Snuggling on the sofa next to my kids, husband and a bulldog (yes, it has to be a bulldog, not just any dog) is my happy place. There is absolutely nowhere on earth I’d rather be.
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In fact – and this might prove an unpopular opinion – I think the love stories we share with our pets trump all other forms of love. There’s something so fierce, pure and uncomplicated about the relationships we form with our canine companions.
I’ve always been a dog person. In fact, I was my mother’s second ‘child’: her first was a fluffy Pekingese called Ping Pong, with a gorgeous coat and haughty personality who used to perch on embellished cushions in our Manhattan apartment, much like her ancestors in imperial China were reputed to have done centuries before.
Many of my childhood memories revolve around Ping Pong; she was a sibling who tried to snatch things (usually, my dinner, especially when it was chicken night). A friend and confidante. A reason to force me out of my apartment when I was feeling lazy. I loved her, and through her I experienced many firsts: responsibility, caretaking, and, sadly, grief.
When I moved to London in my mid-20s, I was desperate to become a dog owner again, this time as an adult who would be co-parenting a dog with my then-boyfriend. (You know when you’re not ready for kids and think a dog will be way easier? Spoiler alert: it was not.)
When I met Bolshy, a white and brown bulldog puppy who could fit in my palm at mere weeks old, it was love at first sight. That adorable face made it easier to face the mounting heap of responsibilities dog ownership involved for us: vet visits, vaccinations, vomit clean-ups, twice-daily walks, entertaining him at home, wrinkle wiping (including butt wrinkles!), feeding (often a vet-prescribed food he hated to prevent urinary crystals from forming), administering medicine to a (reluctant) patient…
Bolshy made us grow up, and fast. It was like overnight, we’d gone from being self-obsessed 20-somethings to parents.
I was finishing up my master’s degree at the time, so I spent 24/7 with Bolshy: we’d go for walks, we’d play, we’d snuggle, I’d bathe him and he’d jump on my bed and soak everything, including me, as he shook himself off… It was blissful. Though he could be stubborn about walks (i.e. dig his paws into the pavement and refuse to move when he didn’t want to), he had the most amazing personality. He was friendly, good with other dogs and people. He was lively, gentle and protective.
We lucked out, big time. (And yes, I’m crediting his personality because I fell short on the training side.) I had a decent excuse: turns out, I was already pregnant when Bolshy moved in, I just didn’t know it. Over the next seven years, Bolshy became a big brother to four younger (human) siblings.
My fondest memories of Bolshy involve my babies: despite his muscular physique and high energy levels, he was always tiptoeing around my children like a professional dancer on stage. He was patient, too: he’d let the youngest fall asleep against his side, or graze his soft fur with baby lips. Thinking about how my babies’ mouths were always lined in dog hairs (also sprinkled across their clothes and toys), will always bring a smile to my face.
Bolshy grew up alongside us. As we transformed from carefree youths to parents with responsibilities, he went from eager puppy to eyebrow-raising, snoozy adolescent to devoted guard dog and Protector of our Manor. Even though he was a born-and-bred Londoner, his happy place was in Wiltshire, where he’d become a country bulldog, frolicking through fields and trying to befriend sheep. We had the privilege of raising and nursing Bolshy through all the seasons.
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In September 2020, just shy of 11-years-old, Bolshy died. It’s been three years but I still can’t write those words, or think about that day, without weeping all over again. His loss was devastating for all of us, and I still feel like there’s a physical ache, some body part in me, that never fully healed and never will.
Life without Bolshy
Bolshy’s memory lives on. There are pictures, prints and paintings of him (or inspired by him) in all corners of the house. Bulldog cushion covers and bulldog-emblazoned clothing. (Yes, I used to twin with my dog – is that a problem?). We even made a mini shrine to him. My kids still talk about Bolshy all the time; just yesterday, my six-year-old, who only had three years with him, revealed she sometimes has conversations with him in her head.
“Is that OK? Can I do that if he’s dead?” she asked.
“Of course,” I replied, my heart breaking and surging at the same moment. “I do the exact same thing, in my head.”
We feel so lucky to have had Bolshy in our lives for over a decade. He made me a mother; he made me a better, less self-involved human. He brought lightness to the landscapes of everyone he encountered; he helped others feel less alone. In our neighbourhood, he held the status of minor celebrity, garnering attention from strangers and locals alike, who would stop to chat and pet him on our daily strolls.
His life also had a profound impact on our extended family members. Case in point: my brother-in-law and his wife (also in their 20s, like we were), followed in our footsteps and welcomed another white and brown bulldog into our family last year: Beef.
How we healed from loss
Like Bolshy, he is loving and gentle and full of energy and my kids adore him. When he’s snuggled between us on the sofa, my husband and I will catch each other’s eye, and I know exactly what he’s thinking: Isn’t it strange how this puppy is our present and future, but also a time machine back into the past? How are we suddenly 20-something again around this bulldog? Isn’t it magical and wonderful? And why does it feel so overwhelmingly happy to be around him… like he’s helping us remember the good times with Bolshy and not the grief?
There are many ways people cope with the heartbreak of losing a beloved dog: adopting another one, joining a BorrowMyDoggy-style service, offering to dog-sit. Before Beef came into our lives, we looked after a pug, a cavapoo, a German Shepherd and another bulldog since Bolshy’s passing. For a long time, I assumed that since we’d been a dog family for so long, we’d soon inevitably become one again.
Here’s the thing: we’re not in our 20s anymore. We’re more ruled by practicalities than passion and we know there’s a lot to consider when it comes to dog ownership – yes, it really is like welcoming another child into your family. And we know we can’t handle it at the moment: not financially, not space-wise, not with our respective work commitments, and not with the demands of our four (human) kids.
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I know my husband feels a bit sad that we missed out on the peak dog ownership era: Squishmallows dog beds! Dog ice cream at Aldi! Dog-friendly five-star hotels! (Post-pandemic lockdown London, when most of our friends became pet owners, is much dog-friendlier than the city we lived in for years with Bolshy.)
But that’s OK because we’re getting to do it all over again with Beef… minus having to pay for stuff. (Although we do find ourselves spoiling him with new dog toys regularly.)
We’re watching him run through our local park with our kids, pad his way across Devon beaches and get mobbed at school drop-off as people tell him how adorable he is.
And I’m back in my happy place next to him, my kids and husband on the sofa.
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