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Growing up, we always had cats and dogs. The first one I remember was Nina, a temperamental Siamese who hated everyone but my mother and never missed an opportunity to swipe me. Many more followed and at one point Mum had six, all strays fallen on their paws.

 

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Vizzy hiding his one white whisker 

When, in my thirties, I finally bought my own home, having a cat of my own was top of my list. I adopted Camden, a large black and white bundle of love three months after I got the keys. We spent nine wonderful years together. It was just the two of us at first, then along came Other Half whom she adored, but then to her intense irritation, came a puppy followed shortly after by a second dog. She ruled us all with an iron paw and we loved her for it. Losing her broke my heart and I swore that there would be no more cats.

 

Our one white-whiskered friend

When Mum passed away last year, she had just one cat left. Vizzy, a seventeen year old black cat with one white whisker. She used to say that the white whisker was to make sure a witch wouldn’t steal him. He too had turned up as a stray many years before, skittish and scared and in desperate need of medical care as his back foot was flayed open like raw meat.

It took days to catch him and his story might have been a short one had it not been for my mother’s strength of character. Taking him to a well-known charity, the vet offered to put him down there and then, telling her that he was obviously in agony and should be spared further suffering. All this while, as my mother recounted, Vizzy rolled on his back purring and playing with the stethoscope of the woman offering blithely to end his short life.

Mum took him to another vet and paid for the operation to remove the ruined pad and put his foot back together. Vizzy went home with her and there he stayed, a determined house cat for the next twelve years – until disaster struck and Mum passed.

Poorly boy

 

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Tuckered out after an evening’s play

When I told people about Vizzy, some acquaintances, (my friends would know better,) actually asked me if I would ‘keep the cat’. Just like that, as if he was a piece of furniture to be retained or disposed of at will. There was no question in either my mind of Other Half’s that he would come home with us, the real question though was whether he would live long enough to make the trip. With horrendous digestion issues, a thyroid condition and stage four kidney failure, things looked pretty bleak.

 

I stayed in Wales for two months to look after him while he underwent a barrage of tests and we ran up a truly hideous vet bill. He took it all in his stride and seemed content to be prodded and poked just so long as there was a cuddle at the end of it. He slept every night on my head and purred loudly on my lap during the day as I wrote, and for a while I thought that might be the best I could offer him. The vets were gloomy – but Viz had other ideas.

After a week on a new veterinary diet, our last-ditch attempt at settling his stomach, everything returned to normal. I never thought I’d be so excited that I’d photograph cat poo but hey, I am that person! After finding the right medication, his thyroid stabilised and he began gaining weight too. Through it all though, he remained an utter delight, lapping up love like a sponge and taking everything in his stride.

Homeward bound

I brought him home five months ago – a three-hour journey that felt like six thanks to the yowling. Our spare bedroom is now his, replete with a kitty en-suite, water fountain, three cat beds (although of course he prefers the double bed) plus enough toys to keep him entertained.

 

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Vizzy on his portable chair bed – he stays put as we carry him between offices 

As he and Bear have yet to really ‘bond’ (Little Bear, thanks to Camden’s training is scared witless of him,) Viz spends most his day on his chair bed in Other Half’s office. We swap office dog for office cat during the day just to mix it up for them and ensure we both get the requisite amount of cuddle time. Each night he howls the place down if one of us hasn’t played with him for at least fifteen minutes, so, being good human slaves, we wiggle shoelaces, throw toy mice and set up tunnels for him to wiggle through.

 

I have no idea how long we’ll have him. For now his health is stable and he certainly seems to be content. It’s a juggle keeping him and Little Bear supervised, but we’re getting there slowly. I know there will be further heartache ahead, but for now I’m just happy to have such a wonderful little soul in our lives.

  • While I’ve just discovered that there’s a book by Lesley Fotherby called ‘The Cat Who Came To Stay’, my inspiration for the title of this blog though was the truly wonderful ‘Cat Who’ series by Lillian Jackson Braun. If you love cats, they’re a magical read and thanks to the fabulous narration, the audible versions are even lovelier.

 

 

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Our darling Camden 

 

 

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Mini Schnauzer curled up on the writer's chest

Little Bear decided I needed a hug

When you have a reactive dog, let alone two, holidaying with your hounds isn’t the relaxing experience it might be. We have tried, but as my post, The Hay Scale details, sometimes with disastrous/hilarious results.

We’ve also tried holidaying without them, stealing ourselves to leave them at home with our wonderful house-sitter friend who they absolutely adore, but as they get older, it gets harder and harder to leave them.  The best scenery in the world can’t make up for the ‘what if?’ thoughts.

Taking the plunge 

Realising that never taking a break wasn’t a recipe for good health, in late 2017, high on the (misplaced) optimism and security of a new job and the opportunity to spend more time with my wonderful Mum, we took the plunge and bought a little house high in the Afan Forest, back home in Wales.

Having our own dog-friendly rental made complete sense.  We’d get more time in Wales with friends and family, the dogs would get to stay somewhere safe and familiar and I’d always have a base I could take the dogs to if my mum was ill.  In the meantime, we’d let it out so that other people could enjoy it.

We called it Ty Hiraeth. Ty is Welsh for house and Hiraeth means ‘a Welsh person’s longing for home’ although I prefer the more romantic interpretation of ‘a longing to be where your spirit lives.’  It felt apt as this was literally the house that ‘called me home to Wales.’

Home from home

The dogs love it there.  Little Bear turns billy-goat and just wants to climb every mountain, even when that means we have to follow on hands and knees (we keep telling him he’s 11 but he doesn’t listen), and Annie has made a new sport out of jumping in the waterfall pools whenever our back is turned.  There are so many walks that it’s easy to avoid other dogs if we want to, but they’ve also made new canine friends too. And of course, Bear being Bear, he quickly sussed out which of our lovely neighbours are always good for a biscuit!

There are times in life when it’s good to know what’s around the corner – and times when if you did, you’d probably never leave the house again. 2018 was certainly the latter.

Here come the lemons

We had barely started the renovation when my mum began to rapidly lose her sight and was told that she’d need mayor surgery.  Then I was made redundant. We stepped up the pace on the house while I also set about re-staring my consulting business, but like peeling an onion, we found more and more that needed to be done in the house before we could open the doors to paying guests.

A few months later my darling aunt passed away plunging us all into a black hole.  A few weeks later my mum had her first surgery, followed a few months later by the second.  Her sight was completely restored and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  But then just seven months after my aunt passed, my mum was gone too – following her beloved sister.  And the losses would just keep mounting up from there.

Constant companions

I’m sure in years to come I may look back on 2018 with a wisdom and maturity that are just beyond me at the moment.  What I do know is that by my side throughout it all I’ve had, not just my wonderful husband, (see hon, you do come first sometimes) but my incredible dogs.

They have sat in uncharacteristic patience with me in my numbed silences; licked tears gently and thoughtfully from my face; curled up one each side, when even moving was beyond me and forgiven me who knows how many times for delayed dinners or walks. When it felt like no one understood or cared, I looked into their eyes and knew that they saw it all – felt it all, and in that connection, they held me here.

Ty Hiraeth 

Against the odds, our little holiday let, ‘Ty Hiraeth‘ welcomed its first guest last summer. More followed and their lovely comments have been little rays of sunlight amongst the gloom. I love seeing pictures of our canine guests exploring the forest or romping on the beach, tongues lolling, happy holiday faces beaming.

‘Ty Hiraeth’ has already given us so much – it allowed me to be there for my family when they needed me and most importantly of all, it gave me time with my precious mum. Then, afterwards, it provided a place of healing and retreat for us all.

We have no idea what 2019 will bring, hope can be cruel, so I’m leaving it in the box for now, but one thing I do know – when life brings you lemons, at least we have dogs.

 

Little Bear on sofa with his teddy

Little Bear’s first blog picture in 2010

Wow! The Little Bear Dog Blog is (drumroll please) NINE years young!  How can that possibly be?  But yep, sure enough, my very first ‘Hello World’ post is dated 21 February 2010 which means Little Bear was just two and a half when I started. Happy belated birthday little blog!

While I’ve not been the most consistent blogger over the years, I love that so much of our journey has been recorded.  Living and loving reactive dogs is a massive challenge and human nature means that we’re great at remembering the bad stuff, but not so great at remembering the good things.

In the early days I was definitely on the quest for the ‘cure’ – the training method, diet, supplement, harness, magic talisman (I added that for effect, but I got really close to being tempted!), that would transform my highly strung super-sensitive nutcase into the chilled dog I had so wanted.

It took me a long time and a lot of learning to be okay with the fact that he would never be a ‘take-anywhere dog’, not because I’d ‘failed’ in some way in not finding the holy grail of dog behaviour modification or scrimped on his training hours or socialisation, but because that’s just not how he’s wired.

I certainly made plenty of mistakes along the way, but looking back, I think we’ve done okay.  Suzanne, a very dear friend of mine who, thanks to her own journey with her own super-reactive dog is now a brilliant trainer, joined us in the woods for a walk the other week with her chilled Cockapoo Barney.

Watching LB meet lots of new dogs (pre-vetted by me obviously), play in puddles, carry sticks and clown around with her lad, she gave us the highest compliment ever, “Wow, he’s just like a ‘normal dog’, she said.  Now THAT I’m going to remember. Well done Little Bear! x

 

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Little Bear with his pals 2019 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Wotcha mean they may run out of biscuits?’ 

With just 54 days to Brexit, it’s still hard to believe how we got here. I had to drive to a client meeting on the morning of the referendum result and even though the traffic was much lighter than normal on the M25, everyone seemed to be crawling along as if in a shared daze of disbelief.

 

As John Humphrey wittered away on Radio Four, I mourned the freedom of movement that I’d not yet gotten around to enjoying and the dream of one day retiring to somewhere quaint and arty in Italy.

A dogs dinner 

But what then loomed largest in my mind was the fear of the utter bloody chaos to come. We’ve been braiding ourselves into the fabric of the EU for over forty years; that untangling ourselves without having to get the big scissors out and chop off a few limbs seemed to be a blindingly obvious reason why most people would vote to remain. Oh foolish fool that I am.

The dogs have taken it all in their stride of course. Bear doesn’t care for the heat so never fancied Italy anyway and Annie doesn’t like long car trips, but on the subject of interrupted supply chains they are far more animated.

Pet prepping 

And that’s why our garage is now like a pet shop. It’s also why we’ve got enough of their essential medicines squirrelled away for the next six months too. Next on the list is a nutritional supplement, just in case we have to resort to home cooked food – a contingency measure I dare say they’re crossing their paws for.

They also relaxed a bit more after I mastered a few batches of bake-your-own dog treats, though to be fair, the acceptance bar is pretty low as they even scoffed the ones I nuked to a near crisp.

But I’m not alone in my ‘prepare for the worst and hope for the best’ approach. When I joined the 48% Preppers Facebook group a few weeks ago there were 3,000 members – today there are close to 9,000 and looking after our fur babies if it all goes south is a hot topic.

While our two are somewhat mollified by my preparations, if asked, I’m sure they’d have just one word on the topic – ‘BrexShit’ – and I really couldn’t agree more.

On that note, I’m off to order them some new collar tags

 

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Thanks Growlees for the picture – please look out for my order!   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borrowed joy

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Mum & her fan club

[August 2018] There’s an old saying that we don’t inherit the world from our ancestors, but instead, borrow it from our children. I’ve been wondering lately whether we might sometimes also borrow our happiness from future sorrows.

Forgive me the gloom, but there’s something about living with senior dogs that makes you so horribly aware of mortality – theirs, your own and that of basically everyone you love.

Annie turned 12 last week, Little Bear was 11 in June. Annie is feeling her age; the arthritis that we feared in her hips and the site of her TPLO materialising instead in her front legs. Little Bear’s now numerous lumps and bumps are tracked on a hand-drawn map that lives on the coffee table to save us time at the vets.

When we meet complete strangers when out with the dogs, everyone seems to comment on how Annie’s ‘a good age’ and I have to bite my tongue SO hard. Some have even asked if we’re considering getting a puppy – how subtle is that?

The reality is that anticipatory grief, the grief we feel before the loss of a loved one, is very real and when we choose to share our lives with little souls who don’t live as long as humans, it’s there in the shadow waiting for us from the very day we bring them home.

This ‘ghost of Christmas future’ type feeling has been with me for weeks now and writing this is, I suppose, my attempt at trying to exorcise it.  I’m not sure it’s entirely worked, but in the spirit of Gandalf’s sage advice: ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us,’  I’m going to go downstairs, hug them stupid and then get the clicker out for some training and playtime.  I may not have them forever, but while they’re here they’ll know they’re loved.

Note: I drafted this on 24 August, but then couldn’t bring myself to post it. It felt too dark and miserable, so I distracted myself with life – re-building my business, a trip home to Wales, nice walks in the woods and trying (without much luck) to think of more cheerful things to blog about.  

A few weeks later, completely out of the blue, came the 4am phone call and the start of a nightmare that would culminate in the loss of my darling Mum – and Grief stepped out of the shadows and made itself well and truly known. 

Comfortably done

Annie the Labrador laying on duvet on the floor looking up at her mum

Finally….!

In the on-going conversation between humans and dogs, dogs are by far the better listeners.  If we were measuring it in terms of reading ages, I think they would be on Dostoyevsky and we’d still be on the Ladybird Classics.

I haven’t worked out what I do differently yet, but Bear will start sulking and sitting in the window to keep watch for my return, even before my overnight bag has made it out of the cupboard.

Annie, normally a frenzy of arthritic acrobatics when I so much as look in the direction of their harnesses, doesn’t even stir from her bed on the days when Bear and I are heading out for an extended walk in the woods. When he’s harnessed up and ready to go, she’ll calmly go and sit by the fridge waiting for what we call her ‘consolation carrot’.  How does she know? She reads me like a book.

Are you sitting comfortably? Er, actually no… 

Lately though her communication skills have really ratched up a gear. Other half and I have been trying for months to get her to join us in the living room of an evening. There was a time when evenings meant all four of us squished happily onto the sofa, but since her arthritis has started bothering her, Annie will no longer jump up and won’t settle even if we lift her on and off.

There’s no denying that she loves her crate with its three super-soft crate pads and the thick duvet that make up her bed, but her crate is in the dog room and we of course, want her with us.

We tried moving the spare crate into the living room but she wouldn’t settle so after a fortnight of it gathering dust, it went back to the garage. I bought her a new memory foam Orvis bed, which after a week of her flatly refusing to even put a paw on it, I reluctantly returned. I even bought her a second fabric day bed which is almost exactly the same as the one that she still uses, just not as squished and flattened – but this too was found wanting.  And yes, we’ve tried just shutting the door but that just gets us woofed at until we relent.

Breakthrough

I don’t know what made me think of it, but a few weeks ago her duvet was hanging over the living room door drying after a wash. I folded it double and put it on the floor in front of the sofa and her eyes lit up. She hurried over, turned around twice and plonked herself down. She glanced up at me and if she could speak, I swear she would have said, ‘Finally!’ She lay down and went to sleep and she’s been curled up on her duvet in the living room every evening since.

Her communication skills don’t stop there though. Last night, I forgot to put her duvet back in her crate at bedtime.  As I was about to head up the stairs she stalked out of the dog room, stood on the duvet in the living room, wagged at me and nosed the duvet. Good slave that I am, I returned it to her crate while she watched, only for her to barge me out of theway the second I was done and settle in for the night.  Who says that dogs can’t talk? Or that humans can’t (eventually) learn to listen?

Driving home from work the other evening, I saw what looked to me to be ‘the four ages of dog.’  Glacially-slow temporary traffic lights meant that for once I had the time to watch the parade.

It was a beautiful summer evening, one of the few we’ve had this year in the UK, and it was prime ‘after work but just before dinner’ dog walking time. With two reactive dogs, we learned a long time ago to avoid those peak times but it’s always lovely to see the neighbourhood dogs out enjoying their evening stroll.

The four ages of ‘dog’ 

Alternatively bounding around in circles, chewing its lead and then sitting down and refusing to budge, was a golden Labrador puppy.   Behind them, I saw a young husky towing the beefy-looking chap on the other end of the lead in his wake.

Then there was my neighbour with her cool as a cucumber Pointer who was loping at her side and stopping every now and again to sniff and lift his leg. But then suddenly there was a lump in my throat, because the next dog I saw was a very elderly chocolate Labrador. Unlike the other dogs, he trailed about 10 ft behind his people, who were so deep in conversation that they seemed almost to have forgotten why they were out.

His tongue lolled out of his grey muzzle, his gait bore the tell-tale signs of arthritis and he looked like every step was a decision. When he stopped, sometimes to sniff but other times just it seemed to rest, his people turned and called him on. He’d break into an awkward jog to join them but within seconds they had outpaced him again and he was left watching their backs and then hurrying once again to catch up.

We spend so long teaching our puppies and young dogs to walk to heel – to walk with us.  I think the very least we can do in their dotage is to remain by their sides – just as they did for us.

Red Fox Labrador Annie sitting in a field 'smiling'

Our Annie – 11 years young but still loving her walks

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