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When Suzy Cole became an orphan, there was only one thing that made her want to carry on living – her dog Lily.
Suzy adopted Lily while still studying at university, and some of the students told her she was selfish for doing so.
But Suzy looked after and trained Lily so well that the canine became a dog model and actor, alongside two of her sons.
Now one of those dogs, Mr Darcy, has stolen the hearts of TV viewers with his appearance in a group routine on Strictly Come Dancing.
“It really is a passion,” said Suzy about her love of dogs, which has now become a full-time career.
“I know it sounds corny but I’ve realised how quickly life can end and things can change.
“I want to be passionate about my job, and I’m passionate about dogs. I’ve definitely followed my dreams, as corny as that sounds.”
Suzy got Lily partly to honour her parents, who had a golden retriever called Gemma when she was very young.
Suzy’s mum died when Suzy was only seven years old.
When Suzy was 18, she moved away from Bromley in London so she could study at the University of Nottingham.
Her father then died at the end of her first year at university.
“Losing my mum at seven years old, I didn’t think it could get worse, but I then lost my dad at 19 and I spiralled,” Suzy said.
“It was always in my plan to get a golden retriever once I graduated. But when I felt like I lost everything at the end of my first year at uni, I made a decision to get Lily; a decision that saved me from myself.”
‘Very special dog’
Suzy was still only 20 years old at the time she got Lily.
“I had never had a dog before so it was all learning with Lily,” she said.
“But I researched and researched and made sure I did everything right for Lily and that she had the best possible life.
“Other students would occasionally judge my decision to have a dog at university, when they saw us out and about. And it did used to bother me. It actually spurred me on to train and socialise Lily even more.”
Suzy did a lot of her university work online with Lily on her lap, and said Lily got her through some “dark times”.
“I didn’t have my parents for so many milestones, when I really needed them, or wanted to share news to make them proud, but I had Lily,” said Suzy.
“Lily changed my life, she’s a very special dog, and she’s everything to me.”
After university, Suzy got an office job that was a five-minute walk from her home, as she did not want to be away from Lily.
By this time, Suzy and her boyfriend Aaron Green had a second dog, Boris, who was one of the puppies from Lily’s first litter.
Suzy paid for dog walkers to walk Lily and Boris while she was at work, but still felt guilty leaving them at home.
“I realised it was not the life I wanted for my dogs,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave them at home and have someone else come in and walk them. I wanted to be a good dog mum.”
Suzy then set up her own dog walking, dog training and dog sitting business and did that for about six years.
“That was really good for my dogs because I could bring them on the walks,” she said.
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Lily had her second litter of puppies, so Suzy and Aaron kept one of the boys and named him Mr Darcy.
They also set up an Instagram account for fun, so they could post photos and videos of Mr Darcy and their other dogs.
The Instagram account became so popular they were contacted by an agency offering modelling jobs.
Lily, 11, Boris, eight, and Mr Darcy, six, have all acted and modelled individually and as a family.
The brands they have worked with include Barbour Dogs, Hilton, P&O Ferries, Dyson, Vax, Nestle, Skoda, Spotify, Costa, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, River Island and Primark.
Suzy gave up her dog walking business when her dogs’ modelling and acting careers took off, to enable her to drive her much-adored golden retrievers to photoshoots and set days.
She now also works as a content creator, curating content for TikTok and Instagram and collaborating with brands.
The dogs’ Instagram account has more than 56,000 followers, while their TikTok account has more than 408,000 followers.
The couple were living in West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire, but ended up buying a small farm a few miles away, so they could have more space for all of their animals.
After the move they got a Belgian Tervuren called Toska, who is three, to help with security.
Suzy said she and Aaron were both “massive animal lovers”. As well as looking after their dogs, the couple have a small flock of sheep as pets, they have also fostered cats for a charity in the past.
They married in May 2022, and Lily, Boris and Mr Darcy all had roles in the couple’s wedding.
“Lily walked me down the aisle, because I didn’t have my dad or my mum,” said Suzy.
“I also had one of my much-loved uncles on my other arm.”
Boris was waiting at the front with Aaron, while Mr Darcy had an important role involving the wedding rings.
“The ring bearer, our friend Henry, pretended to forget the rings, and there was a big screen in the room and we had pre-recorded Darcy getting a phone call from Henry,” she said.
While Henry ran out of the room, pretending to call Mr Darcy, the wedding guests watched a video which showed Mr Darcy playing snooker with a sheep called Benny, who was raised by Lily after being rejected by his mother.
The video showed Mr Darcy searching the house for the rings and running to the wedding, carrying them in a basket.
Mr Darcy then ran up the aisle in real life, still carrying the rings, and brought them to Suzy and Aaron.
Mr Darcy got the job working with Strictly Come Dancing when the programme makers contacted an agency called Urban Paws.
“They had seen Darcy’s face on their website,” said Suzy.
“Any of the dogs could have done it, it’s just they liked the look of Darcy.”
Suzy went down to London while Aaron stayed at home with the other dogs.
She described the dance Mr Darcy took part in as a “really magical love scene in a park”.
The idea was Mr Darcy brought together two of the dancers, Lauren Oakley and Graziano Di Prima, by running towards Lauren while being pursued by Graziano.
Suzy said Mr Darcy clearly enjoyed his role as he was wagging his tail, and he was also given sausages as treats.
“That’s why they love it so much, because they know on set days there are going to be lots of treats and attention, and cuddles from the people there,” she said.
Mr Darcy’s appearance went down well with viewers at home.
“Mr Darcy definitely stole the show,” one viewer said on Strictly’s YouTube channel. “So sweet and adorable and fluffy, I love him!”
Another asked: “Can we get more dances with dogs please?”
Jo Gordon, who is head booker at Urban Paws, said they had received about 100 phone calls after Mr Darcy’s performance.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
Mr Darcy is among almost 2,000 animals on the books of Urban Paws, and Jo said brands were increasingly using animals as models and actors.
“I think it’s because of the cute factor,” she said.
“During Covid, because so many people bought animals, it raised the profile of animals.
“Also, when we started doing a lot more TV commercials, it opened the eyes to producers about what dogs can do.”
She said Urban Paws received between 100 and 200 applications each week, but not all animals had what it takes to be a model and actor.
Speaking about dogs, she said: “They’ve got to be able to have basic skills, so sit, stay, lie down, and they’ve got to be able to do that from five metres away, because the person can’t be on set with the dogs. They’ve got to be able to use hand commands, or be click trained.”
The agency has provided dogs for the John Lewis Christmas advert, the BBC series Boat Story, and The Crown on Netflix.
Some of their dogs have also been used in music videos for Drake and Rihanna.
“We do a lot of music videos,” she said. “We do a lot for rappers. They like Dalmatians and Dobermanns.”
Other notable bookings include a chicken who appeared in a Gucci campaign alongside Harry Styles, while Mochi the cat appeared in a music video with Rick Astley.
Jo used to be a booker for a traditional model agency until a few years ago.
“It’s bizarre, I never thought I was going to book dogs and cats,” she said.
As if looking after a house full of animals was not enough, Suzy and Aaron are now expecting their first child.
Suzy says they are looking forward to seeing how the dogs will bond with their new human baby.
“I am sure they will love being big brothers and sisters,” said Suzy.
“We don’t see it as our family growing from two to three, it’s actually changing from six to seven.
“I wouldn’t be in this wonderful position, with my best friend expecting our first baby together, if it wasn’t for Lily.”