borns his every move and pose was photographed.
We ooohed and aaahed over how small he was and how big and destructive he became.
His energy was inexhaustible – always excited and always bloody digging – but forever gentle.
He was indeed his mother’s son. When my daughter was born, Rodney, though still adored, accepted his move further down the pecking order.
He had a new playmate in her, one who was just as energetic and who delighted in his destructive tendencies.
As she splashed in her paddling pool on summer days, he kept guard by the side. His love of water was confined to the sea and mucky puddles that caused maximum damage to the car seats on the way home!
He loved company, which was just as well as more and more children came to join the party. He was a horse, bad guy, good guy, unicorn, sun-lounger, reindeer and a willing scoffer of food the kids didn’t want to eat.
He sniffed tiny toes on greeting each new addition to the family and was a gentle and willing entertainer as they grew.
And on those sadder occasions, when pregnancies didn’t go as they should, he sat quietly by our side and licked the tears that fell for lost babies.
We grew up together, as a family. He had a special dinner on his birthday, which was marked on the calendar just like all the rest. His sock hung on the mantelpiece alongside my children’s every Christmas Eve.
He knocked unsuspecting visitors over with welcomes and chewed everything that was dropped in our garden.
He drove me crazy, robbing washing from the basket as I tried to hang it on the line and he took us for a walk rather than the other way around – until lately.
Recently he got old. Others noticed his greying temples and his distinguished, mature look more than we, as the passing of time seemed so suddenly to creep up on him, and us.
And the washing basket dramas were because he couldn’t see it and so fell into it and the walks became less about us managing to tire him out and more about his managing to stand up.
And that lovely face looked so tired and those beautiful different coloured eyes, couldn’t see so well but still looked at us so trustingly.
We tried to fight against the inevitable. He had steroids to improve his mobility, special food to prolong his life and blood-tests to track his progress.
We sought assurances that he wasn’t in pain and had a quality of life, until one day it became blatantly obvious that he didn’t and that the battle was for us, not him.
It’s four weeks since we said goodbye. Our hearts are broken. Sometimes, I think I see him out of the corner of my eye in the garden, beneath the washing line – and then I remember and the tears start again.
The children miss him hugely. In the same way we’ve never parented without him, they’ve never lived without him.
Rodney wasn’t just a dog. He was part of our family and we loved him so much.
Mourn your dog and do not minimise your loss
Joanna Fortune, Clinical Psychotherapist says: “the animal-human bond is a strong one and for many people the loss of a family dog is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one."
"Losing a loved dog is about losing more than the dog alone, you also lose the comfort, the fun, the companionship the dog brought into your life as well as the rituals you shared ie a daily walk, being greeted at the door upon returning home, whoever had the job of feeding the dog etc, these are now gaps in your daily life.
"Pets offer us unconditional love and that’s a large part of what we grieve when they are gone."
"It’s important to grieve a pet when they die,” she adds. “We must not minimise this loss as just a pet but allow ourselves to feel and process the impact the loss is having."
"Children grieve differently according to their developmental stage”.
“Some will want to cry and talk about the pet a lot and others will not want to do that at all and could find the constant mentions difficult. It can help to have a ceremony for your family to bury the pet or scatter their ashes.
"Making a memory board with photos can also help."
While Joanna says there is no timetable for grief “if the feelings were to increase in intensity or linger you might need to consider consulting with a specialist to support you/your child through the loss.”